Thursday, October 14, 2010
"Into the Digital" by Fred Ritchin, "The Meaning of Photography" by Jorge Ribalta, and "Analog to Digital" by Corey Dzenko
In "Into the Digital" by Fred Ritchin, Ritchin begins by saying that photography has always reflected the society and people that use it, and it is always changing. Currently, according to him, the photography we have always known is “both ending and enlarging” due to its identical “doppelganger” inside of it - the digital.
The use of computers (especially in digital media) changes everything, especially when the computer appears to be smarter than the human at times. Digital media is created by machines that simulate and represent reality with parts and components that even are named after reality (like “mouse” and “paint” programs). Though the digital simulates analog, it will be more transformative than anything analog of the past. This is because anything digital is really data that can be made into something else. A digital photograph can show things that may have never even happened. I know we’re all sick of Jeff Wall, but take his flooded grave, for example.
With digital media, it can always be experienced in a new way and will never be the same to two people. It differs from analog in the way that the data in digital can always be changed and abstracted and the copy and the original will be of the same quality; analog “ages and rots” over time. An analog photograph of a photograph will never hold up quality wise, but a digital copy of a digital photo will.
Ritchin uses several examples to illustrate digital vs. analog. One of my favorites is creation of the world - God made the world in 7 days, and in order, like analog. He did not start on day, rest on day 7, and go back to day 2. But in the digital world, that is exactly how things can work. Pixels can be constantly rearranged; it is no longer an imprint of “visible reality.” Perhaps we could say that this means it is no longer real anymore once it has been reconstituted. According to cultural theorist Paul Virilio (as far back as 1984), “the observer has no immediate contact with observed reality.” But photography has always been changing since its invention. Still, it has always been thought of as a credible source of evidence, but with the radical changes in the digital, it is question whether or not it should retain that status of being credible.
The digital photograph is compared to the automobile. (Analog photography could be compared to a horse-drawn carriage.) The automobile gave society more control and created a new way of experiencing reality, just like digital photography. With this kind of photography, we experience life through a screen instead of as-is. (Think cell phone cameras and how people are constantly using them.)
According to Ritchin, the “real” is just an interpretation of what actually exists. We see photographs of staged events, advertisements for products that make the product look better than it really is, and so on, but we rarely see the actual thing for what it is. He illustrates his point with the “most photographed barn in America” from the novel White Noise by Don DeLillo. The barn is so swamped with signs and people that all that is ever seen is pictures of the barn and the people photographing it, but no one ever sees the real thing anymore.
I would have to say that not even my own work can refute this claim; all I can think of is work that backs up his ideas. Even in photojournalism, we are not really seeing the entire event, but just a segment of what the photographer thought was important. I thought about what Ritchin said about products, and how the products always look better in the photograph, thanks to manipulation. So here is a MAC makeup ad.
We all know no one really looks like this, and that this makeup will never look this good on anyone no matter how good at applying makeup you are, because it looks this perfect thanks to digital enhancing.
In "The Meaning of Photography," Jorge Ribalta argues William J. Mitchell’s belief that photography is dead and is replaced by the post-photographic era.
According to this reading, we’ve arrived in this area because of the emergence of digital technology and photographic processes replacing analog cameras, processes, and materials, and the discontinuation of materials used, which has forced some photographers to utilize analog and digital together as a sort of hybrid. (Think scanning film and printing digitally.) Digital photography is also very accessible to amateurs, making it easier for them to make many, many pictures with fewer limitations.
This new era is described as something that has reappeared disembodied from traditional photography. Ribalta says “photography dies but the photographic is born.“ This makes me think of a phoenix rising from the ashes, because the rise of this new way of making pictures can also be considered a triumph. Though traditional photography may not be used by as many people as before, photographic PRACTICES still continue in a way where images are still captured and made into tangible prints, they are just not the same as they used to be. Digital photography imitates analog. Photoshop imitates the darkroom. He says “after Photoshop, realism is an effect.” Thus, photography has lost realism and without it, becomes “irrelevant” because it has lost its “historical mission” to change society in some way. (Pictures of real things in society and the world are valid for critique because they are documents; pictures that are manipulated may not really be documents anymore.) so we need to find a new way to have this photography be socially relevant, and find a new way of critiquing the “renegotiations of realism.” We have to overcome the “false opposition” between the photographic past (documenting) and the fake. Ribalta calls this “molecular realism.”
I had a hard time understanding the next part of this reading, seriously, but I think that Ribalta is trying to say that the work of Jo Spence reinvents the documentary and is this molecular realism. She documented her battle with breast cancer. Though the post photographic era and the easy access amateurs have to learning and experimentation may make photography into an “art commodity” for some people, Spence’s work art is not just another object, another art piece lumped into all the rest just because she experimented and learned it on her own.
Ribalta says that the future of photography needs a “radicalized institutional critique.” He sort of lost me towards the end of this reading, but I believe he is trying to say that “post-liberal” public spaces may possibly emerge to host this new kind of photographic practice that will still allow viewers to critique it as an art form and for it to still be socially relevant to us.
In “Analog to Digital: The Indexical Function of Photographic Images,” Corey Dzenko says that digital photography “accelerates and enlarges” traditional photography in the way that the railway did not introduce transportation into society, but accelerated and enlarged it. Digital photography functions in this way because it allows for more convenient editing than analog, but it raises the question of whether it represents reality as well as analog (supposedly) does.
The idea of a photograph as index to reality that made a photo into a document of something is the entire process of light bouncing off the subject and hitting the film, the developing process, etc. In the digital process with a digital camera, scanning film, or projection of images onto a screen, nothing is recorded onto film but instead an image is turned into data. Because there is no physical connection between a subject and a digital camera, digital images “function as pure iconicity.” This created some arguments.
Because digital editing makes it easier to create an image of something that does not even really exist, the reliability of a photograph as a document or evidence of some sort is questioned for some people. Still, digital photographs still function like analog, because in reality, the connection between an analog photo and reality has ALWAYS been questioned, so there really is not much change with the shift to digital, argues Dzenko.
Dzenko uses Ken Goldberg’s Telegarden to make his point.
This work was an internet project using digital photography, in which people could take care of a physical garden online. It had a robotic arm that was controlled by users on the internet to water, plant seeds, etc. and people could even chat and interact with each other. 10,000 registered users and 100,000 visitors really shows viewers’/users’ belief in the connection between an image and what is real. This shows that just because an image is made digitally does not mean it loses its indexical nature. Dzenko also uses this example to illustrate this: a photograph in a newspaper is not really any more believable than an internet version of the article and photo. To go one step further, many images in newspapers are captured with a digital camera anyways which eliminated one time consuming step of developing film. Basically, digital images still function the same way as analog ones, especially because digital technology imitates analog. Digital images still resemble analog ones, and usually, some part of the subject in a digital image was still in front of the camera when the image was taken.
For example, as in Kerry Skarbakka’s Stairs from the series “The Struggle to Right Oneself,“ Skarbakka takes multiple images of himself falling (using mountain climbing gear for safety) and uses digital manipulation to edit out the gear. This image ended up on failblog.org (which I LOVE, by the way) in 2008 and viewers were convinced of the image’s truthfulness, and though this image was seen as something digital on a website, it was also seen as something that represented something that happened in reality.
Basically, Dzenko claims that there is nothing to fear about digital photography; it is still photography, just a new way of doing it and the truthfulness of an image will always be questioned, whether analog or not. I completely agree with this because even with film, the photographer still chooses what to photograph, and how, the framing, cropping during image taking and printing, etc.
I’m not sure if I am pushing the limit to which I can defend him here by using my own work, but I am going to try.
I documented my church from summer 2009 to winter 2009, and I captured digitally, but I didn’t stage anything. The people I know were still in front of my lens. I didn’t remove anything out of the frame or direct anyone or pose anyone. I utilized light that was available to me, no matter how crappy it was. I worked with it. Yes, I shot digitally. I processed my images digitally (without manipulation, just exposure and color correction in some cases) and I printed digitally. Does that make my work totally invalid and NOT photography? Why does photography have to be film based? Isn’t a photograph essentially an image made with a camera on paper? My camera is digital, but it still is a camera. It still works like a camera, with a lens, apertures, and shutter speeds. I would have to argue against the supposed “lack of physical connection” between a digital photograph’s subject and image. Does not light still have to hit the sensor of my camera? I don’t own a $3000 digital camera and $8000 lens with amazing quality glass to make work that I love and display it as photography just to have some photography snobs say it isn’t photography because I didn’t use film. I can still make GIANT prints with the images from the camera I have - it can compete with film anytime. Sometimes it’s an issue of practicality - we don’t all have money to buy film and process it and THEN print it. Some of us have the finances to make a one-time investment in a camera and a memory card and be done with it. Furthermore, my eyesight sucks so I can’t look through a tiny as heck viewfinder to make images, I literally need a large live view LCD screen on my camera to even see what I am doing when I take pictures and to examine the sharpness when I’m done taking them. I apologize if this sounds like a vent, but this is my view, and it drives me mad when people say photography is dead because digital cameras are in use. Who cares if it’s accessible to many more people? You still need skill, understanding, knowledge and a vision to make a great image. If I gave my full frame sensor, 21 megapixel Canon 5D Mark II to any of my roommates that have zero understanding of how a camera works and don’t have the eye for photography, they wouldn’t be able to do very much with it. My advanced color teacher last semester thought I shot a portrait with a 4x5 view camera and it was actually done with my first, older digital SLR. And she’s not ignorant - she shoots with a view camera for her own work. So to me, camera type doesn’t matter if you know how to make good pictures.
I also am not against digital manipulation whatsoever. Though I did documentary photography for a semester, I am primarily a fine artist, and to me, the means to an end are irrelevant as long as the end is what you intended it to be and you like it and are proud of it. I believe the digital age has indeed accelerated photography and I am incredibly thankful for it, because without it, I might not be doing what I love. I struggled a lot with film photography - not being able to even see what the heck I was doing in a color darkroom, wasting countless sheets of paper trying to get a correct exposure and color balance, the unpredictability of what will happen to your film during development, and of course, my eyesight. I'm not knocking film - to each their own. If I shot with film I might not have gotten the opportunities I have - my work is on the door of a church building here in Chicago and if I couldn't keep up with the quick demands of the person who commissioned me to do it, I might have lost out if I used the slower process of film and might have been passed over for someone else who could have got it done faster. If you love film, go for it. But it's not for me and I would prefer to not be looked down upon because of it.