Monday, October 11, 2010

the maddening ubiquity of digital photography (aka why we need chemigrams)

Rich Turnbull, 10.07.10_01, chemigram, 5 x 5 inches, 2010

We all know that digital photography is omnipresent, that everyone has cameras in cell phones and on their laptop screens as well as the standard issue digital camera...but just how omnipresent is the digital image in daily life? I'd like to offer a small travel anecdote. Just about a month ago I was in Istanbul in Hagia Sophia, the fantastic 6th century Byzantine church with a very complicated history, a building that I tell my students semester after semester is my favorite architectural structure of all time. (Professors allow themselves a certain measure of hyperbole to make their points.) Hagia Sophia seemed as crowded and sodden with tourists as I'd ever seen it, but of course most people were not looking at the structure or the decoration of the building, they were taking photographs (usually involving their traveling partners posed in front of marble panels or particularly fetching mosaics). This is not news, obviously. I have often described the galleries at MoMA here in NYC as hopelessly infected with the digital menace, by which I mean the incessant jockeying of tourists for photos of the paintings they rarely bother to look at after their photo is taken. In Hagia Sophia I tried to compile a small statistical sample by counting the number of flashes that went off in a single minute and I left off before the minute was through because my tally was somewhere above 150 photos, not counting anyone who wasn't using a flash and therefore invisible to me.

What's the point of all this photography? Yes, yes, I know that people like to make photographic records of their travels as a kind of visual reminder after the fact. I understand that photography is probably more democratic now than at any point in its almost two centuries old history. But how much photography is too much? When everyone can take and make pictures by the millions if not billions every year and all these photos begin to look alike and everyone posts them online so we can all see each other's vacation photos (a very specific kind of hell), has the digital camera become nothing more than a more visually sophisticated Blackberry or iPod? Is photography (like e-mail and digital music) so omnipresent that it is no more than a component of the information cloud we all inhabit and occasionally choke on?

Cameraless photography offers alternatives to this cloud and also a way for the hand to reenter the realm of the photograph. I suspect Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy knew this, also Raoul Ubac and Herbert Bayer and Pierre Cordier and Alison Rossiter and any number of photographers who worked or continue to work outside the boundaries of what we have to call conventional photography. I know that it's difficult to figure out how to talk or think about non-standard photographic images like the chemigram that I posted above, made about three days ago, and I know that whatever dialogue there has been about chemigrams has tended toward process and technical concerns, but I think it's useful to see the chemigram and other forms of cameraless photography as a means to resituate photography within the aesthetic discourse of painting. We all thought this argument about whether photography is really, truly an art form was put to rest by St. Stieglitz about a hundred years ago, but it seems like Stieglitz's division between documentary photography and art photography is again being tested, this time by the all-devouring documentary properties of the digital camera.

1 comment:

  1. I love your phrase: a way for the hand to reenter the realm of the photograph. That captures an awful lot, for me, about the sheer physicality of cameraless methods - the sharp dank smell of the darkroom, the fragile feel of gelatin - in inventing our photographic art.

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