(AS: This entry was originally published as an article on iStockphoto in 2005. At that time, the debate over digital photography vs. film photography was just about over. I wanted to capture my thoughts on the transition and how I saw photography evolving. I think I was spot on when I said the future of photography lay in the “dwindling gaps between you and I”—i.e., photography will be a pervasive part of how we communicate and relate daily on a personal level.)
I attended a discussion panel recently at the Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD). The event was part of the Exposure 2005 photography month activities. Post-secondary photography educators from four universities and colleges in Alberta and British Columbia discussed the future of photography education with respect to analog and digital photography. The panel and participating audience members touched on several thoughts I have had about the digital revolution. The following essay is a distillation of those ideas.
Photography has always been closely tied to technology. The reliance of the medium on relatively complicated mechanical devices and physical laws is both a blessing and a curse. Through photo technology the artist achieves results not traditionally possible with more direct creative methods or simpler tools. Yet, freedom is not complete. The result is constrained by the limitations of the box, a hole through which light is focused, and the recording surface. The possibilities, though vast, are nonetheless finite. There are no purely conceptual photographs or photographers.
We are living in an exciting and turbulent time in which the technology of photography is in rapid transition. Digital image making has all but eclipsed 180 year-old analog processes. How we make photographs, even what we define as a photograph, has changed. Our conception of what photography means to our daily lives, and to our future, is in flux.
The obvious diametric comparisons of digital versus film are inconsequential. Questions which we can pose about the nature of photography Now are much more exciting. Rarely is a society afforded the opportunity to see change coming and to analyze its affect as it happens. The sheer number of images produced each day by digital means is staggering to some. Consider the countless frames of video and surveillance also recorded each day and the awesome quantity of produced images becomes almost unfathomable. Photographs have ceased to be objects and have become information.
Concerns of quality versus quantity obviously arise. Has the proliferation of digital photography resulted in an overall reduction of aesthetic quality? Unequivocally, the answer is yes. Yet, consider the heated debates about the quality of 35 mm photography at the time of its introduction. A new kind of accessible and portable photography was born. Digital imaging continues to democratize photography. So, is this (temporary) loss of quality bad for the art? I say no. Quantity is the new quality. More is the new aesthetic.
More than one photographer, on contemplating the transition from analog to digital, has remarked that with a sparse number of frames loaded in a film camera they tend to work slower. They think more before they release the shutter. Along with ideas and concepts, the act of taking the photo, and then later painstakingly crafting a print, drives the process. The work is in the front end.
Working with a digital camera is a different experience. Not from a technical or mechanical perspective (though this may be true too) but from the point-of-view of the process. Look, shoot, review, delete, repeat. Working digitally does not have to be like this, but inevitably it is. Likely more time is spent correcting, editing, cataloguing, and publishing than is spent shooting. With digital the work is in the back end.
Once created, the digital image leads a much more dynamic life. In the wild it will be copied and transmitted electronically, and be viewed by numerous individuals across the globe. The result of the digital image’s ubiquity is that we as individuals and as a society are becoming more visually literate. With digital photography, being able to read the image is more important (and more challenging) than being able to create the image.
Direct comparisons between analog and digital should be avoided lest we widen the gap between the two camps. Yet change is upon us and the aforementioned differences between analog and digital are exactly the reason for that change. In the past—in the analog world—visual literacy meant being able to read one image, being able to decipher its signs and symbols in order to derive meaning from various dyes and crystals on paper. In today’s digital world, with the multitude of images continuously created, transmitted, and then all but forgotten, visual literacy is about seeing patterns in the pixels, dots and bytes of many images at once or over time. Meaning and quality lie in understanding the effect of seeing tens of thousands of images each day and in decipher the mass of information.
Analog will never completely disappear. The analog aesthetic will go in and out of style. Photography historians will analyze the evolution of the medium ad naseum. Photographers will meditate over their art, film camera in hand, finger hovering over the shutter button, waiting.
And digital will be the future—at least until the next revolution. Soon the prevalence of the digital image will make the medium so common place that it will cease to impress. Innovation will falter. Photography will degenerate into a baroque display of surface and illusion. The next revolution won’t be flat. It will be about space—not the frontiers of the heavens, but the dwindling gaps between you and I. The next revolution will be multi-dimensional—architectural. Digital photography’s current popularity is a signal that it will inevitably be in decline—perhaps soon. But that is another discussion.