Digital eye

Digital technology is the biggest revolution in photography since the invention of the camera, and for many artists and photographers this format provides an opportunity to create startling work, says Yolanda Zappaterra

The emergence of photography as an accepted art form is witnessed in the prevalence of prestigious art awards, such as the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize and the Jerwood Photography Awards, and the appearance of photographic pieces by artists as diverse as Roni Horn and Alexander Rodchenko in major Tate shows. But this belies the fact that, as a medium, photography is still evolving. Fashion photographer Rankin recently recreated key fashion photographs from the ages, in BBC Four’s Seven Photographs that Changed Fashion. This not only highlighted that there’s no single recipe for photographic genius, it also drew attention to the fact that digital technology has changed the way many images are made, as well as how they are perceived. But are innovation, experimentation and new directions in photography in danger of being lost in the huge take-up of that digital technology?

Paul Ellis, creative leader at Photofusion, a gallery and photo resource centre in south London, applauds the explosion of work and the democratisation ushered in by digital photography. But he sounds a cautious note, saying, ‘Some of the fundamental skills around exposure, control and the like are maybe not being properly learnt by many, as the cameras are so sophisticated, and there is the false belief that all can be ‘fixed’ in Photoshop. Digital does breed laziness, and it also breeds lack of confidence, so photographers review every photograph on the rear LCD screen, instead of turning the screen off and just getting the image right, as once was done with film.’ Marta Weiss, curator of photographs at the Victoria & Albert Museum and a judge on the 2008 Jerwood Photography Awards, adds, ‘I see many digital prints that I find less than satisfactory, but I think the technology is improving all the time and printing techniques will get better.’

Brett Rogers, director of The Photographers’ Gallery and non-voting chair of the judging panel for the Deutsche Börse prize, also sees little cause for concern. ‘Studio-based practices may still combine new technologies with old techniques, creating a myriad of hybrid kinds of working that take the best aspects of analogue and digital. Artists and photographers may shoot on medium-format film, but print digitally, or use digital files to produce silver gelatin prints,’ she says.

Photographer Melanie Manchot is an artist who exploits the advantages of digital in such a way. ‘I view work digitally, prior to analogue printing, as this allows me to test the image’s possibilities more easily, and with less expense,’ she says. As a photographer, she is ‘not just interested in how photography is changing, but also how a change in photographic technology will affect subjectivity and its representation’. For her, concerns around the difference between analogue and digital are bound up in the mental attitude towards the process of image-making. This process can change ‘as a result of the way you view test images, for example via a screen rather than a Polaroid,’ she says. ‘What I am getting at here is my belief in the importance of mistakes and the motivating force of not knowing what you’ve got. Personally, I know I work much harder and keep playing and pushing myself so much more because I never know for sure that the image I am hoping to make is “there”, ’ she explains.

Manchot identifies another technological move that could well show one of photography’s future directions. ‘One of the interesting sidelines of the exponential increase in digital photography is that it may, over time, affect or indeed alter the relationship between photography and video, as those are viewed increasingly on the same screens, and some elements of photography are losing their objecthood in the process,’ she says.

This is something Ellis is interested in too. ‘The Red camera can capture moving images at 24 frames per second (or more), but those frames can be frozen and each frame is a minimum of ten megapixels, eliminating the need for a stills camera. It suggests the future still image would actually be a frozen moving image, and the whole notion of the decisive image is gone forever. Of course, moving images have always been still images, generally at 24 frames per second, but to have an affordable digital camera capable of this is a first, and revolutionary,’ he says.

With such interesting issues raised by digital technology, Ellis sees little room for concern about a loss of innovation in contemporary photography. ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson today would have a high-definition camcorder (preferably a Red camera), a quality Bluetooth/wireless microphone and a laptop with Final Cut. He could go pretty much anywhere in the world, shoot and edit on location, and send back his data,’ he says.

Rogers sums it up by saying, ‘In a broader cultural context, the print industries are experiencing huge challenges as more and more people shift their photographic work to digital. But the print, both as an object and a way of experiencing the image, still remains of central importance to many artist/photographers and viewers, as a way of experiencing photographic work. Artist/photographers will always find ways of pushing the boundaries of any medium, in ways we cannot predict.’

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