Photography Reborn: Image Making in the Digital Era


Book Reviews

There can be no doubt that the “digital era” is upon us. While most people seem to think they know what that means for photography, when you look a little bit closer you come to the following conclusion. If you are willing to accept that the main - or maybe even the only - impact is that photographic work is getting so much easier and so much more convenient, then there isn’t really all that much to do other than to fawningly admire all the latest digital gizmoes. However, if you are interested in the actual changes and new possibilities that digital photography might offer technology is really just a footnote. When I bought Photography Reborn by Jonathan Lipkin what I was hoping for was a book on the latter. What I got was a book on the former.

I guess what made me buy the book was the fact that there are some samples of interesting contemporary artists in it, quite a few of which you have already seen here. Take, for example, Loretta Lux, Thomas Ruff, or Andreas Gursky. What made me hesitate was that many other images in the book are utterly forgettable.

You could take either one of the more interesting artists and explore what they used digital technology for. Note that I wrote “what” and not “how”, because the “how” is really not all that interesting. If you want to know why the “how” is not interesting, read “Photography Reborn”.

Let me explain why I think that “Photography Reborn” is a big disappointment. The main problem with the book is that while it shows many interesting example, it never goes to explore (in any kind of depth) why any one of them is interesting beyond mere superficialities. And many of the examples aren’t even all that interesting. Take an example. There’s a Hubble Space Telescope image of the hour-glass nebula. It’s a pretty photo, but astronomically that’s about it. In the astronomical context, digital photography is not interesting because it’s pretty and convenient, but mainly because digital images are much better suited to measure astronomical quantities than photographic plates. On top of that, the hour-glass nebula image is more or less a PR image to keep the public happy. So the main point about what astronomers get out of digital images isn’t even mentioned. And this is the main thread thoughout the book. There are lots of interesting and even more clearly quite irrelevant digital images, and they are all being presented in the style of “and here artist A does this and that with the image”.

Let me add that the argument that you can’t do something with conventional photographic technologies does not automatically result in the digital image being valuable or interesting. A composite image of some supermodels to show “the iconic face of American beauty” is about as interesting as, say, an idealized images of Soviet shock workers; it’s a historical [and sociological] curiosity. Also, to give another example from the book, the fact that in the 1930’s, it took John Heartfield a long time to do one of his collages is quite irrelevant. Sure, he could have done them more quickly on a computer - if he had had one. But who knows what he would have done on a computer? And if you judge things by how long it takes to do them, then painting in oil, for example, is clearly bad, because it takes a long time. Why bother? Just doodle on your computer. Oh, and it does take Loretta Lux a long time to do her digital work.

Even the few instances where the author does mention what is interesting about a given image - as far as I remember that happens occasionally, for example in the case of a Gursky photo or in the case of a photo showing an African-American Queen Elizabeth - he barely touches the surface of how digital technology has resulted in something that goes beyond mere technicalities. Add to that the utterly superficial and superfluous chapters about virtual Japanese fashion models and about “webcams” and exhibitionists, and you’re left with quite a disappointing book.

I think the only reason to buy this book would be to see what kind of stuff you can do with images to re-work (or take) them digitally. Anything else you won’t find in there. How that justifies calling the book “Photography Reborn” escapes me.