The annual Atlanta Celebrates Photography Photo Festival is just around the corner. In October a number of galleries will host a diverse collection of artists’ works while a series of discussions and lectures will bring up relevant critical issues in contemporary photography. In anticipation of being in the presence of so much great photography and photographic theory, I’ve been mulling over some of the effects that the digital age has had on our interactions with the photograph. As I gear up for ACP, I realize that I’m most excited about being able to behold actual photographic prints—an experience that I feel has been neglected with the advent of the Internet and social media.
A majority of the photographs we view today are on some type of screen. Whether on a photographer’s personal website, on one of the many social media photo sharing sites, or on a computer or other device, our interactions with photography come through a digital screen. This is a relatively new phenomenon that has only really taken over within the past decade as the result of the rapid advance of digital imaging technology and the giant increase in bandwidth speeds. Not too long ago, to view images online would take at least a few minutes (good grief, minutes!) of browser loading time before you could even glimpse the photo. Photographs were the downfall of a website; too many photos and the page would timeout or crash the browser. But now, with exponentially faster network speeds, photographs have come to define the aesthetics of web design, while wireless networks have allowed us the ability to access images almost instantaneously from the moment of capture to its display on the world wide web.
In a previous article, I discussed the effects of cell phone cameras on the practice of photography and how it closes the gap between the moment the camera captures the image to the moment the photograph is shared online. This collapse of time has been a boon for new photographic technology; however, an essential part of photography, in my opinion, begins to fade as Tweeting and the use of programs like Insta.gram take over how we view photographs. Namely, I’m concerned about the fate of the photographic print. I am worried that photography as a general practice will one day become completely disconnected from the print as an object. Sure, photography, as an image making process, will still exist, even if the technology changes; but, I am concerned where the print will fit in or if it will continue to exist at all. For, certainly we lose something in the transition from the print to the screen.
The comparisons made in rephotographic projects between old photographs and new photographs work as an apt metaphor for the digital revolution that photography has undergone within the past 20 years or so. In James Elkins’s What Photography Is the author compares two photos of the same scene, one from 1872 and one from 1979: “…at last it dawns on me, that nothing is the same.” Elkins is speaking of Mark Klett’s Rephotographic Survey Project, where Klett seeks out some of the first images of the American landscape and tries to recreate the photographs a century later. Elkins has selected two images of the same rocky cliffs and ridge lines to compare from this project: one from Timothy O’Sullivan in 1872 and the other from Mark Klett in 1979. After staring at these images and enlarging the details, Elkins comes to the conclusion that what appears to be so similar at first, completely falls apart with the smallest amount of heightened scrutiny. The photographs show the viewer the same thing, but the photographs also include signs of difference; loose rocks have found new positions, the ridge line has slightly eroded over the past century, and plants have grown or changed locations. Occasionally, Elkins will find something similar between the photographs, but he ultimately decides that “nothing is the same.” Similarly, while photography on the digital screen may seem the same (the same subject at the very least) there is something inherently different about viewing photography on a screen versus looking at a print in a gallery or holding an image of a loved one in your hands. Regardless if the photo is a wallet-sized print with bent corners and faded colors or a fine art silver gelatin print preserved to the utmost archival standards, on the screen there are certain qualities of the photograph that are sure to be lost.
Divorcing the print from photography could have disastrous effects for how we conceive of photography. For example, without the print, we are left with thinking that what is displayed on our computer or mobile device is the true representation of the photograph. This leads to false impressions of the photograph; color, brightness, scale and other idiosyncrasies that the photographer may intend are lost when digital screens subsume the print. The photographer has no control over how their images will look from screen to screen, even if they spend hours tweaking the images in Photoshop. In the end, each display will take on its own tint, hue, saturation, etc. Think about when you go to a friend’s house and look at their TV; people may look green or red, clarity may be different depending on the quality and age of the TV, or it may take on a different aspect ratio. Now imagine this happening a million times over. Compare the image on an old CRT computer screen to an Iphone or to the most advanced HDTV. Without the print, the photograph is an ethereal idea of what something might look like. Only the print solidifies the photographer’s intentions; only the print locks in and preserves what that image will be like into the future.
Additionally, if the print goes away, the emotional connection to the image becomes less tangible. Roland Barthes, in his seminal book on photography theory Camera Lucida, argues that photographs hold a unique strain of emotional resonance, and that these connections can be individualized and personalized depending on the type of photograph and the subject within the image. Barthes focuses on one particular photograph of his recently deceased mother which holds a special power over him; it helps him recall his mother from the past. Even though Barthes delves into this emotional connection more than the printed photograph, the way in which he interacts with the image of his mother can only occur via the sorting and handling of printed images themselves. Without being able to touch, hold, pile up, or discard prints, Barthes’s connection to the image would be flimsy. These tactile connections to the photograph link Barthes to the subject contained within the image, just as family photo albums link new generations to old. I cannot imagine that DVDs or CDs of photographs will be treated the same way that family photo albums have been used in the past. Only prints can be held in this regard.
Furthermore, if we lose printed photography, we lose entire industries. From fine art photography to commercial photography, if the print disappears, then the tangible product of photography vanishes. Galleries and museums would have nothing to present, or at least only display “photographs” on digital displays. Commercial photographers would have no product to sell their clientele except digital images on DVD, CD, or more recently, little USB flash drives. This is already occurring in the book industry as the recent closing of Borders book stores signals the eventual collapse of all printed material in favor of eReaders and mobile devices.
I’m not trying to say that the Internet and digital photography will ruin photography. In fact there are many benefits to digital display. For a quick run down of those benefits, check out Jennifer Schwartz’s project The Ten which utilizes an internet only format for selling fine art photographic prints. Schwartz responded to a lot of these concerns in the form of a blog post where she asked people from the photography community at large to comment on the relationship between photography and the Internet.
Perhaps my concerns about loosing the print are a reflection of anxieties over my own work. My work focuses on blurring the line between what photography is and can be in the digital age. I take instant analog film (otherwise known as Polaroid) and create images by exposing the chemistry in the integral film packets without the aid of the camera. What I get are intensely abstract images which I then scan into digital data so that I can print the images large scale. Viewing the images online, however, only show the images as small, normal sized SX-70-style pictures. When you confront the image outside of the digital environment, the scale and details come into focus to offer abstract elements that cannot be conveyed on the digital screen.
Even though there are many benefits to the widespread dissemination of images via the Internet, my concerns lie in the thought that it might one day completely wipe out the photographic print. But one way to ensure that photographic prints continue to thrive is to support programs like Atlanta Celebrates Photography or any of the other local photographic organizations in your community. So when you hear about a gallery show that interests you, go see it, and consider purchasing a print. If you have a photographer take professional pictures of you, buy prints in addition to the digital images. Otherwise, one day, those precious prints may completely disappear.
Atlanta Celebrates Photography is responsible for a number of engaging programs, including its annual ACP Photo Festival, which will include events in and around October. For more information check out ACP’s soon to be released Festival Guide.