Digital Photography and its Detractors

Last night I dreamt that I was attending a lecture given by an eminent photographer who said, “you can only know a country by walking its surface”. It sounded good but something inside me rebelled. “How preposterous” I thought, “without flying I would never have known the Urals”.

On waking I racked my brains to find the origin of his remark, and recalled that a few days earlier a curator of photography had pronounced that the pictures in my cameraphone had “no materiality”. At the time I jokingly thrust the lumpish handset at him, but of course I knew what he meant; he simply meant that there was no tangible print. The fugitive image might at any moment be propelled into space and bounced back to who knows where.

I once knew a photographer with a profound fear of flying, a phobia miraculously cured by the inducement of his first show in New York. A talented artist, he too was wedded to the primacy of the materiality of the world. He was fond of quoting Dr Johnston's response to Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry when attempting to prove the non-existence of matter. Johnson answered by striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, and declaring, "I refute it thus ." But it was the poetry and strangeness of the artist's pictures that I responded to and I could no more understand his materialist rhetoric, than I could his choice of co-exhibitors, who were a motley crew of German and American topographers.

Ten years ago I wrote about what I thought to be the last gasp of such notions (1). I argued that analogue photography had made a brief art world breakthrough just at the point when its commercial obsolescence looked a certainty. The old claims of a privileged relationship with reality were being evoked at the very moment when digital processes were convincingly being used to dream up all manner of visions. The old prejudices that analogue photography suffered were now being transferred to digital. Analogue was suddenly celebrated for its unique hand-made quality and its aura, its materiality, whilst the new comer was seen as a disreputable trickster that no one quite knew how to handle. I argued that in modernist terms digital photography had no essence but instead had a remarkable ability to imitate and interrelate existing forms. When I wrote then about these matters, I was convinced that the tussle would be short lived and analogue would soon give up the ghost. And so it has proved except, in my experience, in the bastions of art and education.

“Oh, but we do show/teach some digital photography along side traditional analogue work” is the seemingly liberal, pluralistic position offered in response to objections. And indeed they do, whilst entirely missing the seismic shift implicit in digital technology.

As manufacturers, mindful of their profits, increasingly withdraw analogue products photographers are forced into using the new technologies. But most carry on as if nothing much has changed. They make the same kind of photos they always did, but using digital cameras, and they are slowly getting used to new printing methods with which they attempt to imitate the qualities of photosensitised papers. I remember the fuss and excitement a few years ago when it was revealed that Andreas Gursky had committed the heresy of digitally removing some obtrusive factories from the skyline of one of his arid landscapes. What a fix they all got into!

So why the rear guard action by the education and art establishments and what future possibilities do digital processes offer?

The resistance must in large part be institutional, as photographers working in other contexts have rapidly adapted to change. Schools of photography often claim the problem lies in a lack of funds for purchasing equipment and retraining staff, but by the same measure why do they continue to pour new money into old technologies? The inertia is more likely the result of academic uncertainty about what might constitute an appropriate theory and pedagogy of new imaging technologies and practices. Digital processes demonstrably blur the boundaries between established disciplines and this is probably another cause for concern as it threatens established institutional structures. Photography as a subject, along with others, might well mutate into a new, as yet unnamed discipline.

The photo-art world has invested considerable effort over the past thirty years in constructing photography as “its own independent art”. Documentary photography, in its various forms, was seen as central to this project. I don't want to rehearse again here all those turgid arguments about objectivity and truth, but note that when photography finally made it into the fine art arena, it was largely on the back of such notions. Conceptual artists did make some inroads in challenging these ideas, but their deconstructive practices tended to produce dull replicas of the things critiqued, with different mottos attached. Given the high levels of past investment the present art and photo-art institutions are unlikely to do a volte-face , even as their photographic tenets unravel.

So what does the future hold? Michael Faraday, when introducing Henry Fox Talbot's photogenic drawings to the public for the first time on the 25th January 1839 (2), suggested that the course the new medium would take was “impossible to predict”. Such caution might be advisable, even at this juncture, regarding the future of digital photography - but I will be incautious. In my view photography has now become a figment of the imagination. It is a medium of dreams, allegories, symbols, myths and metaphors. It is a vehicle for exploring the past and the future. It inhabits the wild zone of the id and mocks everyday common sense. It celebrates the carnavelesque, the absurd and the parodic, the fake and the hyperreal, the grotesque and the mutated. It is irreverent, improper, exaggerated, hyperbolic, excessive and ambivalent. It resounds with fearless laughter. It was born of Mars and Minerva, of the military and of art, and it is the first squalling infant delivered to the bloody new world order. It is a medium for our times.

John Goto

January 2005

Published in Eyemazing (Amsterdam, summer 2005) and NextLevel 8 (UK, 2005)

(1)`Sworn Enemies`, by John Goto, Modern Painters , Summer 1995

(2) It was not until a few months later that John Herschel first coined the term ‘photography'.

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