Yeah, that’s right, I’m using that Gursky image
It must be said that there are quite a few art photographers who have taken advantage of the things offered by digital (a discussion of who, exactly, recently took place over at 40 Watt), some of whom are extremely popular, but the full on migration to digital has never really happened in the way that seemed such a possibility only a few years ago. It really seemed, for a little while, that the photo world was on the verge of a sea change to digital that would be as significant and as drastic as the migration to color in art photography was in the 70′s.
I recall visiting the Andreas Gursky retrospective at MOMA when I first arrived in New York, and being some what shocked to hear that he actually created some of the works with digital manipulation. Now it seems so old-hat that I usually forget to include him in my list of photographers who use digital because he does it in such a subtle way. And if, as Mcluhan states, “the medium is the message,” and digital is a much different medium, how can we react to work done digitally with such a shrug?
Well, frankly, it’s because digital is apparently not such a different medium, and photographers have always accepted the idea of manipulation in their work. The very act of framing is a manipulation, as Joel Sternfeld recently announced to the Guardian in defense of photography, so a manipulation like Gursky’s which doesn’t seem to invalidate photographic reality seems like such a small thing.
But crossing that line into photographic un-reality seems to be a much bigger deal, and one that the photo community seems, in large measure, to recoil from (unlike the art world, from which photogs like Loretta Lux seems to have found a much more comfortable home). As photographers, it still seems normal to announce that “I prefer straight photography.” And most of the photo blogs fit this criteria.
So why hasn’t the increased freedom of creative possibility (as opposed to distributive possibility) spread throughout photography? The only site I know about which consistently showcases explicitly digital un-realities is the red headed step child of the photoblog world, (the often featured here) i heart photograph. The rest seem to stick with the traditions of documentary photography, always constrained by journalistic ethics, which (sometimes explicitly, sometimes not) conveniently ignores the act of creation that is the taking of a picture.
Due to that whole ethics thing, photojournalism has settled into the digital age much more comfortably. This biggest changes in this field seem to be distribution and speed. There are a bunch of photojournalism online magazines, and, of course, the big boys like the NY Times, Newsweek, and Time all feature multimedia content on their websites [which I occasionally feature], and numerous sites have popped up with picture news that is the supposed antidote to the mainstream media (two of my favs are Pixelpress and Mediastorm). Of course, one can argue that the speed with which work is published in this realm leads to a failure to engage with a story for longer than it takes to file a story, but I have to say that I, for one, am glad to see images coming out of news events immediately after they happen. But film still raggedly holds its grip on a select few (many of whom find their home in the boutique agencies like Magnum and VII), where its sometimes seen as a mark of commitment and a willingness to really become involved in a story, in opposition to the wire agencies, who exclusively use digital.
Some people have engaged within the fine art tradition without breaching the decorum of ‘straight’ photography. The book ‘End Commercial‘ [which, Dean, I finally got a chance to see] is a great example of how digital has freed the medium. Its a compendium of images- a photographer and art director’s attempts to index the city. And it’s exhaustive. There is almost everything in there, and in a volume that never would have been possible without cheap digital cameras, databasing programs, and the organizational skills that the web has taught us all.
This, I think, has been the real revolution of digital – not the one image, but the many. Blogs like The Sartorialist (and, indeed, most blogs) are great for this, in that they index a particular component of the world in an obsessive manner. But this approach is inherently limited – No one image will provide a payoff (For more on this particular example, see Robert Wright’s blog, here and here). The experience of these indexes is more akin to a scientific study (even if the subject is not one normally so deserving of rigorous analysis) than it is like literature or classical art, an approach not without merit but somewhat limited.
Part 4 will be posted Monday or earlier (perhaps).
If this post interests you, please link it or post to the comments – I‚Äôd love to get feedback, suggestions, evidence for and against, but most of all a discussion.