Monday, September 25, 2006

Defending Photography

More and more frequently, one happens across internet-based photography discussion forums whose topics gravitate toward the seemingly eternal debate of "Analog Versus Digital", as if this were somehow an inevitability; as certain of continuance, it would seem, as the ever-present Arab/Israeli conflict.

I have, for the most part, avoided participation in such discussions. Part of the reason is that I'm simply too egotistical to engage in a shouting match with dozens of participants where my voice can't be clearly distinguished above the din of the crowd.

I like for my point to be heard.

With a topic such as "A vs. D", by the time I first find the link, it's already three pages long. If you haven't drawn significant blood or made good points by the end of the first page, you're just late to the game; nobody cares any longer.

The irony in all of this is that most participants seem to miss the big picture in all of these shouting matches: that what's being discussed is, for the most part, not photography at all, but rather the merits of certain arcane techniques relevant to the technical aspects of photographic equipment.

Let me make myself plain: disussing cameras is, for the most part, not a discussion about photography, any more than discussing the obtuse trivialities of stretched versus premade canvas equates to a significant discussion about painting. It is this emphasis upon the tools of the trade, this myopic navel-gazing into the arcana of image-recording devices that is at the heart of my inquiry into the debate.

The suspicion has long been held, since the formative years of electronic-based graphic arts technology, that the time would soon come when we would be witness to the death of photography. This presumption has been co-opted in recent years, spun up mainly by the market forces of advertising hype: that the development of electronic imaging devices are merely an evolutionary step, the next phase in the continuing process of improvement to the technology of photography.

What most photographers have missed - and I speak here of the vast majority who are too immersed in the specialities of the field to see the forest through the trees, as it were - is that photographic image making has been swallowed up in the larger field of, and is now merely a subset of, graphic arts publication technology. In matter of opinion, the advertising hype has convinced the vast majority that there is, in fact, no difference at all between photography and commercial publication technology.

Graphic arts have always played a role in the popularization of photography to the masses, first with the technology of photogravure, and later with various improvements in offset printing technology. When we think of the heyday of photography to the masses, we often think of photo-based magazine publications, such as Life or National Geographic. It was here, in the mass-reproduction of photographic images using non-photographic processes that the co-opting of the medium began.

Although techniques such as photo-gravure and offset printing can reproduce already existing photographic images with the mechanical exactness of the printing press, it must be understood that such images are, in the final analysis, not photographic, in the sense that they are 'written with light' - photographed - onto the final sheet of paper actually being viewed by the end user. For this to be a photograph, it must, therefore, be a product of the photochemical process that occurs in what we have come to know as the darkroom, which in this context becomes a highly specialized, low volume print shop, specializing in the hand printing of silver gelatin, or other more specialized photographic processes.

Thus we see the essential distinction between actual photographs - images 'written with light', as it were - and mere mass reproduction technology: writing with ink - atragraphy.

In comparing the two processes - the creating of traditional silver gelatin photographs versus ink or dye printed reproductions - it becomes more distinct that what has become known as "digital photography" is a replacement of light sensitive, silver gelatin media in two phases: in the camera phase, where film is replaced by a television sensor, and in the reproduction phase, where the silver gelatin print is replaced by a mechanically printed, ink-based reproduction.

One can argue, and perhaps even the most diehard traditionalist would agree, that electronic, television-based images are, in fact, photographic in nature: that is, they involve creation of an image by the action of an optical wave front on a light sensitive surface, in this case a photo-transistor array. The resulting electronic image, stored on either magnetic, optical or silicon-based formats, becomes a defacto latent image, just as the undeveloped silver gelatin emulsion contains an image still invisible, consisting of an amalgam of discrete silver halide crystals with individual valence electron dissociations corresponding to the original optical wave front of the camera lens.

Where digital imagery as a process seems to deviate from optical photography is in the printing stage, where writing with light an analogy of the original latent image is replaced with writing with ink a mechanical reproduction. Given this distinction, one could open-mindedly avow that viewing digitally generated images on a computer screen is still truly photographic in nature, since the display technology is actually writing with light a direct analogy of the electronic latent image.

If we are to come to the point of understanding where it seems necessary to argue against digital imagery being truly photographic, then we must therefore argue against all mechanical reproduction of imagery. We would say, therefore, that there would be no photography books, aside from what could be reproduced by truly photographic, silver gelatin technology. This conclusion can only be arrived at by philosophical argument, and not based on the merits of technical argument.

Therefore to understand the place where internet-based argument has arrived from, we must briefly explore the sociological history of the medium, specifically in relation to the professional art industry.

The crucial phase in the decline of photography was when it first began to be recognized as a valid 'art form', to be displayed on the walls of elite galleries, along with paintings and sketchings and sculpture. The problem with being displayed in galleries, along with painting and other arts, is not the problem of being associated with other works of art; it's the fundamental problem of how elite art galleries fail to represent art to the masses. The gallery system itself seems at times to be a wall of elitism, couching concepts and terminology in the language of the university elite, rather than in terms that the common man can relate to. It is no surprise therefore that photographers would find another avenue of approaching the public with their works: the periodical magazine publication.

As stated earlier, it is no small irony that the very presence of such discussions around the subject of arcane technical processes should distract us from the bigger discussions of photography itself. For the most part, few Internet discussion forums engage their participants in deep, meaningful discussion on the merits and philosophies that are central to where photography is at this present moment. In matter of fact, merely the mention of the word 'art' in such discussions will result in a barrage of meaningless opinion as to the very meaning, or existence, of art.

A large measure of the blame can perhaps be laid at the foot of the educational system in America. Few school systems are devoted to the teaching of classic liberal arts - education for the sake of learning. Rather, most schools seem to be over-stuffed job training programs, whose sole mission is to supply the corporate workplace, or future armies, with cannon fodder.

This is perhaps the crux of the matter with regard to the higher faculties, even the spiritual, in American popular culture: ours is a culture where deep, fundamental beliefs and thoughts cannot be adequately articulated in the public forum, for we are a people devoid of any common culture and spirituality, excepting that which is commercially manufactured. We have lost the ability to commune with one another on a higher plane where we can transcend the arena of politics and the trivial nonsense that is sold to us as a cheap substitute for real culture. This metaphor of 'culture' is best understood in terms of the difference between yogurt and sewage. Both involve an environment where growth, at the smallest level, can occur. The difference seems to be whether this growth is healthy for the organism as a whole, or destructive. It is life, or mere rot?

This is a tough nut to crack, the question of how an honest dialog around the higher merits of the arts can occur in a culture mediated by the motivations of greed, selfishness and destruction. The mere fact that the instruments of such a discourse have been co-opted and manipulated into tools for global propaganda is not an easy conclusion to accept; yet the evidence is irrefutable.

In this age of post-modern nihilism, devoid of any philosophical cohesion and unity, perhaps the one thing that artists and like-minded individuals can agree on is that art, as part of a larger culture, is under siege and captivity by a global fascism, that threatens to enslave the planet under an archipelago of connected imprisonments, built around an axis of corporate and state power structures, that deny the individual of value, meaning and identity. If there is to be any future 'art movement', it will be in opposition to this current system of global control, of which the digi-nazis and artist-elites are a part.~


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