Sunday, August 20, 2006

Rough Draft of an Obituary for Photography

This blogger's essay is a good starting point for my own ruminations on the state of 2D static visual arts in the early part of the 21st century.

The Spanish photographer Joan Fontcuberta is perhaps the most centered, he understands the computer as “a sophisticated technological prosthesis we cannot do without” and likens it to another piece of equipment, like a filer or a telephoto lens. Fontcuberta seems past the confusion of the overly enthusiastic and the “end is nigh” alarmists; essentially the change “from silver grains to pixels isn’t that significantly,” especially since that “silver-grained structure of actual photographs has already been replaced in the print media by the photomechanical dot.” Much of the hysteria over digital technology has been centered around the ease of manipulation, but that is not by any means new to photography, the act of manipulation itself though “is exempt of moral value,” what needs to be examined is the intent.

A lot of folks seem to be lining up for the funeral of the darkroom these days. Tony Long over at Wired, seems to not think it is dead, so much as receiving it's gold watch and being shipped off to Florida.

The advantages of digital are plain enough: easier storage, the ability to upload photos straight to the computer, no need for film, being able to take a mulligan on images you don't want to keep and, if results are all you require, no need for screwing around in a darkroom. Digital makes sense for the photojournalist, where mobility and simplicity are key, and it's useful for taking those casual snapshots of besotted friends down at the neighborhood local.
But for "making photographs"? For making art? No.

What I find really entertaining about this attitude, is that I can see a nineteenth century oil portraitist spouting something very similar. And as someone who has been seriously painting for over two thirds of their life, and seriously taking photographs for only a sixth, there is a certain schadenfreude to be derived from watching film photography defend itself from the "Photography is dead!" proclamations. Certainly, if you were to peruse my artist journals from the period before I'd entered a darkroom, you'd find some defensive, reactionary meditations on the superiority of pigments and binders to silver gelatin.

Certainly, I think (and hope) there will always be people out there working in their own darkrooms, developing 8x10 negatives and printing gorgeous platinum prints. But ultimately, a medium is a MEDIUM, a language for saying something and (hopefully) saying it well. There are novelists, poets, and essayists out there using Blackwing pencils, Underwood typewriters, Mac Book Pros, and everything in between. Do the tools effect their writing experience? Most definitely. Does the average reader care? Not really.

Yes, this analogy is a bit of a stretch. You could argue that the word is the writers medium, those devices are merely tools. But many more people will see any visual image, in a book, on a website than will see an original painting or photographic print. And when the average person is choosing an image for their PC wallpaper, or a poster for their dorm room, it's going to be their reaction to the content that is the deciding factor. Watercolor or Photoshop will merely be an interesting bit of trivia, much like knowing that a favorite writer does all their first drafts in longhand.

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