The thoughts and feelings I would like to share with you today are those that have run through my head as I have watched the digital revolution change photography forever. These thoughts in relation to recent developments of my work as a photographer and as an educator are convoluted and contradictory. As many photographic players of my generation, born and raised in analog technologies, and who have produced substantial bodies of work on film and paper, I have watched these developments with a mixture of fascination, caution, and sometimes a little resentment. I have been fascinated by the speed of the changes: all of a sudden everyone is shooting with digital cameras and editing images on home or studio computers. For those of us shooting medium or large format, Polaroid proofs are a thing of the past, as are also film drop-off and pick-up trips to the photo-lab, as well as having clip tests run for your transparency film to help in choosing push or pull development. All of a sudden large-scale photos are for the most part printed on digital output machines rather than through enlargement and I hear that large-scale enlargement paper production by Kodak and Fuji has been reduced if not terminated altogether.
I am even more fascinated by the fact that at least in the Toronto area you can take your compact flash card to a local photo-finishing store and in 15 minutes have prints of selected images for a cost of 50 (Canadian) cents each. Also stunning is the fact that I can send images from my computer to a local photo-finishing shop through the internet and receive inexpensive and decent prints in my (physical) mailbox in a couple of days. I am fascinated by the fact that photo studios can make great colour or black & white inkjet prints on a variety of surfaces, and in various sizes, without the need for a large colour processor, without hazardous chemicals, and without having to have a dedicated darkroom. The aspect of this revolution that I find most interesting is the effect it has had on our understanding of the relations between photographic representation and truth, and how it has played into contemporary notions of truth as subjective and always shifting.
The post-modern critique of documentary photography amongst other things weakened the relationship between photography and its claims to truth, and digital manipulation coming on the wake of it seems to have further shaken the one loose from the other. In his book The Reconfigured Eye William Mitchell suggests that the line between photography with claims to truthful representation and other forms of practice has been blurred. Leaving photojournalists aside for a minute (apologies to those who are), for whom this continues to be a problem, the blurring of the lines is extremely exciting for me as I have always thought that fictionalized representations of places, people, and events tell deeper truths than those that claim to be objective and have more lasting impact. Mitchell also states that as of 1989 Photography is radically and permanently displaced- as was painting 150 years before. I would tend to disagree with his statement and suggest that while photography's special claim to truthful representation has been weakened we find ourselves now with a more honest and open situation. Garry Winogrand asserted that photography is no more and no less than an illusion of realistic representation, and placing the emphasis on illusion, digital photography loosens the strictures of straight and documentary photography and relieves the photographer of any guilt over messing with the truth, since subjectivity is embedded in the making as well as in the experiencing of photographs.
Back to the mundane, I could go on and mention the wonders of reaching a broad audience for my work through a portfolio website, being able to email images to clients, friends, and family, as well as receiving images from my students for review. I could mention not having to store rolls of film in the freezer and waiting for it to defrost before shooting. I could mention not having to spend days scanning film, and being able to submit images to clients, galleries, and museums on a CD. I could go on for a long time describing the wonderful changes brought about by the digital revolution, however I have also been less than completely enthusiastic about these changes for a number of reasons. The first one, and a selfish one, is that I already have a very full life between making photographs both personal and commercial, and between my teaching and family life. I have worked out a delicate balance so that most of the time everything fits, and this balance is partly based on my knowledge and expertise in working with film and paper to produce professional results in the time I have.
Now, I have to constantly learn new technology and new processes to remain up-to-date; and the learning curve is steep. I have also been wary because in our times the new is always held-up as better than the old, and we are urged to quickly dispose of that which we have grown used to and buy the new and improved. I have used film and paper to produce images that are considered meaningful by those more intelligent than I, so, why change a system that is working well? I think that is the position of many photographers at this time. My wariness is also mixed with resentment because I have been swept away by a change that has been greater, faster, and deeper than I expected, and I have had to struggle to keep up with it in both the technological and the theoretical.
The race to create and then improve photo-digital technologies and processes has been fast and furious, and throughout, I have felt hopelessly behind in my knowledge and skills despite extensive efforts to stay current both for the sake of both my teaching and art making. This has caused me, and perhaps also some of you, considerable anxiety. I must add to this condition something that makes photographers crazy. Photographers are creatures of technology, I hope you will agree, who take pride in extensive knowledge of camera equipment and its performance, and of materials such as film, chemicals and papers, and their characteristics. It happens that we often meet someone who appears to know much more than us and this is annoying. Within a technologically stable analog world this annoyance is tolerable, but in the digital photography world this has become an insane competition for status, (or maybe this is a Canadian thing, a form of knowledge hockey) where status and coolness is gained by knowing about the latest software or digital camera before anyone else does. If any of you are now in possession of a legal beta copy of Photoshop 8, I will have to beg and plead with you for a quick look, as well as for a description of its new capabilities. However, I understand that you may be under a no disclosure agreement with Adobe. This, however, does not stop you from gaining status and being cooler, by the mere fact of possession of the said beta and from torturing others with your sparse hints and mysterious smiles.
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