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A Different Set of Questions for a New Age

photography digital image art

J. TOMAS LOPEZ
University Of Miami

Since its inception, photography has functioned as a catalyst for change and revolution, not just in the recording of world events, but as a tool for many disciplines. One could argue that photography’s discovery has had the same impact on art, communication, and the sciences as the printing press had on the distribution of literature. The printing press at the time of its invention may have primarily been thought of as simply a tool to facilitate the reproduction of manuscripts and bibles, but what could not be predicted at the time was the impact it would have on the democratic distribution of ideas across social classes and borders that would change the perception of the world. The definitional rights of people would no longer simply be controlled by a few and books became the currency of ideas.

There is very little doubt that photography has changed the way we perceive the world. The early photographs that were made by Eadweard Muybridge (to settle a bet as to the position of a horse’s legs when full out running to confirm if they were ever all completely off the ground) established photog raphy as the definitive tool for empirical evidence. Harold Edgerton’s high-speed flash images of playing cards ripped by a bullet as well as Lennart Nilsson’s life before birth photographs revealing life and creation did not lessen that epistemology. When one considers photojournalism, modern history has been more clearly defined by photographic coverage than by the words that were used to describe the same events.

For the first time in the history of this book, the Focal Encyclopedia of Photography has included content that does not simply define chemistry, physics, or the history of photography; rather it describes the contemporary issues found in photography and the contemporary image-making processes. This section also speculates what the future trends and directions in photography may be.

From these larger concerns, I formulated a series of specific queries directed at individual professionals in the field. I chose four topics and sought writers actively engaged in the issues: photographic theory, which included modernist and postmodernist approaches; professional practices, addressing changing methods in professional photography, both in the classroom and in the studio; the process of seeing and perceiving, or decoding images toward an understanding of their function in art and society; and the hypothetical future, examining new directions in technology and their impact on photography.

For the pedagogical section I asked how the transition to digital imaging has impacted schools, faculty, and their curriculums. I queried them as to how this shift affected space, budgets, and the missions and objectives of current photo programs. Specifically I asked how the individual instructors had transitioned from silver to silicon and to briefly share their own personal transition. Margaret Evans elected to write a narrative of personal and professional considerations for the mission of education. John Kaplan’s essay addressed the issues of teaching and thinking about journalism as well as how journalistic ethics and practices changed. Fundamentally, “Are there new considerations that must be taught and instilled to this generation of image-makers?”

In the section on signs and codes I asked whether there was such a thing as photographic “seeing” and whether language or the syntax of photography was at risk in considering such a semiological and theoretical argument. Richard Zakia’s long and respected interest in the semiotics of sign systems made him uniquely qualified to address these issues in his thorough investigation.

A. D. Coleman is interested in the implications of digital on the world and the chasm between artist and audience. This gap is not just of message or meaning but also of accessibility. Does an artist working at the cutting edge of digital imaging continue to distance himself from those whose hardware/software tools are incapable of accessing? Photography in the 19th century became a tool for creating democratic multiples. Does digital technology return us to an elite world of only the haves accessing these art forms and artists?

In considering publishing/distribution Millard Schisler and Barry Haynes were asked to ponder how the digital evolution has impacted that field. New possibilities in hardware and software have made publishing widely accessible, but do these same possibilities present challenges to the future of published material? Mr. Haynes, co-author of Photoshop Artistry , releases a new edition of his manual every year (or certainly every time the software is upgraded). Has this created a modern day version of Sisyphus? Professor Schisler notes that the transition from “everybody wants to publish” to “everybody can publish” brings along an interesting conundrum: It is at once more democratic yet the economic realities of the digital divide create a new paradigm of privilege and marginalization.

Daniel Burge examined the issue of preservation. Since photographs function across so many interdisciplinary fields, the concern that they remain accessible and vibrant is crucial. Images are not to be thought of as objects placed in a time capsule, they are an essential part of the ongoing debate of culture. Formats, storage, costs, and access are in a crucial stage of development and must be considered.

Doug Manchee provides us with a practical hands-on approach to the studio of the 21st century. What should the considerations be for space, electricity, computers, cameras, and future tools. There have been suggestions that the simplicity and ease of digital image-making will make everyone a professional photographer. It has proven to be a false concept. It is and will still be necessary for master image-makers to provide excellent images for advertising, journalism, portraiture, and fine art.

John Craig Freeman is a hypermedia artist. What is that? Is it a new discipline or is it the next stage in the natural evolution of photography? Hyperlinks offer a generation that is comfortable conflating image, audio, and text in a non-linear way to resolve the interplay between form and content. Does it (or did the invention of photography itself) mark the beginning of a post-literate culture? The inclusion of a glossary of new-media terms helps the reader understand this language with its own syntax and usage.

Daile Kaplan, director of Swann Galleries, has written an essay entitled “Photography Marketplace and Contemporary Image-Makers.” She raised the possibility that photography has ascended to become a dominant medium in the art world with prices rivaling those of paintings. It is extremely difficult to visit any international art exhibit without the presence of photography and digital imaging among the celebrated displays. As photographs begin to sell for seven figures, it would seem that the future of this medium is very positive. Michael Peres and David Malin’s eassay, Science as Art , reminds us that whatever aesthetic or theoretical perspectives one may hold, it is the wonder of the image that unites the viewer in assigning definitions. Whether an image was made for scientific purposes or to explore personal angst, the object the viewer sees must engage and transport the viewer as if by magic. It may be that at this juncture, where art, science and metaphysics touch that we find our most universal pictorial truths.

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