Photographers’ Soliloquy In The Digital Age

Reinventing Photography in the Digital Age

30 May 2013

On my last holiday, I took the conscious decision not to use my camera. Instead, I preferred to just sit back and enjoy an unmediated experience of the city, as crowds of tourists walked past the Plaça de Catalunya, while children and elderly ate their ice cream on the sidewalk. But it was fascinating the sort of landscape I ended up contemplating: walking cameras. Everyone seemed to be content to look at the city through a lens, whether a phone or an SLR lens, postponing the actual experience until the moment of encounter with the photographic representation. It was a scene I wish I had photographed! But I was thinking how the flaneur in us, today, is not content with only observing and documenting, but is now equally burdened with disseminating this documentation, especially with the presence of social-networking websites and all the newly developed apps – from Facebook and Tumblr to Flickr and Instagram. Photography has always eluded definition, and just when we were about to come close to one, the art form eludes again. What is taken for a fact though, today, is its accessibility to almost everyone, professional or amateur, allowing a plethora of photos to roam around a global communication network. However this feature is seen as a shortcoming, or rather a challenge, to the medium in the digital age. Alec Soth is not bothered with the amateurish practice, actually he sees it justifiable: “We photograph things because they look like photographs. I do that all the time.”1 It is the nature of the medium itself that is problematic. “How do you deal with making photographs,” Soth exclaims, “with the tens of thousands of photographs are being uploaded to Facebook every second, how do you manage that? How do you contribute to that? What’s the point?” In what seems like the modern photographers’ soliloquy, Soth expresses a common frustration and challenge himself and his peers face in the digital age when dealing with the elusive image that has no original and yet exists in abundance. Photography has always been susceptible to technology, which will keep developing and will keep throwing new challenges in the face of photographers. The ubiquity of photography in the digital age has posed many challenges to photographs, not only in terms of production, display, and dissemination, but also, and perhaps most importantly, in terms of ingenuity and innovation. One would be amazed to see how some photographers responded to and adapted digital technology in order to make photos, and reshape the morphing definition of photography. In this essay I would like to shed light on some ways modern photographers have used new technology to make photographs that stand out among the midst of digitized and volatile images. I will explore what sort of aesthetic photographers have developed in the age advanced image-processing software such as Photoshop and the introduction of Instagram.Technology has brought out the photographer in each one of us, from the development of the Leica to the compact digital camera that has freed images from its indexical support, the negative. In The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Postphotographic Era (1992), William J. Mitchell compares the democratization of photography in the digital age to that in the Kodak age when George Eastman introduced the box camera; and so “the burgeoning technology of digital imaging suddenly spawned a mass medium.”2 As much as this democratization has been problematic to photographers, they have been able to conceive new artistic directions, as exemplified in the emergence of street photography and the snapshot aesthetic. Photographers such as Gary Winogrand (b. 1928) and Lee Friedlander (b. 1934) embraced the new technology and exploited its potentials. Photography in America has its specific history through out which the definition of the medium been challenged, subverted and eradicated in such a myriad of ways. Being susceptible to economy and technology, the camera was a flexible tool in the hands of photographers who adapted, creatively, to the changes and challenges brought forth. Can we talk about street photography without the Leica? With visionaries such as Friedlander and Winogrand, we could have been talking about any other photographic aesthetic, because whatever that could have been available at their hands, they would have made something from it. It was particularly the technology available at the time that anchored their artistic practice. This impels me to ask about technology’s role today in inspiring, or even threatening, photographers.

Different techniques have been adapted that served to rescue photography from its fall to a wider community of unspecialized photographers, as Mitchell explains.3
There are two particular ‘trends’, if the term is adequate, I wish to highlight, specifically because they have been mostly mentioned in opposition to each other.4 One, heralded by Jeff Wall, is reminiscent of classical pictorial traditions but relies heavily on new professional – and expensive – technology; while the other, arguably heralded by Ed Ruscha, is still concerned more with the subject and less with the medium, as it is more entrenched in today’s popular technology, such as Google Street View, while also influenced by the tradition of street photography.
There are two works by two artists that will serve as case studies in this paper: Doug Rikard’s A New American Picture (2008) and Matthew Porter’s 110 Junction (2010).

With the conversion from analogue to digital photography, and the introduction of image-processing software such as Photoshop, one aspect of the medium has been exposed to high scrutiny and debate: images do not always reflect reality. A camera’s ability to freeze time has been taken for granted as proof of its authentic portrayal of life. Today, images can no longer be trusted as they are easily susceptible to manipulation, which has lead Nicholas Mirzoeff to declare photography as dead. However, the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York shows exposes photography’s innate deceptiveness. Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop is an exhibition that showcases all manipulated images before Photoshop.5 The Met later followed up on the exhibition with a sequel entitled After Photoshop: Manipulated Photography in The Digital Age.6 It seems like Photoshop represents a crucial divide to photographic practices for the Met to categorize photographs as pre- and post-Photoshop. Mitchell calls the latter phase the ‘post-photographic’ era; the era where photographs are no longer seen as truthful reports of the real world.7 It was digital imaging that ruptured the link between reality and its representation, a link that was imagined to be there. Lev Manovich, in The Paradoxes of Digital Photography (2003), is cynical about the way we approach digital photography with apprehension in comparison to analogue photography, which is considered as ‘normal’ photography simply because it does not explicitly reveal the untruthfulness of the camera. “Digital technology does not subvert ‘normal’ photography,” Manovich explains, “because ‘normal’ photography never existed.”8 Even before digital images and image-processing software’s such as Photoshop, manipulation was possible and indeed practiced, especially in the darkroom and even explicitly with montage. Manovich’s remark makes us realize that digital photography does not threaten analogue photography, not as much as it threatens the belief that analogue photography is more authentic.

In reaction to the untruthfulness of photography, some photographers did not try to claim authenticity to image, but pushed that rupture even further. This is mostly exemplified in the work of Jeff Wall and Andreas Gursky. While Jeff Wall’s luminous tableaux might be said to have come as a reaction to Ed Ruscha’s photo books, I would like to look at them here as his own response to the technology available at his hands.

Jeff Wall embraced new technology into his work in order to make photos that reflect themes and traditions of painting along with the technique of modern advertising. Traditional small-scale photos do not appeal to Wall; a photo can appeal to its viewer if it stands at his/her height. The ‘luminist’, as the New York Times described Wall, makes large-scale photos that have the luminosity of a painting and the impact of a billboard.9 This technique brought back elements of scale, composition, and craftsmanship; elements all of which go back to the traditional pictorial representations. In BBC’s documentary Genius Of Photography, Jeff Wall explains his method: “I like to think that sometimes my work begins by not photographing – by seeing something, by being a witness, but not by photographing. So I remember it and I later to decide if it has potential to be a picture, a kind of picture I want to make.”10 He paints his photos. Most people have access to professional cameras, allowing them to make high quality photos. As a matter of fact, the new iPhone SLR mount has been recently conceived to allow the iPhone camera to replicate the quality of DSLR cameras. But Wall, through his work, gives us much more than just high quality work. Wall’s revival of notions of scale, composition, and mainly craftsmanship inspired other artists to put most of their time and effort into ‘constructing’ their image compositionally before actually taking the photo, and editing and retouching it afterwards to have the ‘perfect’ photo. For example, for Gregory Crewdson (b. 1962), making a photo can take up to ten days of work, where he would make a series of multiple exposures to later digitally combine them. His ‘mechanism’ is a much more intricate one, and is more directly inspired by film production. His crew would include a Director of Photography, a Camera Operator, a Production Designer, a Producer, a Location Manager, Actors, etc… If you were on location to see how Crewdson is making his photograph, you would think a film is being shot. His diligence impels him to wait for dusk, “the moment when daylight, street light, studio light, traffic light, and neon will be in perfect symbiosis,” giving his photographs a peculiar quality that oscillates between real and ethereal, between “the forlorn paintings of Edward Hopper and the noirish absurdity of David Lynch.”11   

Matthew Porter is another American photographer influenced by film (b. 1975) and his work parallels to a great extent Crewdson’s. Porter goes through a painstaking process to make a series of photographs of flying muscle cars, like the ones you would see in chase scenes on American TV. Porter acknowledges the influence of film, specifically the 70s American action movies, on his astoundingly implausible photos: “Honestly, some of it came from watching the closing of the remake of ‘Starsky & Hutch.”12 Porter adds, “They do one of those jumps over the crest of a hill, and it froze, and the lens flared over the hood. And I thought, that’s the picture I’d like to make, but I don’t have the budget or the resources to actually stage it.”13 Even if he was constrained by monetary limits, technology widened his options and allowed him to devise a more efficient and less costly ’mechanism’ to re-enact the chase scenes. Porter did a series of ‘car chase’ photographs using miniature vintage cars, meticulously selected and purchased online, which he hangs from a mechanical arm in his studio to photograph them and later insert them in the previously taken photos of American streetscape. In 110 Junction (2010) the artist shot a die-cast model of a 1970 Plymouth GTX in his studio and later inserted it into the Los Angeles streetscape. The background pictures were shot first so that the artist could mimic the lighting conditions in his studio when shooting the car. This series has gained him the reputation of the ‘flying car’ guy, helping him to finance his work. There is something peculiarly intriguing when the viewer knows more about how they are made. Porter now has a waiting list of buyers who are notified as soon as he has photos available for sale (usually $8,000 to $10,000 a piece). What I find most interesting about Porter’s photos is their ability to suspend the viewer’s belief as much as it takes the viewer to realize how the car is suspended in the air. It was a peculiar and indeed very interesting and smart choice made by the Met in the exhibition Faking It to put Yves Klein’s Leap Into The Void (1960) across the hall from Porter’s 110 Junction (2010). Both artists were challenging the viewer. “Both were interested in the tension between what the eye sees and what the mind knows,” explains Mia Fineman, the assistant curator in the Met’s photographs department.14  Klein and Porter ‘defy gravity through the artifice of photographic manipulation,’ but each in their own time and in their own way. While Klein’s picture may not have been well received at the time, Porter’s gains its reputation by boasting its artificiality. This difference reflects the viewer’s reluctance, at the time of Klein, to profess photography’s deception and how digital photography soothed this anxiety.

This group of artists refutes the claim that there is a continuing desire to claim photographic accuracy, as suggested by Liz Wells.15 Their work is concerned with the exact opposite; they reject accuracy in favor of fiction. They decided to use technology in order to make the decisive moment, not to capture it. To go through a painstakingly meticulous process of staging and editing would, to some artists, make a photograph stand out in the digital crowd.

However, this artistic tendency was not well received by some artists, such as Paul Graham (b. 1964), who descends from the line of street photographers who were capturing the aura of the American streets. Graham’s photography owes a lot to the work of Walker Evans, Stephen Shore, and William Eggleston.16 This influence in particular impels Graham to be highly dubious and critical about ‘constructed’ photographs. He was indeed thrown off when one review preferred Wall’s meticulous tableaux constructions to the snapshot aesthetic of street photography. “Anyone who cares about photography’s unique and astonishing qualities as a medium should be insulted by such remarks, especially here, now, in 2010, in this country, in this city, which has embraced photography like no other,” Graham exclaims.17 For him, such directions in current photographic practices reflect people’s ignorance or rather misunderstanding of what street photography is. Such attitude carries an unjust way of looking at great artists such as Evans, Frank, Winogrand and many others, who were committed to doing more than just ‘snapping their surroundings’, as the review had it. Graham appreciates the work of Wall and others, but not to the point of endorsing it as the way of making photographs, of placing it in hierarchy to other modes of picture making. As a matter of fact, he uses the example of staged photos to highlight the implicit and ineffable craftsmanship involved in snapshot photography. “The problem is that whilst you can discuss what Jeff Wall did in an elaborately staged street tableaux, how do you explain what Garry Winogrand did on a real New York street when he ‘just’ took the picture? […] How do we articulate this uniquely photographic creative act, and express what it amounts to in terms such that the art world, highly attuned to synthetic creation – the making of something by the artist- can appreciate serious photography that engages with the world as it is?”18

Graham posed a set of really interesting questions, and by doing so he placed two artistic trends in opposition. But by setting street photography in opposition to the art world, which, with its ‘synthetic creation’, is not as engaging with the real world, he articulated the peculiarity of this photographic practice. While a constructed photo communicates notions of craftsmanship and fiction, a snapshot picture reflects the usefulness of the medium as a tool that allows the artist to be immersed in his environment and to disseminate his experience to others.

Artists are still following this approach today to engage with the world, but in different means. Doug Rickard (b. 1968) is one photographer who has used technology to shift the understanding of the ‘snapshot’. Rickard does not resort to a professional and complex apparatus in his work; as a matter of fact you wouldn’t even find him on location shooting. With the introduction of Google Street View in 2007, almost every town of every city in the world has been photographed. Rickard realized the potentials of this new technology, and how he could exploit it. Google Street View allowed him to go on a virtual road trip; a trip he has wanted to take but hasn’t been able to. In A New American Picture (2008) [figure 2], the digitally stitched 360-degree views gave him the freedom to compose his shots, as if he were there, which would be later photographed on his screen.19 In an article published online on ABC Arts, Tim Stone gave an interesting comparison of Rickard’s photographs to those commissioned by the FSA (Farm Security Administration), which is associated with the emergence of documentary photography through the work of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. The FSA project was much ‘inspired’ by the depression that hit America during the 30s and the 40s.

Today, Rickard somehow resuscitates this project using a different medium to collate photographs that reflect the destitute American streets, but aided with today’s technology. The artist first chose places that are often associated with the myth of the American dream. However, he was surprised by the images that the software was capturing. He would see the reality of living in America, the emptiness, isolation, marginalization; everything that was the opposite of the constructed image of the country. “Within a few weeks of testing prints (from the screen) and determining that the images held power,” Rickard explains, “I decide what I would do with it – an American view of the brokenness of our nation, the inverted American Dream.”20 His intent through this series of ‘automated’ images, was to make visible some parts of America that the country itself, let alone the world, didn’t wish to see. Using a ‘popular’ medium accessible to everyone, he borrows remotely taken, low-resolution images that have a peculiar ‘Internet’ quality, in terms of angle and perspective, and that do not require any sophisticated apparatus. He preferred them to high quality images taken by professional cameras because they have a more ‘authentic’ feel to them; it’s as if he was saying Google is more reliable than man to give an accurate representation of the world. What is of interest to him is not the quality as much as a combination of specific elements, “a color that was distinct, a palette that contained beauty and power, American color, light and shadow that was special, the timing of the human participants and their location in the scenes, the implications of their bodies and gestures, and then the particular subtext that exudes from the images…”21 However, using this kind of technology, and this particular method, opens up new issues other than photographic tradition, politics, race, and power; issues more concomitant with the digital age, such as technology, surveillance, voyeurism and privacy. When street photographers went out to document the American way of living, their presence was quite an essential ingredient in their photographs, whether explicitly visible or not. Google Street View extends the photographer’s presence, supplements his superfluous body in the field. It brings up Marshal McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1964). McLuhan was interested to look at the long-term effect of technology on our environment, on the ways in which it reconfigures our space, time, and body. This examination led him to explore the paradox of technology as both a physical extension of the human body, as well as an invisible environment.22 It is in this light that I see Rickard’s approach as a reflection of our digitized reality, which has become a hyperreality, as Jean Baudrillard expands on McLuhan’s writings.23 Taking the approach of documentary street photography, one he describes as ‘lyrical documentary’, he re-contextualizes it in a digital world. Furthermore, the process of selecting these images and photographing them later allows him to ‘manipulate’ the viewer the same way photographers such as Evans were doing; by making them look from a specific point view.  

Each group manipulates reality in a different way; the latter’s manipulation is more abstract and subdued than the former’s concrete and explicit manipulation. What has enabled such a reading of photographing is digital technology. Instead of attacking it and accusing of killing photography, it is worth giving it a chance to help us grasp a deeper understanding of the nature of photographs. “Digital technology became a critical tool which could demonstrate in practice what had been argued in theory for some three decades: that photographic images are themselves special kinds of constructions.”24 The camera is not a neutral apparatus; it has never been. “What was in front of the lens could always have been staged to appear as desired, was always dependent on the framing, the aperture, the speed, the film material. Light, nature, does not just copy something. Nothing is unmediated, everything is broken, a matter of interface. Deception is the innermost principle of technical images, their realism is always self deception.”25 The camera fascinated us by its ability to represent reality, but as times evolved, our understanding of the medium has been challenged offering a tense relation between reality and representation, a relation that has been taken for granted. Will reality ever be accessible to us through photographs? Rotzer concludes the essay eloquently saying, “The irritations caused by digital images merely bring this insight home to us more clearly. In the post-photographic age, reality and fiction have in no way become indistinguishable having once been strictly separated. But yet another piece of naiveté has been destroyed, for not only have new discoveries and technologies always created new possibilities of illusion, they have also contributed a further stepping stone on the path towards enlightenment, casting new shadows into Plato’s cave.”26

Even though Graham expresses his concern for photographers working today “with equal commitment and sincerity, using straight photography in the cacophonous present,” technologies have brought more advantages to photographers that one might think.27 Digital photography not only allowed them to deconstruct the nature of photographs, opening new possibilities of image making, but also offered them a platform, a virtual gallery where they can display their work. Social media has been a way for artists to escape the deceptiveness of the art market; a space where they can self-publish their work and control its dissemination.

Today everyone has a compact camera, either independent or embedded in their phones. The number of ‘average’ people in possession SLR professional cameras outweighs that of ‘professionals’. Anyone can take a beautiful photo. Not only that, anyone can publish it, whether on Twitter or Facebook, Flickr or Instagram. This ease of production and display posed serious challenges to photographers to ‘justify’ the legitimacy of their existence and practice. But it is fair to say, the ways today’s photographers, specifically in America, are responding to the ubiquity of binary digits are as provoking as, if not more, the 60s and 70s. Matthew Porter and Doug Rickard answers Soth’s soliloquy by offering two distinct ways of embracing technology; the former exaggerates the ruptured link between reality and representation, while the latter attempts to stitch it back. Both methods used are, to an extent, available to the mass, and yet it is their vision that distinguishes them from others. It is not a matter of favoring one method over the other; it is about reading how each method in relation to the subject matter. Porter’s work can be read as a way of embracing the fakeness of our digital existence, while Rickard’s is an expression of the effect of technology on the reality of our existence. Going back to Manovich’s The Paradoxes of Digital Photography, “straight photography has always represented just one tradition of photography; it always coexisted with equally popular traditions where a photographic image was openly manipulated and was read as such.”28 Technology has bestowed many options on photographers; why restrict themselves to just one? The variety of methods is only reflective of the medium’s versatility; there is no need to place each in opposition to the other, but rather highlight the positives by criticizing the negatives.