Digital vs. Analog Part 3

Friday, February 29th, 2008 - Nicholas Calcott

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Yeah, that’s right, I’m using that Gursky image

The following is the third part in a multi part essay. The first part can be found here, and the second here. I’ll publish each part whenever I get around to it:

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 РI’d love to get feedback, suggestions, evidence for and against, but most of all a discussion.

More Argument

Friday, February 29th, 2008 - Nicholas Calcott

Chase Jarvis argues on his blog that stock is, in effect, dead as a viable income source for photographers, whilst over at Photo Business News, the author argues that this approach is a race to the bottom. I think that Chase Jarvis is, in fact, correct (not surprising as his argument is similar to one that I’ve put forward here), and the Photo Business News guy is completely missing the point, as The Business of Photography (obliquely) pointed out.

The comments on Chase’s original post are well worth the read though. As one reader pointed out, the only model for photographs that retain value after the service is performed are fine art prints. And another reader pointed out that stock images continue to provide income while the photog is off doing other projects.

I agree with the photo business blogs that we’re going to have to fight to maintain our rights as creatives, but I do think that economic gravity is pulling hard on stock, rendering it less and less of a viable model. And, I don’t think that the end of stock is going to be some kind of doomsday event, as some people seem to think.

Phillip Jones Griffiths

Thursday, February 28th, 2008 - Nicholas Calcott

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Phillip Jones Griffiths

Phillip Jones Griffiths has been interviewed for Aperture magazine, and the part that didn’t make it into the magazine has been published on the web with a slideshow of images. Concientious picked up on it, stating:

…I read an interview with Philip Jones Griffiths, some of whose work I had been a big admirer of (now I’m not so sure any longer). Some of the his assertions in that interview I found incredibly narrow-minded and outright disappointing (apart from intellectually lacking), such as, for example: “Therefore, by my standards, photojournalists can be great artists, whereas those referred to as ‘art photographers’ cannot.”

I think Concientious is generally right in this instance, though its worth noting that for Griffiths the point of photography is not art, but rather communication, or more specifically communication of truth. He is, of course, an old fashioned leftist-Marxist, and his project has always been some form of “Speak truth to power.” Griffiths also rails against Magnum in the interview, which is not a new topic for him – He, of course, famously protested Martin Parr‘s entry into the agency with an open letter to the members, which Alec Soth quoted on his blog last summer.

Also, you can find a rather more fauning interview with Griffiths in the Independent, here.

[Oh, and full disclosure - I used to work for Yolanda Cuomo Design, the studio that designs Aperture, and I currently work in the Magnum Paris offices]

Wisconsin Historical Society

Thursday, February 28th, 2008 - Nicholas Calcott

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Photo by J. Robert Taylor [from the Wisconsin Historical Society online archives]

The Wisconsin Historical Society is in the process of digitizing its collection. You can subscribe to the new entries via RSS. Most of the time it’s rather uninteresting, but occasional something great will pop up. I suppose it’s also worth noting that all of the photos used for Wisconsin Death Trip come from this archive.

Stock Photo

Thursday, February 28th, 2008 - Nicholas Calcott

A Photo Editor has posted maybe one of the most useful lists anywhere, ever.

Leibovitz, Sontag, And Death

Thursday, February 28th, 2008 - Nicholas Calcott

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It’s funny how Personism, Looking Around, and me all prefer the Peter Hujar photo of Sontag instead of the Leibovitz one that we’re supposed to be talking about.

Time’s art and culture blog, Looking Around, has an excellent article on the Annie Leibovitz photos of a dying Susan Sontag by Richard Lacayo. Check it.

Coming Soon

Thursday, February 28th, 2008 - Nicholas Calcott

Unfortunately, I’ve not had the time to sit down and finish that essay I was planning to post the last parts of… It’ll be up soon, I promise. The first 2 parts can be found here and here.

David Hockney vs. Joel Sternfeld

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008 - Nicholas Calcott

I just found out about an interesting exchange in the pages of The Guardian between David Hockney and Joel Sternfeld.

Sternfeld is right on with his response, thereby preventing me from making some snide comment about all of the imitators currently copying his style… Kind of preventing me, I guess.

Mathew Monteith

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008 - Nicholas Calcott

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Mathew Monteith, ‘Milovice, April 2002,’ from the book ‘Czech Eden’

Shane Lavalette’s always excellent /Journal has posted an interview with Mathew Monteith, which has actually gone some way to restoring my faith in the Yale MFA program.

Bertien Van Manen

Monday, February 25th, 2008 - Nicholas Calcott

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Bertien van Manen, from her book ‘A Hundred Summers, A Hundred Winters’

Bertien van Manen has some beautiful work and is another photographer that I should have noticed before. She has worked in Russia and China, and most recently has a gorgeous project up on her website on photographing photographs. Previews of her books can also be found at the website for the Böhm Trade Center.