Thursday, September 1, 2011

When is a photo not a photo?

How much digital manipulation does it take to change a photograph
into something that’s not a photograph?

The essay at the end of this one, Computer-Manipulated Imagery, is it Photography? was first published 14 years ago in LensWork Magazine.  It’s included here for reference if you want to read it.  My intent was to inspire a debate that would lead to some definitions in the new art-form of ‘digital art.’  But no one took up the challenge.  (Perhaps LensWork Magazine isn’t widely read?  Or maybe their readers weren’t up to the intellectual challenge?).  The essay was also included in my 2009 book, Photographic Memories, but as no one has yet contacted me with any definitions.  I don’t think my writings are widely read, so I don’t have much influence, but now in 2011 I feel it’s rather problematic not having any definitions of this new art form of Digital Art.

I can’t believe that no one, especially those exalted intellectuals at our finest Art Schools, hasn’t tackled the subject and tried to define Digital Art as something new and separate from photography, but I’ve never seen any evidence they’re even thinking about the question.  Maybe they’re too dumb, too afraid or just don’t care, but now, in the second decade of digital imaging we really need some answers to the question.  Here’s the question at its most basic, as I overheard it in a gallery recently:

“What the fuck is this?”

He’d responded positively to the imagery but was confused about the medium.  Like all art patrons he had an expectation.  We all expect paintings to look like, well, paintings.  We expect sculptures to be three-dimensional.  And we expect photographs to look ‘real.’  This poor guy is standing in the gallery and the piece he’s confused about is hanging on the wall, it’s essentially two-dimensional wall-art and he knows it’s not a sculpture.  It’s not on canvas and he sees no brushstrokes or anything to indicate it’s a painting.  The artwork is presented matted and framed under glass, like a photograph, but there are parts of the picture that, although photorealistic, clearly are not photographs.  He likes the imagery, the subject matter and its treatment, but as for the medium, the thing itself, he’s confused and asks, “What the fuck is this?”

It’s Digital Art, something new but still somewhat familiar.

Some digital art is a lot like photography.  Digital artists use photographs in innovative, non-photographic ways like cutting and pasting and recontextualizing the imagery.  ‘Photographs’ are no longer the end-goal of digital artist ‘photographers’ who don’t view the photograph as final expression, but rather, source material for new artworks that can only be realized digitally.

C’mon you brilliant gallerists, museum curators and art educators with your incredible authority, can’t you weigh in?  Fourteen years ago I asked the question and you’ve yet to make a statement.  Hey gang, I make the art and I try to define it, but no one gives a shit what the artist has to say, the public is waiting for you, with your art-authority, to say ‘this is what Digital Art is, and this is why it’s different from photography.’  Has the cat deconstructed your tongue?  Or, are you afraid to make a definitive, declarative statement because that would somehow put you ‘at risk?’ 

Why am I out on a limb, all by myself, saying, “This is digital art!  It’s not photography, it’s different, it’s like photography, but it’s not photography?”

By not defining what Digital Art is, digital artists are relegated to ghetto dwellers.  We have no place to show our works (except online, but online art galleries lack credibility).  Our works don’t look like photographs so the photography galleries don’t know what to make of us.  And we’re shunned by the other galleries for the same reasons as photographers were.

In my essay, Computer-Manipulated Imagery, is it Photography? I put forth a definition:  Any still image that owes its existence to digital generation or manipulation that could not be realized in any other way without the use of a computer is considered a cybergraph.  “Cybergraph” never caught on so let’s use the term “Digital Art.”  And I challenge all the ‘experts’ to come up with a better definition!  It’s way past time for you ‘experts’ to get off the bench and say something.  If you can’t come up with a better definition than what I’ve offered then co-opt it and then get on with the business of accepting, displaying and promoting Digital Art as a separate art form!

Read this essay from 1997 for more definitions…………………….

Computer-Manipulated Imagery
Is it Photography?
With digital-imaging it’s getting harder to even define
exactly what a photograph is.  This is an attempt to
define the new medium of digital.
(Originally published by LensWork Magazine, Fall 1997)

In the world of art there exists a collection of terms and classifications that are used to define, include, exclude, characterize, designate, identify, pigeonhole and otherwise grasp, or confuse, art and its many flavors.  Photography is but one sub-category of artistic expression.  Now, with the advent of the digital-imaging workstation within the studio and photo-lab, photography seems to be witnessing a revolution.  Computer-generation and manipulation of photographic imagery has been around since the 1960s.  By the 1970s a small market had developed for computer-generated imagery despite equipment that was bulky, slow, astronomically expensive and available only to a few.  In the 1980s the amount of computer-imagery grew tremendously as did the availability of good equipment at somewhat less than exorbitant prices.  By 1985, in photographic circles, digital imaging was the in trend despite a limited and confused marketplace.  Now, in the mid 1990s, if you believe the popular and trade press, film may be dead, and if you’re a photographer without a digital-imaging workstation on your desk you’re an archaic, outmoded and non-competitive dinosaur.  Is the digital revolution truly the evolution of photography, or is it something else?

Most digital imagery is not photography.  All art forms are branches of a single tree called Art and Cybergraphics[1] is a new limb growing from the branch called photography.  Currently this is a point of great confusion.  Photographers have embraced cybergraphics as their own, and, even though the majority of cyber-artists came to the medium from photography, sculptors, painters, illustrators and other artists have also embraced this new medium.  Artists who have come to cybergraphics from mediums other than photography have not really made a big deal of it; to them it’s just another medium.  Photographers, on the other hand, feel compelled to include cybergraphics as photography because the new medium shares some photographic characteristics.  Those photographic characteristics are specifically: image-capture and image-realization, or to put it in more common terms, input and output.  In general terms cybergraphic imagery is accomplished in three distinct steps: inputting of captured imagery (scanning), image-processing, and output.  Input or digitization of imagery converts pictures (often from photographic film, but not limited to) into digital information recognizable by the computer, the cyber-artist (photographer, painter, whoever) then uses the computer-tool to manipulate the imagery however they see fit, and finally the completed cybergraphic is output (often to film, but again not strictly limited to).  Because the usual process is commonly accomplished in a film-in, film-out fashion, photographers think it is photography.  It is not.

Cybergraphics cannot be construed as photography any more than painting or illustration can.  You’re probably thinking, ‘but I don’t construe painting as photography.’  Of course you don’t, that’s because your major point of consideration is the middle part of the process, which is the part that should be considered.  Think about this: some painters and illustrators use photographic reference.  They may photograph or appropriate photographic elements that they use as a foundation or starting point for their paintings or illustrations.  Often they “input” their photographic reference by actually tracing it onto their canvases or paper, or they may simply visually refer to it during the painting or drawing step.  Finally, especially in cases where the work is to be reproduced, the completed illustration or painting is often photographed (output) on film.  The resulting film images are often used in portfolios, used as marketing or advertising tools for the artist, or supplied to color-separators.  This too is a film-in, film-out process, yet photographers make no claim to it.  Regarding cybergraphics, it’s what happens in the middle, the creative act, between input and output, which defines the (new) medium.  All the different mediums of art can be defined by the processes and tools used to create the finished piece of artistic expression.  Painters primarily interact with paint, brushes and canvas; musicians with sound and musical instruments; dancers with the body and motion; sculptors with clay, metals, etc.  Photographers primarily interact with cameras, lenses, chemistry and film.  If you’re interacting primarily with a computer to bring forth your art, you are not a photographer; you’re something else, a cyberartist.

Process does determine the art form.  In the 1960s when the photomontage (not to be confused with collage which is an altogether different thing) was popularized, it was a new and non-realistic kind of photograph which caused critics to proclaim “It isn’t photography.”  To them the photomontage was not photography because it was non-representational and not “straight.”  They were mistaken.  Those photomontage images were produced through the photographer’s interaction with the pure photographic process.  Those images may have been created (and still are) by the non-traditional uses of the enlarger, slide-duplicator or chemistry, but the majority (if not all) of the equipment and supplies used to make those images came from the camera shop.  You may use a camera and you may be an accomplished photographer, but if a computer is required to make a specific image then the result is not a photograph, it’s a cybergraph.

Not included in cybergraphics is the simple retouching of photographs.  Retouching is an accepted form of traditional image-enhancement and has been since the inception of the photographic medium.  How much retouching is acceptable is still open to debate, even in the 1800s some heavily retouched and hand-tinted photographs were considered more art (painting) than photograph.  Regardless, the spotting brush and retouching pencil predates the computer.  Also not included in cybergraphics is the collage.  Although a collage may include photographic elements and may be rephotographed on film, they are neither photographs nor cybergraphs because the imagery is constructed through cutting and pasting.  This shouldn’t be a point of confusion anyway since the collage is already an accepted, distinct art form in and of itself.  Cutting and pasting done with a computer is a cybergraph only if the end result could not be accomplished without the computer.  Cinema and video are not included in cybergraphics because they are not still images, and they are already recognized as separate art forms.  Other digital imaging technologies, such as the MRI for example, are also not included since they are not construed as art or self-expression.  Maybe someday someone will make a MRI for purely aesthetic, self-expression reasons, and then it would be a cybergraph.

What is considered to be a cybergraph is simple and fairly obvious.  Any still image that owes its existence to digital generation or manipulation that could not be realized in any other way without the use of a computer is considered a cybergraph.  This includes computer-generated imagery and any other non-lens imagery which relies on software to exist.  Cybergraphics is actually pretty straightforward for the viewer who considers process as a component of artistic expression.  But beware, you can be fooled!  Things are not always as they seem.

Nothing is as it seems is a good maxim for the consideration of computer-manipulated imagery at this epoch of art, photography and technology.  Reality, representation, expression and Truth are at a crossroads due to technology.  Technology is an irresistible force which will not slow despite confusion, categorization, ethics, law, fear or anything else.  Despite technology or because of it, art will be made because it can be, in any way, shape or form, with any tool.  If this is confusing, don’t worry about it.  It will all be sorted out eventually, that much is inevitable and absolute.  The human animal categorizes everything, it’s our nature, and it’s how we understand things.  If art is a tree with many branches defining each distinct artistic medium, then we should welcome the new growth.  Cybergraphics is a new branch; it may have grown from the branch of photography, but it is something new.  It is not photography although it shares some of photography’s characteristics.  Once we understand that we’ve got something new here, cybergraphics will emerge as a new and distinct art form with its own beauty, pleasures and perils unto itself.  The silver image is not dead.  (It could even become more valuable.) Photography is not headed for extinction; it has witnessed a birth.

Postscript 2009
A dozen years later, in 2009, there is still no term that accurately describes the digitally-manipulated image.  I’ve come to use the term Photo/Digital.  It’s the most accurate and honest term I can think of that describes my Photos as Digitally altered.  Digital still lacks a historical reference point, but in time I’m sure it will become its own art-form with its own label   --maybe.

[1]There needs to be a name for this new art form, some term that describes it the way photo-graphy describes light-pictures.  Cybergraphics sounds pretty catchy, but it’s a made-up word.