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In my view, a valuable side effect of digital imaging has been the debate in the popular press concerning the ability of Photoshop and other similar programs to increase the likelihood of us seeing falsified photographs. Most of this debate is carried on in ignorance of the more substantial dialogue concerning the illusory documentary power of photography initiated by Alan Sekula and others in the 1970s. Photography is inherently manipulated and constructed--new ways of manipulating it faster and easier won’t change this basic fact. What will change are the inflections, accents, and dialects of photography for those who see it as a cultural language. But worrying about this might be like worrying about language being manipulated in a poem. And it might be a small price to pay for the possibility that the general public will notice the difference between seeing and seeing a photograph--or further, between seeing and knowing.

Some artists use the new digital tools to continue exploring notions of “process art”, working on a continuum extending back to the ideas of Joseph Beuys. This derives from the seductively open and accessible nature of digital manipulation, as well as from its often interestingly fortuitous mistakes. However, as Beuys pointed out, the degree to which an artist’s ideas are process-dependent may ultimately not be nearly as interesting as the ways in which a given process can function metaphorically to support the ideas in the art. This obviously didn’t start with Beuys. The 18th century English poet William Blake saw his craft of etching as an analog for his poetic need to dissolve received, unquestioned wisdom: “First the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul must be expunged. This I shall do by printing in the infernal method by corrosives...melting apparent surfaces away and displaying the infinite which was hid.” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, plate 14). In other words his tools extended his ideas.

In a recent project, Seattle artist Carolyn Krieg created digital files by scanning family snapshots--some of which she had taken as a child. She then manipulated the digital version in Photoshop to eliminate some details and add others, and output the image file to a color Polaroid. She then stripped the top layer off the Polaroid and used it as a negative in her color enlarger to produce negative color prints, which she also altered in the printing process. The resulting series is about her memories of her large immediate family. The degrading “generations” of process supplied by the various technologies replicate the selective recall, re-combination, and semi-transparent layering of memory itself.

Paul Berger, a digital pioneer, initially used his computer to catalog a collection of imagery he had grabbed on video tape from broadcast television so that he could find it when he needed it for collage purposes. He keyed the segments to timing numbers on a primitive VHS player, and catalogued them by rudimentary description. This allowed him to make still negatives directly from a monitor, sometimes double exposing to combine text and image. His raw material was everything coming in from the broadcast media. Later, he was able to crudely scan his selected images and digitally collage them with text. Each new process added its own quirks and metaphoric possibilities, but none changed his methodically followed plan for making pictures that he needed to make. They just speeded it up, and, as in the Krieg project, provided him with some usefully unpredictable side-effects in the bargain.

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William Blake, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, frontispiece, 1793
Paul Berger, Camera Text or Picture #2, 1980


Paul Berger, Seattle Subtext - Cinema, 1981

Paul Berger, Card Triangle #3, 1989

The investigation of collage as a poetic device initiated by Dadaists, Constructivists, Futurists and Surrealists has been widely reopened by artists using the digital tools. Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Höch, Raoul Hausmann, Lazlo Molohy Nagy, Dora Maar, Alexander Rodchenko, and a long list of others, all combined their own photographs and drawings with found bits and pieces of advertising and text. Initially they did this to suggest both the disturbing fragmentation of industrialized, urbanized life and the tendency of the bombardment of images and writing in popular culture to strain perception to the breaking (or dimming) point. But as they proceeded, they found huge open fields of poetic opportunity for collage beyond these homilies. A few years ago, I had the great fortune to see large collections of this work in both the Künstler mit der Kamera: Photographie als Experiment show in Ludwigshafen, Germany, and in important collections of works by John Heartfield and Josep Reneau in the IVAM museum in Valencia. I was repeatedly struck with the realization that the potential for collage launched in the first decade of the century is far from exhaustion. Digital tools have boosted this exploration by adding audio, moving images, and, in the CDROM and Web versions, the ability of users to indulge in the selection and re-combination process themselves. The increased interest in collage as metaphor for social process and the structure of curiosity--not just the increased ease of collaging--seems to me to be the most interesting effect of the digital technologies on our ability to help museum visitors enjoy art ideas.

The presence of new technologies in the museum, especially those that break the deadly silence of the galleries--that talk back and demand that visitors talk back--will hopefully weaken conventions of art appreciation based on torpid fascination. Visitors have been kept at a tasteful distance from the excitement of the art, and the complexities of critical thinking about that experience, for too long. A transition is taking place that will offend some supporters of this status quo and will not be fast enough for others who demand more access now and are beginning to find it outside of the walls of museums and art galleries. The qualities of the new technologies--pervasive disembodiment, interactive response, multiple user manipulation, the need to use your mind--will hopefully become driving metaphors for new kinds of art and art appreciation.

Joan Fontcuberta, in the introduction to the ink version of Pedro Meyer's Truths and Fictions, published by Casa de las Imágen in 1994, goes to great lengths to discuss computer manipulated imagery as a new kind of documentary. He finishes by saying, “Today more than ever the artists should re-establish the role of a demiurge and sow doubts, destroy certainties, annihilate convictions so that, at the other end of confusion, a new sense and sensibility can be created.” This is very close to the ideas in Hannah Hoch and Raoul Hausmann’s Dada manifesto, and appropriately so. Fontcuberta is also a good example of an artist that has moved from analog to digital without changing course. His earlier analog work involved physically manipulating objects in front of the camera. His newest "miracles" involved digital manipulation.

In my view, the best artists working with photography today use it’s rhetorical power to their own conceptual ends while at the same time questioning the source and nature, even existence, of that power. The photographic image, with the aid of digital technology, has broken from any realm that could be conceived of as authentic--it is a traveler wandering free in a maze of synthetic arguments dependent on all its many uses.

In this context, however, it might be appropriate to give the last word to Glenn Gould: a 1974 remark in Piano Quarterly. "I realized that the collected wisdom of my peers and elders to the effect that technology represented a compromising, dehumanizing intrusion into art was nonsense when my love affair with the microphone began." His predilection for spliced and recombined recordings of his playing changed notions of authenticity and pierced the veil of the “aura” of art. They also caused an exponential increase in the number of people who have access to the idea of interpretation, and to the fact that there is no one way to play Bach.

Paul Berger, Warp and Weft - Ground, 2003
Edward S. Curtis, Palm Canyon, 1924

Rod Slemmons, Director
Museum of Contemporary Photography
Columbia College Chicago

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