Sunday, January 20, 2008

I think I’ll go for a walk.

Peter Plagens, in his Newsweek article “Is Photography Dead?” suggests that the ubiquity of digital tools such as Photoshop has destroyed any notion of truth in photography. Truth, however, is a tenuous term. From what I can divine, Plagens considers as his sole definition of truth the supposition that photons, projected or reflected, have struck and left their imprint upon a light-sensitive medium, be it a chemical emulsion or a digital chip. This interpretation allows for staged shots, manipulated events, and even “lies” derived from tricks of lighting, time, focus, or perspective, to name a few commonly used photographic techniques. His estimation is that a photograph is true because something was within view of the lens for whatever duration of time the shutter was open.

Interestingly enough, I’m OK with that definition, for the most part. In my own photographic explorations I have created many images that challenge our perception of reality, through distortions of time and space, meaning or light.

New York Church DoorThis is a pinhole photograph created at around 5 PM on a typical work day in Manhattan. The camera was about one foot off the ground on a tripod; the nature of a pinhole camera’s tiny aperture leads to a near infinite depth of field; the film format and shallow focal length of the camera in question do an amazing foreshortening of the foreground (in this case, a steam grate on the sidewalk); and the exposure was two minutes long, with more than a hundred pedestrians walking between the camera and the doorway while the shutter was open.

By Plagens’ definition, this photograph is truthful. I agree, but with a caveat: you could go your whole life without seeing the world like this, even if you passed that spot every day on your own commute. The distortions of time, by the long exposure, and space, by the mechanics of the camera involved, create an image that is alien to the human experience.

So truth is truth with a grain of salt. Let’s move on to the core of Plagens’ argument: that digital editing has made photography today less truthful than it has been in the past, particularly pre-1970. Why did he pick the 70’s? Perhaps because Jerry Uelsmann’s sandwiched negative and multiple enlarger techniques were getting recognition then. But in the article Plagens even mentions the Pictorialist movement that was popular from 1885 until around 1914. Pictorialists scratched and painted on their negatives to achieve personal artistic expression. Reflet du soleil, Océan n°23 by Gustave Le Gray And Gustave Le Gray in the 1860’s and 1870’s would regularly combine the sky from one photograph with the horizon and foreground from one or more others. Either approach, it would seem, dismisses any claims Plagens might make that these fabrications are a recent occurrence—he accuses digital work as being no more than painting, which is, in fact what the Pictorialists wished to achieve; and the sandwiching of negatives allowed the combination of two or more elements that need not be present at the same space at the same time. This is nothing new to the history of photography. Perhaps it is more democratic today, as the tools become more accessible, but in that regard it merely follows other instances where photographic techniques have been made available to the masses—the French government giving the Daguerreotype process to the people; or the introduction of the Kodak Brownie as an inexpensive way for anyone to own a camera.

No, I say that photography is no more true or false than it has always been. The medium has not lost its soul. Times, techniques and tastes may change, but it’s always been about capturing the image desired using the tools available, and nothing more. Plagens has missed the point: for every documentarian, there is a dreamer, and both are free to use whatever they have at their disposal to create the images that they think are important to share. The dreamer often wants to create their own “fictive” world in which to place their creations. Digital manipulation is merely another tool to achieve that goal. Likewise, if Plagens maintains that only the documentarian is truthful, such a role as photographer has not died either. There’s nothing stopping a straight photographer from releasing their image to the world unmanipulated.

—Chuck Ivy

No comments: