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volume 12
september 2009

The malleable mosaic of digitized photography


  Review of:
  • Fred Ritchin (2009), After photography. New York: W.W. Norton & Company
by Hans Durrer
  In his latest book "After photography" Fred Ritchin takes a very optimistic view of the digitalized future of photograpy. Inspired by his thematic, but taking another stance Hans Durrer here reviews Ritchin's reflections in a more gloomy vein.

The not so good news first — this is how the preface of Fred Ritchin's "After Photography" begins:

"We have entered the digital age. And the digital age has entered us. We are no longer the same people we once were. For better and for worse.
We no longer think, talk, read, listen, see the same way. Nor do we write, photograph, or even make love the same way.
It is inevitable. The changes in media, especially media as pervasive as the digital, require that we live differently, with shifting perceptions and expectations.
Our cosmos is different, as is our sense of time. Our sense of community is different, as is our sense of ourselves. Rendered virtual, we have become the stuff of our own dreams.
If the world is mediated differently, then the world is different.
MySpace, YouTube. Second Life. Are all welcome.
It's 8:17 now. Not a quarter past eight. Not a little past the first light. We live in the abstracted integers of the digital age."

  Well, I don't. Besides, I'm not really sure that things are really so different (anyway: compared to what?) and that "we are no longer the same people we once were" (When once? In the stone age or a few years before the so-called digital age?).
  It is usually the first few sentences that do it for me, or that don't. These didn't. And so I turned to the first chapter where I read:

"Photography, as we have known it, is both ending and enlarging, with an evolving medium hidden inside it as in a Trojan horse, camouflaged, for the moment, as if it were nearly identical: its doppelgänger, only better.
Like all media, photography is a reflection of the societies that have spawned and embraced it. It can also be a powerful instigator, in both obvious and highly subtle ways, for societal and personal change. The process is dialectical, evolutionary, and largely unconscious, opening new possibilities while others are defused.
Digital photography has been configured as a seamless, more efficient repetition of the past, easier to sell to the apprehensive consumer even as it is celebrated as part of the "digital revolution" (a term that has joined the lexicon of consumer branding). Its name is intended to express massive change while paradoxically citing a medium that dates from the mechanical age. A comforting ambiguity results that, not coincidentally, abnegates our own responsibility for what we have invented."

  Okay, let me confess: I'm at a loss as to what these words mean, they do not seem to connect in any way to the workings of my mind. And so, needless to say, my interest in reading this tome quickly came to an almost complete standstill ... but then I jumped a few pages ...
2 And now the good news ... and I came across this quote by sculptor Alberto Giacometti: "One never sees things, one always sees them through a screen" and felt all of a sudden intrigued, not least because Giacometti stated this over forty years ago. Ritchin elaborates:
  "The multitudes of photographers now intensily staring not at the surrounding world, nor at their loved ones being wed or graduating, but at their camera backs or cell phones searching for an image on the small screens, or summoning the past as an archival image on these same screens, is symptomatic of the image's primacy over the existence it is supposed to depict. It is as if we have banished the actual experience and instead flattened it into a small rectangle, preferring its commodification as a picture show. It is not because it makes it more immediately "real" that we prefer the image, but because it makes it more unreal, an unreality in which we hope to find a transcendent immortality, a higher, less finite, reality."
  The reason I'm citing these sentences is that they make me think which is one of the things that I expect from a book entitled "After Photography," and they are not the only ones, for this work is a real treasure trove of interesting quotes, telling examples (the author draws from an impressively wide range of personal experience), stories, and reflections that are worth pondering. I come to that in a minute but let me first address the above quote: It indeed seems that the small screens of cell phones and camera backs are replacing the actual experience — if there is anyone looking at all, as the writer Sebastian Faulks recently (28 August 2009) remarked in the Daily Telegraph: "When I went to France for the first time, aged nine, it was exciting. French fields! A French tree! But when my children go on holiday they don't really notice the drive because they are texting or tapping." That may indeed be so, but are we really looking at these small screens, like Ritchin suggests, "because it makes it more unreal, an unreality in which we hope to find a transcendent immortality, a higher, less finite, reality"? Do we really prefer the unreal over the real? I strongly doubt it. The reason that we nowadays all concentrate on camera backs is not that "we hope to find a transcendent immortality, a higher, less finite, reality" but because most digital cameras require us to look at their backs. Anyway, most of the things we do we do out of habit and not because of we consciously choose to do so.
  "After Photography" tells a lot of relevant stories about what happened in the world of images in the past ten or so years and in so doing provides much food for thought.
  "In the digital realm," Ritchin writes, "... each image is a malleable mosaic ... The photograph, no longer automatically a recording mechanism ... the relation to the world it offers may not be knowledge or power but something like deceit." Indeed. But do we want that? As Susan Meiselas states "... technology allows us to do many things, but that does not mean we must do them." Right, yet Ritchin does not advocate deceit, he sees in the "malleable mosaic" primarily so far unexplored possibilities and argues that "... the hypertextual photo essay is a significant evolution from the linear, magazine-style photo essay. It is no longer just about looking but can be more ongoing, engaged, and potentially even helpful, with work submitted by outsiders and insiders alike. The top-down Web 1.0 can combine with a more bottom-up Web 2.0 so that a dialogue is begun between the authoritative professionals and the knowledgeable insiders." Sounds pretty good to me, yet I must admit that I have more than a few doubts that, given human envy, "the authoritative professionals and the knowledgeable insiders" will be terribly interested in such a dialogue.
3 Negotiated realities. At the end of chapter 3, "From Zero to One," Ritchin quotes filmmaker Wim Wenders:
  "The digitized picture has broken the relationship between picture and reality once and for all. We are entering an era when no one will be able to say whether a picture is true or false. They are all becoming beautiful and extraordinary, and with each passing day they belong increasingly to the world of advertising. Their beauty, like their truth, is slipping away from us. Soon, they will really end up making us blind."
  This, however, is not how Ritchin himself sees it. He writes: "In the digital environment ... the photograph is no longer a tangible object, a rectangle resembling a painting, but an ephemeral image made of tiles." He illustrates his point very convincingly, I find: "For example, a new photographic template could be devised in which information is hidden in all the four corners of the image so that those interested could make it visible by placing the cursor over each corner to create a roll-over. The bottom right corner might contain issues of authorship and copyright; the bottom left could contain the caption and amplifying comments by the photographer; the upper left could contain responses to the image by its subjects; and the upper right could give information as to how the reader can become involved, help, learn more, by providing Web addresses and other guidance."
  Great! Wonderful! I'd be all for it! The reason I warm to it so much is that in this way we would get a much more realistic picture of reality than we presently (can) have; it would be easier to see (also in the sense of "to understand") that what we term reality is essentially negotiated. Such an approach has the potential to liberate us from contexts imposed by photographers, photo editors and other context providers. But, do we want this? Do we really want, and can we cope with, even more uncertainty than the one that we experience already?
  In "Toward a Hyperphotography," as the title of chapter 8 goes, Ritchin states that "the digital photograph can be conceived of as a meta-image, a map of squares, each capable of being individually modified and, on the screen, able to serve as a pathway elsewhere." Take for instance the famous photograph by Eddie Adams from the Vietnam war that shows the execution of a Vietcong (so we are told) by Brig. Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan. If the reader clicked on the photo, "he or she could see the images that preceded and followed it. If the reader clicked on the man doing the shooting, he or she could find out that he later opened a pizzeria in Dale City, Virginia." Fascinating, isn't it? I find it difficult to imagine a more rewarding way of looking at photographs. But wait! Never heard of "unmasking photo opportunities, cubistically?" Ritchin explains:
  "In a 1994 photograph we see U.S. soldiers invading Haiti, lying on the airport tarmac pointing their rifles at unseen enemies. The heroic image supports the claim of the U.S. government that it is invading to support democracy, liberating a neighboring country from dictatorship.
  The curious reader, however, might want to place the computer cursor on the image. Another photograph appears from beneath it; it is of the same scene but from another vantage point. U.S. soldiers are pointing their guns not at any potential enemy but at about a dozen photographers who, lined up in front of them, are photographing them. In fact, the photographers are the only ones doing any shooting."
  As intriguing as I find such possibilities (I'm already a fan!), I'm not too sure that we (most of us, that is) want photographs to educate or enlighten us that there is no single truth. We sort of know that but we prefer not to want to see it. Mundus vult decipi, the world wants to be deceived, the old Romans said, and I guess that still holds true. In the case of photographs: we very probably will continue to prefer the masked photo up to the unmasked for photographs still are, more than anything else, wonderful fantasies, expressions of our longings.
  Nevertheless, to spend time with this informative and inspiring book is highly recommended; it will doubtlessly be a rewarding experience.
  2009 © Hans Durrer / Soundscapes