The digital... print?

April 11, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Last week I came across this quote in Gerry Badger's The Pleasures of Good Photographs: “He [Robert Adams] is not a photographer of gray days and gloom, and he prints toward the higher (lighter) end of the black-and-white scale. High-key is the old-fashioned term for it. It is a particular feature of American photography, in contrast to the moody printing of much European photography.” I was struck immediately by the realization of two facts: when I read about art, I typically look it up online and have never seen it in person, and that my own art exists largely in the digital realm. This is not to say that I don't appreciate the subtleties of a good physical work of art: in fact, the beauty of a masterful photo print and the textures of graphite and paints were important catalysts in my artistic development. It simply hasn't been necessary for me to print anything in years. My concern is that when a paradigm shift in presentation occurs (and I believe it has), a parallel shift must occur in the way I think about and talk about the work, or I'll be missing crucial opportunities to innovate.

I posted a series of images to my Instagram feed a few weeks ago, a vertical “selfie” panorama chopped into five posts, each with a section of a quote about the photograph as a record of existence for ordinary people. I timed the posts so that viewed chronologically scrolling “down” in the feed (as I assume most people do), the quote read correctly. If viewed any other way, such as out of order due to the new Instagram algorithm, or one at a time on my profile, the piece loses it's impact and some of it's meaning. In the mode of performance art, that piece can be analyzed after the fact, but will never be experienced as intended again. It is no less a piece of photographic art for all that, and is just one example of a new system of presentation that begs consideration.

I've also noticed that Instagram applies a subtle color shift during the upload process, and when I link an image to Facebook, the resulting picture is noticeably more dull than the original. Which, then, is the piece of art? I consider the file I have saved in my archive to be the definitive copy, but most viewers are seeing a different version, not to mention the infinite variations in screen types and color calibrations! Without a printed edition to render all digital files mere “reproductions”, either version could be considered legitimate, or I could produce a new version later and further confuse the issue. This distinction is important because in the contemporary art world, artists, galleries, and collectors are still functioning with the mindset of the old painters and photographers who made a singe piece of art or an edition of a small number of prints, and allowed the limited supply to imbue value upon the works. With digital files, artists struggle with the potential to print a limitless supply of any image, and on dozens of substrates. Specialty reproductions used to be custom print runs at great cost per piece, and now anyone can purchase a photo printed on stretched canvas (or a coffee mug, for all that the substrate matters) from their cell phone. This availability makes the art worthless from a traditional supply/demand standpoint, and with the exception of online advertising, commercially worthless as well.

I'm aware that many artists (photographers in particular) fetishize the process, whether that involves buying and using newer, more expensive gear, or limiting themselves to cameras, film, and development procedures from a particular era, or even the modern-day digital processes, where dozens of images are transformed into a single, seamless, fantasy landscape. I think in part this is common to our media because of the vast array of equipment available to photographers, more so than painters, for example. I'm as guilty of this as anyone, excusing myself only by writing the gear choice into a project as an important element of the narrative (Highway Parks). Glorifying the equipment for it's own sake is a waste of time, and further, I think that the processes (eg: black-and-white darkroom work, or physical prints period) shouldn't be considered as requirements for the existence of a piece of visual art. The perfect proof of this is video art, most of which is designed to be watched on a screen. The piece has never, and will never exist in a physical form (causing no end of headaches for museum archivists, I'm sure).

My generation and the one immediately following, known colloquially as the Millennials, are the world's most prolific photographers and storytellers. The social media faces that we present to the world are largely fabrications of our best selves, elements of fractured and confused identities trying to find success, acceptance, and happiness. Every generation repeats this process, but those in the past have never had the opportunities to disseminate their stories like we can now. Every kid on Instagram is an artist, every student posting weekend tales on Facebook is a fantasy novelist. The temporary, malleable, and archive-able nature of these methods of presentation are new, strange, and important. When we relinquish our art into these digital realms of presentation, we are willingly sacrificing a tremendous amount of control over the viewers experience, in exchange for a larger number of total viewers.  


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