The changing character of photography in the age of the electronic media. (2007)
From the dawn of photography, its true character has been defined as the mechanical reproduction of reality. A picture showed reality as it was at the moment of pressing the shutter. A picture has authentic content, even if we all agree that the viewer’s interpretation may add a third dimension of emotion and context. Cees Nootebom, a well-known Dutch writer has written that the photo-album with family pictures acts as a vehicle for the preservation of memories A snapshot is always true: it is a fetish that can recall the past and every frozen moment. But this positive aspect is immediately compensated with a nostalgic feeling and the certainty that what you see is the past that can never be recreated: the moment you wish to preserve by a picture is irrevocably lost.
All these feelings and thoughts can be invoked by looking at a simple snapshot because we know that the picture is not manipulated and is a direct representation of reality. The process and mechanism of chemical photography ensures this non-manipulative character of the picture.
The fixing of shadows in solid silver salts has been the exclusive domain of photography and has been its main characteristic. Of course there have been photographers who sandwiched several negatives or manipulated negatives in the darkroom to create new images. But this approach has always seen an outsider status. Straight photography has been the medium’s backbone.
With the coming of digital capture, this backbone has been broken. The camera no longer provides the rock solid representation of reality, but has become the supplier of raw material in the format of a computer file.
In its early days, painters saw photography as a serious thread because the camera threatened to make the brush and the canvas of the painter obsolete. It did not and photography and painting co-existed happily for centuries.
Now silver-halide based photographers fear that the digitizing of the medium will make the shutter click obsolete. (I wrote in the past that the main difference between the M8 and preceding M-cameras was the shutter click). The painter’s brush has evolved into the computer mouse as the most important tool for the creation of ‘photographic’ images.
The main point here is the fact that the digitized image has no longer any relation to the snapshot, that unmistakable watermark of the accidental moment. Photographs have a sense of the accidental, a kind of mystery that is not present in the digitally created images. A modern dslr can capture ten images per second and it is quite difficult to see anything accidental in such a string of images. It has been proposed that Cartier-Bresson had he lived in the 21st century, would have gladly adopted a digital camera and would have taken identical pictures as he had made with the film loading Leica. I doubt this: A Robert Capa or an Eugene Smith will not be easily found among current digital image makers.
The burden of documentary photography and the burden to have a faithful relation to reality has gone with the coming of age of digital imagery. Just as in the past painting was relieved form the necessity to depict real scenes and could become a very personal and subjective medium, digital imagery will become a very subjective medium. The role of the technique will reside behind the self-consciousness of the image-maker. Digital imagery will increasingly be seen as a construction and the photographer (whatever the name: it may eventually become digital artist or digipainter) as the engineer or designer or originator of the image. The image engineer of the future will be more related to the writer of books than to the snapshot photographer of the 20th century. Images of reality that have been created by digital techniques will be more related to a novel than to a snapshot. The maker will predominate, not the picture.
I see this change as fundamental, as a true paradigm shift, not as the simple change of a technical process. One may attach the label of ‘photographer’ to the image maker of the future. That is fine with me. But insisting that the word ‘photography’ should be used for a totally new concept and culture of image making, is a sign of conservatism in order not to accept the profound changes that are imminent.