“It doesn’t really matter if this is photography or not, However, the new may turn out to bear more than a close relation to what has gone on before.”
Photography is much more malleable now, in a way in which it has never been before. It’s been proclaimed since the 1990’s that Digital photography is the death of traditional photography, but it must be taken into consideration whether or not the medium is as important as the social, political, racial etc issues that photography as a whole, regardless or form, deals with. In this essay I will be exploring how new technologies have altered traditional perception of photography.
When French painter Paul Delaroche was faced with the invention of photography, he apparently declared, “From today, painting is dead!” Now, 150 years later, it seems that we are in discussions over photography’s death. Could it be argued that the foundations and status of the photographic document is being challenged, though the widespread introduction of computer driven imaging processes, i.e. Photoshop, which allow photographs to be faked, adjusted, and passed off as real ones. The view is that unable to tell the fake from the real, viewers may lose their faith in the objective truth of the photographic image, and the medium may lose it’s perhaps argued, initial purpose as a conveyor of information.
There is no doubt that computerised imaging is rapidly replacing or supplementing traditional still image making processes in many commercial situations, for example in journalism and advertising. In 1989, Bill Gates created a company specifically to buy and sell the electronic reproduction rights to a huge database of images, so extensive that they “capture the entire human experience throughout history.”
The Corbis Corporation then went on to acquire the Bettmann Archive in 1995, and with this came control over the world’s largest private depositories of images, 16 million overall. Corbis leases these images, in the form of data stored on digital files, to those who are willing to pay for specified electronic ‘use rights’. Thousands of images are added every week, acquired from individual photographers, as well as institutions like NASA, The National Gallery of Art in London, the Philadelphia Museum of Art etc. It seems that Corbis’ view has been for a very long time, that in the only kind of images that are going to matter are digital.
Image integrity is the issue which is mostly associated with digital photography. Though it may be seen to be much more convenient, quicker than tradition methods, it is an overtly fictional process. What I mean by that is that it is a practice known to be capable of fabrication, and digitization abandons the rhetoric of truth that has been such an important part of photography and it’s cultural success. Geoffery Batchen suggests that digital processes return the production of the images to the creative hand, (to the digits). So in fact, digital photography has a closer link with the creative processes of art than with the truth-values of documentary.
Many European newspapers considered adding an ‘M’ to the credit line accompanying any image which has been digitally enhanced or manipulated. However, such a credit line would not actually tell readers what has been changed in the image, casting doubt over the truth of every image in that publication. This is no doubt why many American publishers have been reluctant to adopt the same standard designation. For example, Time magazine describes various covers it published from 1993 to 1996, all digital images, as “Illustrations”, “Photo-Illustrations”, “Digital-Illustrations”, or “Digital Montages”. But this whole dilemma is more rhetorical than ethical. Newspapers and magazines have always manipulated their images in some way, think cropping, selecting etc. So does digital photography just mean we have to admit to ourselves that we edit, we adjust, we in some way even with traditional photography, manipulate.
This history of digital photography, similarly to elements in traditional photography’s past, is associated with endless deceptions and unacknowledged manipulations. Think the National Geographic cover from February 1982, where the pyramids were moved closer together, or the TV Guide cover from August 1985 which merged the head of Oprah Winfrey with the body of Ann-Magret. These images were obviously seen as ‘Illustrative’ by the editors, and not subject to the same rules of truth as journalistic images. Time magazine still continues to regularly employ digital imaging to produce catchy cover art for issues ranging from the conflict between North Korea and South Korea, to the popularity of cyberporn. However, these methods have landed editorials like Time in trouble before. On June 27, 1994, it chose to place a digitally darkened L.A.P.D mugshot of O.J Simpson on its front cover. The extent of this manipulation wasn’t mentioned by Time, but that same week Newsweek chose the identical, yet unedited mug shot for it’s front cover. The comparison was evident, on every newsstand. Faced with public criticism, the editor of Time had to explain the reasoning behind the magazines apparent racism, and it’s decision to alter ‘the facts’. The editor argued that his alterations raised “the common police mugshot to the level of art”, and argued that such interventions had always been allowable within journalism as long as the essential meaning of the photographs are left intact.
All this can hardly be blamed on digitalization. The history of photography, as I stated before, is full of images that have been manipulated in some way. The production of every photograph requires some intervention and manipulation, light levels, exposure, chemical concentrations etc. Photographers ultimately, whichever practice they use, manufacture the image they make. So, in that sense, photographs are no more or less truthful than digital images.
Now we return to the discussion of photography’s ontology, to the ideas which are supposed to give photography its distinctive identity as a medium. Roland Barthes discounted resemblance to reality, in saying that a photograph does not depict someone as they are entirely, but it does say that they were once there in front of the camera. We can be sure that they were once present in time and space. Reality may have been manipulated, or enhanced, but photography does not discount reality’s actual existence. Susan Sontag says that the photograph is “something directly stencilled off the real,” Rosalind Krauss defines it as “a kind of deposit of the real itself.” It can perhaps be said that photography is the worlds memento mori, allowing the world to be it’s own photographer. A photograph of something has long since been held to be a proof of that things being, even if not of its truth.
Computer visualisation, however, allows images to be made in which there is maybe no direct referent in an outside world. It is possible for these images to have no origin other than their own computer program, and only posses the look of the photographic instead of being inscribed by the things it represents. So how is photography threatened by the digital age? It is clear to us that photography will never entirely disappear, for the culture it sustains is too strong. Photography has never been one technology, for two centuries it has been developed and it’s still here. Even if we continue to identify photography with archaic technologies, like camera and film, those technologies themselves are tangible through the idea of photography. A photographic culture will always exist in some way or another. It can be argued that even if the computer does replace photography, it still relies on humans to operate, thus still relying on the initial vision and creativity of the eye, as would be done through a camera. In this modern day, with all our technologies, the conceptual stability upon which photography identity is presumed to rest upon is questioned. Photographs are privileged over digital images because they are indexical signs, images inscribed by the very objects that they refer to. This implies that whatever degree of variation to originality there is in a photograph, it will still be a more truthful and direct imprint of reality itself.