Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Terminology Quagmire

I am slowly coming around. Changing some fundamental beliefs – perhaps it’s more accurate to say ‘preconceptions’ – about photographic art. I have been known to be opinionated about the technology of photography, being biased toward the traditional film-based formats. Like most opinions, they are usually found to be uninformed; mine certainly have been.

Several weeks ago I was the recipient of a fine art, black and white digital print, from a contributor to the F295 Print Exchange. I now have tangible, physical evidence in hand that contradicts many of my past presumptions. The print in question was made from a scan of a medium format film negative that had been exposed in a pinhole camera. The quality of the paper is what I would term ‘museum quality’; a thick paper stock, very fiber-based on the reverse side, with a semi-matte finish on the front that resembles a nice RC silver gelatin photo paper. The tonal range of the image is very subtle and sophisticated.

I am impressed.

This experience has led me back to one of the essential principles of art appreciation: each work should be judged by its own merits, and that judgment is best made when the work is experienced in person; preferably in hand. Categories, abstract notions of a hierarchy of values based on intellectual assertions, matter little in comparison to the experience of being an art participant. The work functions as a vehicle through which the artist’s intent is transplanted, via the interaction between the physical media and the participant’s senses.

This particular print impressed me with certain qualities that I would characterize as being artistic in execution.

Notice how I have, up to now, avoided the inevitable comparison between the current state of the art, and older technologies. Making images in silver gelatin does not automatically equate the creation of a work of art; the same is true with the current image making processes, and for that matter any technology of craft.

The time has now come when we see the need to make careful linguistic distinctions between these various methods of image making. Just as silver gelatin printing can be seen as a subset of a larger field of print making, so too is droplet-applied, computer-controlled printing an entirely distinct form of print making. Many examples of this technology are seen to be photographic in origin, as the original image is derived from a light-sensitive capture medium: film or electronic. But the essence of the new printing technology is not a process that relies on light sensitive materials. In that sense it is not a photographic process, unlike a darkroom produced print that would be made from an optical image projected, or contact printed, onto silver gelatin or other light sensitive paper.

I suspect a lot of the confusion over terminology is the result of the Internet, where electronic facsimile of imagery can be exchanged and discussed as if they were the art objects themselves. We have gotten so used to this form of art appreciation that we tend to lose sight of the finished print.

Terminology, the names we give to things, in large measure determine what we think, and therefore affect our relationship to the named world. The difficulty in refining our terminology is that ‘writing with light’ – as photography literally implies – can be done at the front-end of the process, using film cameras, digital cameras or scanners, or can also be done at the back-end of the process, using a transparent, image-bearing medium with which to print onto light sensitive paper a photographic image. Our problem is that both processes can be deemed ‘photographic’ in nature. What we lack is a carefully defined set of terminologies that keeps explicitly distinct each method’s peculiarities.

The language of culture has not kept pace with the rate of change in technology itself, with change occurring so rapidly that we have lost the ability to accurately describe it. This phenomenon I suspect to be at the root of the ever-present arguments over the merits and distinctions between what has been termed “digital photography” and “analog photography.”

One possible way out of the terminology quagmire is to take up a practice employed in the early days of the Compact Disc digital audio format: use a series of letters to denote whether each step of the process was analog or digital. For instance, a film negative, exposed in a film camera, conventionally processed and darkroom printed onto silver gelatin paper might be given the code letters “AA”, to indicate analog at both the image capture and printing stages. Conversely, an image derived from a digital camera, then manipulated in Photoshop and digitally printed, would be denoted as “DDD.”

Hybrid workflow can also be accurately described using this abbreviated terminology; for instance, an image from a digital camera, printed onto a transparency as a ‘digital negative’ and contact printed using a wet process would be labeled “DDA.” Or a paper negative from a pinhole camera can be scanned, manipulated and then printed digitally as a type “ADD.”

As a final note, I should mention that, while perusing magazines recently, I noticed the venerable “Popular Photography” periodical now has a subtitle: “…and Imaging.” It seems that other folks than just me have observed the need to clarify the terminology of the art of image making. In the case of Pop Photo, are we to assume that recent technological changes imply a method of image making other than photographic? Hmm, interesting. Who would have thunk that Pop Photo would make editorial assumptions that imply digital photography is “imaging”, rather than photography? Does that mean it is something other than photography?

I think that we have not yet left the terminology quagmire.


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