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Picture Imperfect

New technologies often breathe new life into older forms. In this tradition, the CD-ROM presents itself as a welcome successor to the book as a vehicle for works of photographic expression. The CD-ROM offers documentary photographers and photojournalists much of what they and their predecessors have demanded and hoped for since these crafts emerged in the 1920s and 1930s.

Just look at what the technology makes possible: vast storage space for data in different forms; high-quality representation of photographic imagery; ease of combining imagery with written and spoken text; design flexibility and versatility; control by the photographer over the editorial process; an inexpensive means of production affordable by the makers of the original material; self-publishing options; varied channels for distribution; the chance for the viewer/reader to interact with the material. These have been the desiderata for documentarians from W. Eugene Smith and Marion Palfi to Eugene Richards and Susan Meiselas. In spite of this promise, what little we have so far in CD-ROMs has gone no more than a half-step past the book as a medium.

But there is plenty of potential for future growth, and three projects constitute appropriate reference points for contemplating the future of this marriage of form and content.

Pedro Meyer’s Fotografio para recordar-I Photograph to Remember (Voyager, 1991) is based on family-album photos, Meyer’s own images, and his spoken reminiscences. This account of the Mexican-born Meyer’s life with his German expatriate parents was the first photography-related CDROM to draw attention as a serious experiment in combining contemporary photographic practice in documentary with digital technology. It came out so early in the onset of this medium that many of us who received review copies did not yet have the ability to play the disc in our computers. Looked it now, it is a sweet,wry, melancholic family album cum love story with verbal captioning-little different from what one could have achieved in print by sitting Meyer down with those photos and transcribing his tape-recorded commentary.

The Deaths in Newport (Paradox Interactive, 1995), Lewis Baltz’s venture into this form, also has family-album aspects: It moves between present and past to recount a sensational 1946 murder trial in Corona Del Mar, Calif., at which Baltz’s father, a mortician, served as a key witness for the prosecution. The visual component mixes Baltz’s own images with archival material-news stories and headlines, court documents and tabloid photographs that chronicle the case. Baltz recounts the saga in a spare, dry prose. The visual design is more intricate than in Meyer’s project, with images layered and collaged. Yet the “interactive” options remain similarly minimal; here again we have what amounts to a digitized version of a conventional photo book with voiceover.

Steve Hart’s much-celebrated A Bronx Family Album: The Impact of AIDS (Scalo Publishers, 1997) won him the International Center of Photography’s 1998 Infinity Award for Photojournalism, and functions right now as the most highprofile of these experiments in digital form. Hart tracks the lives of a drugravaged, HIV-positive Puerto Rican couple living on welfare with four children between the ages of 2 and 13 in the South Bronx. You can browse the images or let them run, and jump from selected images to spoken and transcribed interview passages. Alternatively, you can listen to the full audiotaped interviews while simultaneously scrolling through the transcript. Or you can go to a screen of thumbnail portraits of the principal characters in the narrative, click on any one and get a brief synopsis of their relation to the others and their current status quo.

Of the three projects, A Bronx Family Album utilizes most fully the multimedia potentials of its technology.Yet it is still not hard to imagine it converted to book form. Indeed, soundtracks aside, none of these three projects achieves much that a printed book could not. available. The virtual humans in the latest demo footage from this work-in-progress are somewhat blocky three-dimensional figures requiring tremendous suspension of disbelief. Artist/academic Britton doesn’t mind:”It’s the Veil of Isis’-the idea that any representation of the truth by humans has to be imperfect. Like a classic statue of the goddess Isis in Egypt, all you can do is make the veil as thin as possible, and make it

What bets are missed? To begin with, the designers of these projects don’t utilize image-mapping creatively, to create links to and from various elements within an image. And, in the case of Hart’s work, mostly photographed inside the family’s apartment, there was no apparent effort to establish coherently the physical space that the family inhabits, or to move you through it imaginatively. These CDs neither propose nor allow any sequencing of their pictures other than a set chronological order. Hart’s CD, for example, gives you no way to view on one screen a cluster of all the images of any one of the individual protagonists. None of the CDs investigate hypertextual possibilities-lacking, for example, highlighted keywords to link you to particular images. And all this material is I-talk-you-listen-no questions posed, no space for the viewer’s articulated response. This is interactivity lite.

I realize that we’re still in the first decade of the interactive CD-ROM, and I don’t expect definitive pieces at this point. Indeed, I consider all three of these works successes on various levels; each offers numerous insights and satisfactions. But they could have done so as books or exhibitions; they don’t need CD-ROM.
The new medium’s capacity for a more idiosyncratic, complex, intuitive and participatory approach to narrative structure-of the sort that’s commonplace in kids’ entertainment software, and that computer users of all ages today expect as a matter of course-has been almost entirely neglected.

Why, ten years on, don’t we have a whole slew of exciting experiments-even provocative failed experiments-in documentary photography and photojournalistic CD-ROMs? When I imagine what Dorothea Lange or Margaret Bourke-White would have done with this new medium, my mouth waters. If this technology is to revitalize photojournalism and documentary photography and entice new audiences, such investigation is imperative, and the time is surely now.

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