A4 Research: Photography in the Digital Age

Photography has always had an unavoidable, arguably symbiotic relationship with science and technology; the development of processes to capture light and fix an image on substrate materials parallels scientific and technological advancement whilst scientists and technologists have been prime users of photography in the advancement of their own fields. In each age since the 1850s innovators in the field of photography have availed themselves of the latest technology to advance their experiments and at different points in that development photography has been seen as a science or an art or a hybrid practice that assimilates characteristics of both disciplines; to the degree that some of the earliest writings on the medium appear to describe scientific experiments rather than an artistic process.

The Pencil of Nature - Henry Fox Talbot 1843

The Pencil of Nature – Henry Fox Talbot 1843

Henry Fox Talbot wrote an extensive essay to define 1839 as the “real date of the birth of photographic art” (1: p.28) and to describe both his own and Daguerre’s labours towards that end. The striking feature of the essay is that “Art” is mentioned only in the context of his being motivated to “cause these natural images (from a Camera Lucida) to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper.” (1: p29) The rest of the text describes in some detail the experiments he undertook to that end. Pencil of Nature, one of the earliest if not the earliest photobook, reads like a sales brochure or scientific guide to his process. Fox Talbot is a significant figure in the history of British photography and undoubtably his intent was to create Art but his skills lay in scientific and technological research.

In the mid eighteen hundreds the embryonic photographic world debated and compared Daguerreotypes and Calotypes, similar debates occurred as film began to replace glass plates; as the compact camera disrupted the monopoly of the large format camera, when the first consumer camera threatened the exclusivity of the medium, the availability of colour film, the advent of the Polaroid and in this millennium the dominance of digital capture. As David Bate suggests when discussing the digital versus analog debate (2: p203) these arguments serve as a distraction from the real issues arising from technological advances. As each new technology has become available contemporary photographers of any era react by either arguing that the previous available technology was in some way superior, the purest form of the medium and where they needed to stay; or, to adopt the new technology but continue to take much the same photographs; or, to recognise potential for new and innovative ways of taking and making photographs.

The development of science and technology is not linear, it is an ever moving branch network with each advancement propagating several others so, we live in an age where computing both in terms of hardware and software, manufacturing, optics, electronics, communications and engineering have combined to create the perfect storm. We can now buy comparatively cheap pro consumer digital cameras that replicate the capture quality of an 8 x 10 large format machine (i), process the raw images using software that contains algorithms of such sophistication that we can replicate any filter the analogue photographer ever dreamed of owning, move the subject around the image while the software rebuilds the background or a thousand other processes that go well beyond mimicking the darkroom and take us into the world of animation, desk top publishing, graphic design and so on ad infinitum.

The analogue and digital process coincides at the point of capture, we observe and capture fragments of the world in much the same way as ever did, and again at the point of dissemination. Both processes can print a physical object, a photograph that we can touch or view, project the image onto a chosen surface but by using a scanner the analogue photographer rejoins the technological stream of progress. Then, like the digital photographer, he or she can store and display their work on a  computer but more importantly can distribute it via the internet. At this point it becomes irrelevant how the image was captured and initially processed, it is just electronic data, information that can be stored, transmitted, published, downloaded, re-stored, appropriated, accessed, modified, dissected and used as building blocks for other projects by other people to such a degree that archaic copyright laws constructed in the pre-digital age appear increasingly irrelevant and ungovernable.

Googlegrama 02: Món, 2005. Paraules de cerca: “cel”, “infern” i “purgatori” en castellà, francès i anglès. - Joan Fontcuberta

Googlegrama 02: Món, 2005. Paraules de cerca: “cel”, “infern” i “purgatori” en castellà, francès i anglès. – Joan Fontcuberta

Joan Fontcuberta uses photomosaic freeware to stitch together tens of thousands of images captured from Google image search to create maps, portraits, landscapes and photos that in a different context might be read as photo journalism or documentary. Fontcuberta is one of many artists who have completely removed the camera and personally authored photograph from their practice and rely on the availably of billions of on-line images as their source material.

Digital photography, and by that I include digitised analogue photography, has profoundly changed visual culture, it has enabled artists to create work that assumes the same characteristics and falls into the same genres as art from any other generation whether that be social and political critique or romantic pictorialism but it gone beyond that to shift the paradigm of contemporary photography and photography-based art. Never before has the artist been able to blend truth and fiction in such complex ways; to combine documentary with fantasy to amplify and enhance reality or to collapse time. Sylvia Wolf argues that digital imaging challenges “one of the oldest pictorial traditions in the history of art: Renaissance perspective.” (4: p43) From the Renaissance onwards, including analogue and much digital photography we are shown a scene from a single point in time and space so the individual components of the scene are seen in relation to each other both in terms of position and scale. The opportunity to seamlessly combine multiple images in a single frame allows the artist to dictate the scale, relationships, lighting, focus and other factors of each component so that they create a world that whilst based on and might even appear to be reality provides a perspective that is unique to the artist.

This current state of the art has led to a commonly held fear that digital photography has corrupted analogue photography’s unique characteristic of being the purveyor of truth, what Wolf calls the “principle medium of resemblance” (4:29) or Robert Shore refers to as “a medium of witness, a self effacing window on the world which is primarily concerned with recording that thing we breezily refer to as reality” (5: p.8). The perception that the “camera never lies” (ii) is deeply embedded in photography criticism not just in the nineteenth century but in modern times; Roland Barthes said that the photograph “has something tautological about it” (7: p5) by which he could either mean a needless repetition of an idea or a statement that is always true.

Two Ways of Life - Oscar Gustav Rijlander 1858

Two Ways of Life – Oscar Gustav Rijlander 1858

However, it is well argued elsewhere that this has always been a misconception; Ansel Adams, a man well known for his extensive manipulation of images in the darkroom, said “You don’t take a photograph you make it” (5: p.8). Significantly and obviously manipulated images were, if not common, certainly being produced even in the 1850’s. Oscar Gustav Rijlander’s Two Ways of Life entailed combining in the darkroom thirty-two glass plate negatives and is a quite remarkable and very early example of a photographic tableau which would require a non-trivial investment of time to replicate in Photoshop using digital images.

So why is there a contemporary perception that photography  is less trustworthy than it was in the analogue age? Whilst Rijlander’s picture is an extreme example it serves to make the point that significant manipulation was feasible but it took more skill and effort prior to the digital age. In addition, in the analogue age, only a tiny proportion of people understood the photographic process, their experience was of taking a metal cylinder to the chemist and collecting prints two or three days later, what happened in between was not just a mystery but a mechanical process, they could see the machine at the back of the shop; what goes in must come out. Few people outside of professionals or serious amateurs differentiated this process from the hand-made darkroom print so, it was generally assumed that the same lack of opportunity to manipulate the image existed there. In recent decades the popular press has not only homed in on the story of manipulated photographs but its less scrupulous elements have actively engaged in such practices and as a result “everyone” now knows that photographs can be manipulated.

Whilst the opportunity to “make” a photograph has always existed it was the digital age that democratised the process; access to a computer with editing software and the willingness to learn a few simple editing techniques became the entry requirement so a whole generation of home-based amateurs, school children and art students now had the opportunity to experiment with photography and computer based creative art. Outside of the art world the skills to create digital art have become desirable in adverting agencies, creative studios and media outlets. The output has been nothing short of astounding, work of such sophistication and complexity that it challenges anything produced by the analogue generation. Photographers such as Andreas Gursky and artists like John Goto have evolved the digital art genre to provide valuable input to the traditional genres established by their predecessors.

Notes on Text

(i) After many decades of using a large format camera Stephen Shore used a Nikon D3X and a Nikon D800 for Survivors having discovered that a digital 35mm camera could, at last, offer him the crispness and detail he demands. (3) Having previously read of how the 8 x 10 forced him into a slow and measured process of composition it would be intriguing to find any articles that explained how he had altered or maintained his processes when using a small hand held camera.

(ii) The earliest citation of the precise ‘camera cannot lie’ phrase I have found is from The Evening News, Lincoln, Nebraska, November 1895, complete with an intimation of the early doubts about the literal truth of the phrase:

“Photographers, especially amateur photographers, will tell you that the camera cannot lie. This only proves that photographers, especially amateur photographers, can, for the dry plate can fib as badly as the canvas on occasion.” (6)

Sources

Books

(1) Fox Talbot, Wiliam Henry (1850?) A Brief Historical Sketch of the Invention of the Art (an essay in Classic Essays on Photography edited by Alan Trachtenberg) Sedgwick: Leete’s Island Books

(2) Bate, David (2016) Photography: The Key Concepts (second edition) London: Bloomsbury

(4) Wolf, Sylvia (2010) The Digital Eye: Photographic Art in the Electronic Age. London: Prestel Publishing

(5) Shore, Robert (2014) Post Photography: The Artist with a Camera. London: Laurence King

(7) Barthes, Roland. (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage Books

Internet

(3) Ryan, Meg (2016) The Venerable Stephen Shore Shares Wisdom Through The Lens of His Latest Project (accessed at American Photo 18.5.16) – http://www.americanphotomag.com/venerable-stephen-shore-shares-wisdom-through-lens-his-latest-project

(6) The Phrase Finder (accessed at the Phrase Finder 29.7.16) – http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/camera-cannot-lie.html

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