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The Disembodied Photograph

Photography undergoes a sea change toward the intangible

Think of photographs and you think of images: photographs in newspapers, magazines and books; photographs on billboards; photographs in your family album, desk drawer or shoe-box; photographs on your parents’ piano; photographs on your driver’s license and passport; photographs as framed posters; photographs as expensive, handmade limited-edition signed original prints in galleries and museums, or perhaps even in your own personal art collection. Which is to say that when you think of photographs you also think of things. That makes sense, because until now photographers of all sorts-amateurs, professionals, applied, fine-art-have been object-makers as well as image-makers.

As a result, we’ve become accustomed to touching, holding, carrying and passing around various forms of actual photographs. Yet, as a result of digital evolution, we now face the imminent diminution of the presence of the photograph-as-object in our lives.

I do not see this as a crisis, but rather as a sea change. It will not happen overnight, but incrementally; it will not require an either/or choice, but will offer us a both/and option. What I’ll call “physical photographs” won’t disappear; they’ll gradually become scarcer, and their production will be increasingly restricted to specific purposes and occasions. As Marshall McLuhan proposed in regard to all supplanted media, their obsolescence will both archaize and estheticize them.

After all, the rendering of photographic images for more than a century and a half in the form of paper sheets coated with a semi-precious metal was not a master plan, simply the result of the fortuitous discovery that silver tarnishes. The reproduction of those images in ink on paper, and the manifold repercussions thereof (ecological, archival, industrial, economic, to name a few), similarly followed no map, just the path of least resistance. Perhaps 95 percent of the photographs with which we’ve engaged since 1839-news photos, recording photos (like the ones the insurance company takes of your jewels), studio portraits, family snapshots, advertising pix-took the form of physical objects not because that physicality was essential to their content or function but because we simply didn’t know how to encode, store, retrieve or transmit them otherwise.

Now we do, and many of those operations will be replaced by intangible, digital alternatives in the next few decades. Which is to say that in our lifetimes we will most likely cease to think automatically of photographs as things, and engage with more and more-perhaps most-of them as disembodied images and ideas.

What can we foresee in the immediate future? Photojournalism-where the rapidity of image transmission is a crucial factor-has already begun to go digital. So has much advertising, product, and editorial photography. Post-production uses of applied photography-periodical and book layout, the printing and publishing industries-rely increasingly on digital technologies, and our latest publishing medium, the World Wide Web, is entirely electronic. Digital cameras at consumerfriendly prices have begun to compete with analog cameras for the amateur market, and analog photographers who want to explore digital uses can either buy inexpensive scanners to hook up to their home computers or else use a service such as the one provided by Seattle Filmworks, which, in addition to developing your negatives or slides, will transfer them to a computer disk or CD (24-bit color, 768 x 512 resolution) for a mere $5.95 for 36 exposures.

Even the photo booth-the most widely used instrument for self-portraiture in the history of our species-has
gone digital. In Gothenberg, Sweden, in 1994, I got from a new model of this commonplace machine a black-and-white digital printout of four versions of my face, instead of the once-standard strip of four or the more recent color equivalents. The quality of the rendering was inferior, even by photo-booth standards, but that was five years ago; I’m sure it’s improved. And there’s no reason that system couldn’t give you the images on a diskette, instead of or in addition to the printout.

These changes should proceed fairly smoothly. There is, however, one area where digitization will create an upheaval: the evidentiary function of the photograph. Digital photography does something extremely problematic in regard to that range of activities: It eliminates the unique physical record-the negative. I am
not sure that this sizeable problem can be resolved within or by this technology in any meaningful way. That raises-among other intriguing questions-this one: Can a digital photograph have any legal standing as evidence?

Within the structure of the current technologies, I’d have to say no. So I’ll venture to guess that by 2020 analog systems and materials for serious professional use will be far more expensive than their digital equivalents, and will be employed primarily by willful dinosaurs who simply refuse to change (and can afford not to), by artists and photographers who prefer to work in those forms for creative reasons, and by specialists in certain fields-documentary photographers and forensic photographers, say-who wish to generate physical negatives as unimpeachable records.

As for fine-art photography: Digital imagery has already begun to infiltrate this territory. At “The Photography Show,” the expo presented in February in New York City by the Association of International Photography Art Dealers (AIPAD), one could find at The Platinum Gallery works by Dan Burkholder, for example, who
makes black-and-white analog negatives, scans them, does digital photomontage on the computer, outputs new large-format negatives, and prints them in platinum. Others in this field use digitalization in various ways in their image-making-sometimes just to clean up problem negatives, sometimes to render them as Iris
ink-jet prints.No one in the field seems to find this at all perturbing; I’d guess that this constituency-the vendors and collectors of fine-art photography-will adapt to the digital evolution with relative ease, so long as the work remains within traditional precious-object formats.

But there will be challenges to all concerned, even in areas where the digital transition now seems to be smooth. The sharpest challenge will come with the work that’s en route, the first wave of inquiry into purely digital photography: unincorporated images, pictures meant strictly for viewing on the computer monitor or in
other immaterial forms we can currently only imagine. The logical vehicle for display of digital images-the one we might argue is inherent to the medium, differentiating it from its predecessors-is the video display terminal (VDT) and subsequent extrapolations thereof.

That’s the innovation that’ll surprise us-and it won’t restrict its impact to the territory of the fine-art photograph, no matter how broadly defined.Most assessments of the potential of digital photography restrict themselves to some variant of traditional media (the digital image output as an Iris ink-jet print on handmade Arches paper, for example) or to the confines of the computer monitor.

Yet of all the components of the computer, the VDT has been least subject to radical invention. Yes, it’s gone from monochrome to color, gotten smaller (for laptops and palm-sized PCs) and, for desktops, bigger and flatter. True, with an expensive projector you can throw a slightly degraded version of whatever’s on that screen up on the wall in a darkened room. Fact is, though, that for the past two decades, attending to anything displayed on a computer’s monitor has approximated looking at a small-to-mid-sized television set.

I expect that to change, and soon. Look for:

Paint-on VDT, some emulsionbased pixellated liquid that can be applied to any surface in any pattern and activated by attachment to a CPU;

VDT-by-the-yard, some cloth-like material that can be cut to any pattern and activated similarly, enabling you, for instance, to wear a shirt on which a programmed sequence of your family-album images is displayed;

Digitally produced holographic projection, 3-D photography, and/or some photographically generated version of virtual reality.

Prepare yourself, that is, for a wider variety of photographic images not attached to objects-or attached to unfamiliar objects. They’re just around the corner, and we can look forward to watching paradigm-shift in action as we and our culture come to terms with them.

So sit back and think well beyond photographic scrapbooks. Think about programming imagery for your eveningwear and bedroom walls, as photography detaches itself from the objects we’ve always associated it with and enters the disembodied realm of the digital.

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