The digital revolution has not happened (yet?)



The last thing anyone needs is rehashing the old debate about analog and digital in photography. I never found that discussion so interesting in the first place. I am perfectly comfortable with both analog and digital photography. Cameras are tools, and I’m personally not necessarily interested in talking about tools. That said, this might be too simplistic a description of my view. So let me try that again. (more)

When digital photography arrived on the scene, pretty much all the discussions centered on comparing digital with analog, using the latter as the benchmark. Here’s a new tool, how does it compare with the old one? That I’m not so interested in. But the thing about tools is that any tool has its own characteristics. While tool A and tool B might both be good to do something, tool B might allow you to do some things you can’t do with tool A. Now that I am interested in, because in terms of art (and this is really all I’m concerned about here), the new tool might open up new options.

Having (hopefully) clarified what I mean, here is another provocation: What is truly, truly amazing is that the digital revolution has in fact not happened1. Yet?

What do I mean by that? A few things seem obvious. The first and foremost being that the advent of digital photography has destroyed the livelihoods of many photographers (and not just photographers, but let’s focus on photography here). In terms of the business side, the digital revolution has happened. I personally am not interested in the socioeconomic Darwinism that’s so prevalent in large parts of, for example, commercial photography. I’m not interested in the business aspects2, so I’m going to ignore them here.

In terms of the technology, digital photography has brought quite a few changes. Everybody is a photographer now, as we all know - in part because small digital cameras are everywhere, in particular in most people’s cell phones3. Digital photography has also led to vast improvements of various technical problems. The latest generation of digital cameras works very well even at very low light - try doing that with film! You can stitch images together easily etc. But look at the icons in Photoshop - they’re all illustrations of actual, real-world tools. Before there was Photoshop people would do many of the exact same things they now do on the computer in the darkroom. It often was much more work, but regardless, it was possible.

However, technical changes are just that - technical changes. The history of photography is very illustrative here. Regardless of what time period you look at, progress was at least in part driven by - or in reaction against - some technological change. This is an obvious statement, whether it’s getting faster photographic materials or smaller cameras or whatever else.

In the past, progress often meant something new, something that not only could not be done before, but that was also pushing the boundaries. In a nutshell, photographers often took the new tools to expand the medium.

It is very important to realize, however, that the connection between technology and the evolution of the medium is not quite as simple as one might think. It is obvious in the case of the 35mm camera and photojournalism: You needed small, convenient film cameras to engage in this kind of photography. The connection is less obvious in the case of, for example, the kind of diaristic photography that emerged at the end of the last century (think Nan Goldin). Thus, some photographic developments were directly caused by changes in technology. Others, while relying on certain technological developments, were probably caused by something else, possibly cultural trends. We need to keep this in mind. As much as various photographic trends or genres relied on certain technological preconditions, they were not necessarily driven by them.

What this means is that digital photography might simply be too young for us to see something that is truly revolutionary. Maybe there will be something, at some stage in the future, just like the emergence of the diaristic approach. Who knows? We can’t rule this out.

However, we can already conclude that digital photography has not really been used much at all to push the boundaries of the medium in ways other than getting maybe slightly improved versions of what you could do with analog cameras. Regardless of where you look, digital photography essentially has made life easier for people. There’s nothing wrong with that. But where are the artists who use the inherent properties of digital photography, all those things that are different from what you find in the world of analog photography?

Let’s be very clear here: Manipulating images on the computer is not new. It’s not revolutionary. Photographers have manipulated photographs in the darkroom for hundreds of years, and the first composites of sets of negatives date from the 1800s. Digital makes it easier, but it’s nothing new.

As I wrote in Photography After Photography?, what has actually happened is that while digital photography entered the scene, the world of photography has turned backwards, to increasingly focus on the past. There’s no need to repeat here what I wrote earlier. I want to make one point here, though: My article is not necessarily too concerned with the future. Many people have reacted to the piece as if I was worried about the future. What is the future of photography? That’s a simple, but not a very good take on my piece. Instead, my question is the following: What happened to the artistic ambition in the medium? Why is so much of that ambition directed backwards, towards the photographic past? Where is the drive to go forward?

At least some slight consolation might come from Simon Reynolds, who in his book Retromania talks about how there essentially is no exciting, new music to have emerged in the first decade of the 21st Century (as compared to all the various genres emerging in the 1990s, say). Of course, it’s hard to tell whether this is a photography or a cultural problem. If we stick with music, the digital revolution in music resulted in all kinds of new types of music. German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk are said to have spawned all kinds of new genres (electronica/techno being the most obvious one).

Where is the techno equivalent of digital photography? There doesn’t seem to be any. Photographers have been replacing their analog cameras with digital ones - to use them just like, well, better analog cameras. Some, of course, have gone way back, embracing older analog processes. And that’s all fine. There’s a lot of great work being done right now. But where is someone truly exploring the medium digital photography?

In a response to my piece on photography after photography, Tom Griggs argues that, well, we’re fine:

“We have defined a language over the last 50 years of testing, challenging, pushing, and nurturing - now let’s define progress in terms of the increasing skill and sophistication with which we use it. Let’s assess progress by the ability to gracefully combine shifting elements of technology, form, and content in a way that acknowledges and considers the context in which it’s made. A definition of progress needs to be moved to a sense of a photographer’s ability to present fresh visual conversation flowing from the creative combination and balance of technology, form, content, context.”
That’s fine. I don’t have a problem with that. We’re seeing that already. It’s a very comfortable, a very comforting take on the medium. But it seems so free of ambition. Or maybe more fairly, the ambition contained in that approach seems to be so, well, small. Where’s the passion in “a photographer’s ability to present fresh visual conversation flowing from the creative combination and balance of technology, form, content, context”?

I’m perfectly fine for these gradual refinements to happen (even though my gut feeling is that contemporary photography has become dominated by trends people are following - instead of pushing against them). But unlike Griggs I do not think that we actually have tested, challenged, pushed, and nurtured our medium enough.

In particular, we have not even started to assess what digital photography could do once we stop treating it as a slightly improved version of analog photography. Digital photography essentially is not well understood at all. Our thinking of digital photography conforms to our thinking of analog photography, even though in actuality the inherent properties of the two often are very different.

In a nutshell, I’m wondering when we’ll see more people explore this, yes, new medium: Digital photography - not as an extension of analog photography, not as something that’s more convenient than analog photography, not as something that can simulate old-timey photographs on your smart phone, not as something that can produce “multimedia”, but as something that can do things that analog photography cannot do. Given the potential that still lies dormant in digital photography we might be in for a surprise - assuming there are enough artists willing to look forward.

1 Why all that recent provoking, you might wonder. Well, it’s just a good way to get the juices flowing. What good is art if it doesn’t inspire vigourous debates?

2 As much as the business side of this digital world effects my own situation: I’m producing the contents of this website for free since apparently nobody wants to pay for contents online (talk about a very, very bad business model).

3 We take this for granted but a large part of the change here is that everybody now has her or his own telephone to carry around. When I grew up, there were no cell phones. If you wanted to make a phone call you’d have to find a phone. Just as an aside, if you look through, for example, large parts of pre-cell-phone-era noir fiction you’ll realize how the fact that phones needed to be located - and you had to have the change if you wanted to use a public phone - were often important plot points.

image: J.M. Colberg, Untitled from American Pixels