The article by Erwin Puts that I posted a link to last Thursday has not gone down at all well with our commenters, but his underlying argument—or what I believe to be his underlying argument—is one for which I have a great deal of sympathy.
I should first state that I'm not speaking for Erwin. I'm only reading the same article you can read at the link. Secondly, I have to admit the possibility that I've "overlaying" my own ideas and understandings on top of his, and that I might be conflating his views and statements with similar thoughts of my own.
But when he says that digital imaging should not be called "photography," I very much agree. I think it's a shame that "digital photography," which I consider a woeful hybridization, has gained such ground on the term "digital imaging," which is in my mind far preferable. The two are more distinct than the common wisdom suggests, in my view, and in this I think Erwin and I agree.
"Photography" has in that sense become a generic word that has outpaced its etymology, like "cc" for sending someone a copy (cc stands for "carbon copy," and refers to the way copies were made on typewriters, obviously something that is no longer directly pertinent), or "the radio dial" (when dials on radio are for the most part long gone, replaced with pushbuttons and digital displays), or any one of a hundred other examples of common idioms that have antique and outdated origins. "Photography" in my view should stand for optical-mechanical-chemical processes where the action of light is the main agent and the record is the direct result of the action of the cause, like a bearprint is the impression of the bear, in E.H. Gombrich's memorable phrase.
The argument is somewhat fugitive and the burden of persuasion difficult not because Erwin cannot express himself well (and not because I can't), but because the issue itself is fundamentally clouded. There are so many caveats and countervailing considerations. It's not a clear-cut case of either/or, and never has been. The same objections are always raised: "Photography was always subject to manipulation." "It doesn't matter how images are made." "Only the end result matters."
These arguments are correct. But only to a point.
Yes, photography was always controllable—for instance in a studio, where everything the camera is to capture can be arranged just so, or when many pictures are taken so that one "perfect" frame can be chosen. Yes, photography was always subject to manipulation; any photo 101 student remembers the photo-collages of Oscar Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson, not to mention the surrealist combinations of Jerry Uelsmann. Yes, photographs have always been "made to lie," as the common rejoinder to the argument that "photographs never lie" always asserts. Yes, photographs are subjected to controls in the darkroom, all the way up to the adding or subtracting of visual elements and wholesale attempts to change the effects of the image cast by the lens in various ways.
But when the argumentative haze clears, the facts left behind still persist. What is responsible for the revolution in seeing that photography caused is its insistence on recording the image cast by the lens. This caused all manner of frustration and confusion in both photographers and viewers from the beginning and down to the present. Because no matter how much people tried to control photography—and that includes conceptually, as the many manifestos of early photography abundantly show—photography just went right on recording what and how the lens saw, never mind what human beings wanted. This included showing us things that were not the way our brains liked to conceive of them—sometimes to our delight or amazement, as in Muybridge's dissection of the motion of a running horse or Edgerton's perfect drop of milk—and many times to our dismay, as when physical objects we thought we understood were shown "out of drawing" or as visually chaotic or nonsensical, partial, or deformed. Photography never stopped insisting on yielding to us what the lens saw, whether it surprised or delighted or dismayed or mystified or displeased us, or when it simply wasn't what we expected. Every photographer has to come to terms with this, whether with a mighty intellectual effort ending in failure, like P.H. Emerson's, or in a postmodernistic embrace of the medium's subversiveness and randomness, or something somewhere in between.
The argument is equally clouded from the other direction, because digital imaging with a digital camera and a sensor can be used, and often is used, merely to record faithfully the lens image, in much the way that film tends to do. Many "digital photographs" are not manipulated. They're not faked, or fraudulent, or fanciful. As reports of their "pretexts"—what the camera was aimed at when the exposure was made—they are just as truthful as the image any film camera could have rendered the same thing.
But, again, despite this, there's still a huge gap between the photography of direct impression and the imaging of highly manipulable and mutable pixels. The conceptual graph isn't like this:
But it is like this:
<---objective evidence imaginative invention--->
film (direct impression) digital (easily manipulable)
...where "direct impression" simply refers to an optical/chemical setup that limits the conceptual reordering we can impose on the image—one that frustrates our impulse to mold and manipulate and tends to insist on its intrinsic constraints—and "digital" means a medium that is much more easily amenable to untraceable alteration, to the telling of innumerable invisible little lies (perhaps just the removal of telephone lines or the adding of a distant bird or two, or the substitution of one color for another) or the construction of the kind of blatant lies (see harbor scene below) that the new technology makes much easier to accomplish.
So what I'm saying is that yes, film photography was never pure; and, true, digital photography doesn't inherently lie. Everyone who claims either of these things is correct. But what we miss in making these arguments is the gap—I would argue, the large gap—that truly does exist between the recording medium that resists the imposition of our own human imaginations on its results, and the recording medium that (subtly or not) tends to encourage it.
If this argument so far is too theoretical for you, just consider a few examples, including a couple of things that have been published here on T.O.P. in recent weeks. Take this picture by Fay Godwin, first:
Or this one:
Really the only thing that gives either photograph its power is that, for better or worse, we really do believe that the pretext of each picture is authentic—another way of saying that the hulking bison (even if perhaps he's stuffed) really was standing there in the road, and that that amazingly graceful long dog's body really was stretched out against the sky like that, as it leapt the fence, when the shutter was pressed. Neither picture really has much to do with anything the human imagination directly craves, or would necessarily invent. (If you had a nondescript snap of a road, would you think to yourself, "hmm, needs a bison?") We really do know that with film, either picture would be difficult to fake, and in any event, why would you? Who would think of it? In both cases, the pictures are wonderful because we're willing to believe—provisionally, anyway—that they're true, that they are records of something real. This is what gives life and richness to most, if not all, of the photography I've learned to love. What it implies is that the real world is a strange and wonderful place, with wondrous sights all around us, ephemeral, shifting, but there, and sometimes caught.
Moreover, if either picture were known for sure by the viewer to be fake, they would lose a great deal of what charm they possess. (That's an assertion, not a fact—maybe it's not true for you. It's true for me, which is about all I can say.)
What photography comes down to for me is the lens image. Photography is about how lenses render what you point them at, because if you know how they work—how they "see"—you can recover from the picture real evidence of what was in front of the lens during the time the picture was made. A camera is a recording device. This connection to the world is what's crucial about photography, and it's what makes photography inherently different from all other forms of image-making or image-production.
Remember that nice quote from the Henry Wessel video we linked to back on July 23rd: "In the still photograph you basically have two variables—where you stand and when you press the shutter. That's all you have." A few people objected to this sentiment, in one way or another. But what Wessel is really saying is that his photography is entirely about the lens image, that his pictures depend entirely on what the lens showed him at one moment from one vantage point. It's not about his imagination; it's not about "creativity" or his "vision" (a cliché I have to say I'm getting very weary of). The picture is essentially done when the shutter closes. From there, editing is a matter of recognition—recognizing what works as a picture for him—a number of "no's" and occasionally one "yes."
Contrast this to one the responses I got for my (digital) picture "The Moon and Venus" on July 18th. Mincing no words, the critique went as follows: "Right bottom corner should be corrected via imaging software. Door wall
etc. not straight. Spoils the whole thing. Big job done—night, tripod,
waiting etc. and...investment lost." Well, okay, another party heard from. But what's he really saying here? He's saying you're not done when all you've done is taken the picture. You still have work to do, miles to walk, changes to make. What changes? Changes to an essentially plastic, infinitely malleable original that can suppress what the lens saw and impose on the picture what the brain expects and wants to see.
There's nothing wrong with that. One isn't "better" than the other. But it's different. And here's another important point, too—do you see that it's not essentially about competing technologies? For me, if not for Erwin, it's really not about whether film is "better" or digital is "better," and it's not about how any given photographer achieves his or her aims. It's not about how the technology works. It's about the conceptual implications of the pictures. Or, you might say, the conceptual implications of the technologies as seen in the pictures. That's really the whole point. What do the pictures mean? How do they mean? What do they show, and is it trustworthy? In the second link for Thursday, you saw this picture, constructed automatically from similar pictures found on the internet, which I admit is a legitimate technological marvel, even if it never proves to have much real practical application. But however you feel about what's been done here, you can't deny that the picture itself is a lie. As we know from the article, the lower part of the bay cannot actually be seen from that exact vantage point; there's actually a building in the way. The sailboats shown in the picture were not actually there at that time. It's a fabrication, not a report. It's closer, conceptually, to Robinson's Fading Away than it is to Godwin's Bison at Chalk Farm.
How you feel about that lie is up to you. You might not care; you might consider that the entire point of the picture is to be generically picturesque and give you a warm fuzzy feeling squishing up from inside you, and that it succeeds better in that function than did the scene the lens actually reported. But I admit that I do have a problem with it. When a photograph purports to report to me something true about the world, the value of the photograph is diminished for me when the picture isn't true. I would rather that a picture not pretend to be real—if it's a creative illustration, then it should just go ahead an be a creative illustration, as many Photoshop creations are. That's better than a picture that looks like a photograph but lies like a rug.
What it comes down to, basically, is fiction versus non-fiction. (Now, resist your impulse to argue here: I've already admitted that film can be fiction and digital can be non-fiction. It's not just the medium, it's how it's used, and by whom, and how, and for what. I concede that.) I said earlier that photography is inherently different from all other forms of image-making or image-production. What that means is that it's not just the result that matters, regardless of how you got there. Photography is not like watercolors or etchings or aquatints or pastel drawings or silkscreens or oil paintings...or Photoshop illustrations, either. Naturally there's nothing wrong with any of those media. But photograph is the only one that is a recording medium, the only one that doesn't interpose the human imagination between the impartial eye of the lens and the artifact at the end of the production process, which used to be the print. It's a matter of trusting that the look of the world is sometimes richer and stranger and more wonderous than the images of it our minds would invent. That's what gives its its special place at the table amidst the rest of the visual media, even as it makes it recalcitrant and difficult to master for expressive purposes.
It can still be this way with a digital camera, sure. But still and all, we've moved quite a few steps further away from what photography has meant historically, and placed it quite a few steps closer to "mere" imaginative illustration than it was before. And there's no use denying that. Perhaps I'm reading too much into his words, but that, or something like it, is what I think Erwin Puts was getting at. And although I hardly think it's the end of photography, I also cannot really disagree.
Featured Comment by Chris Y: "I read somewhere that when you roll up your sleeve after a day in the sun, the line between the covered and uncovered skin was a photograph. I thought that was interesting. It's odd how after 150 years the technology and philosophy of this thing is still always ahead of us, and we're running after it like a dog chasing a pickup...."
Mike replies: In the class one year ahead of me at photography school, there was a particularly beautiful girl who, as her final project, taped an 8x10 negative to her back and went to the beach to lie in the sun. At her final critique the next day, she turned around and took off her shirt. A perfect positive in sunburn. She got an "A". You've got to admit that's a pretty clever way to get an A grade out of a trip to the beach.
I should further add, not as a response to Chris Y's comments, that I think I've made two rhetorical errors in this essay. First, I think I underestimated the degree to which some digital photographers are still touchy about perceived insults to their chosen medium; in this regard, the title I chose, "Digital and its Discontents," despite being nicely alliterative, is perhaps too much on one side of the argument and not the other, and irritates peoples' sensitivities. Second, I'm sorry to see that so many commenters believe the argument to hinge on the terminology. That's really not the point of the essay, what we call it, the names we use. It's just something Erwin said that I responded to first. But because the essay begins with that, people are assuming that that's the whole argument or that it's the main subject of the argument. I think that in a more carefully written piece I would correct both of those didactic mistakes on my part.
Featured Comment by Stan Banos: "Yup, that's pretty much it, tied and gift wrapped, signed, sealed and delivered—not that it'll end or resolve one single thing. When you marry one traditional, time-honored image making process, photography, with a new technology that is in itself an image maker, Photoshop, the resulting hybridization is inevitable, unavoidable, and bound to please one set of in-laws at the expense of the others."