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Archive for February, 2010

In this essay, written in 1995, Lev Manovich explores the ramifications of digital technology and photography. He asks if such a thing as digital photography really exists, and to what extent this really differs from traditional photographic practice.

Manovich starts by referring to a range of digital innovations that have transformed the practice of image production and manipulation, innovations that would lead most people to the conclusion that the fundamental nature of the photograph has radically changed.  The aim of his essay is to question whether this is really the case, and to expose a number of paradoxes at the heart of digital photography that become apparent when we attempt such questioning. His position is that it does not – that, in fact, digital photography does not exist.

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This essay appears in Solomon-Godeau’s Photography At The Dock collection. It deals with a number of post-modern photographic artists, explaining their work, and situating it in opposition to the established canon of modernist art photography. It is deeply critical of many of the fundamental assumptions of modernist photography that would have been elaborated in the work of critics such as John Szarkowski.

Solomon-Godeau begins by noting the extent to which the use of pastiche, in the sense of the appropriation of previously existing styles and work, has become dominant in both the art world and in popular mass media. In tandem with this, much criticism has been leveled at previously sacrosanct notions of the value of originality and authorial autonomy, and many artists are using pastiche as a means of questioning and probing these issues. At the time of writing, not much of this had reached the art photography world though, where most work was still reliant on traditional modernist notions: a key one being that an art photograph functions as an expression of the photographer’s interior, a vehicle for his/her thoughts, feelings and so on. The reason for this can be thought of as an insecurity at the heart of art photography. It had only recently received full status as an art form, and having done so on the back of precisely those modernist notions that post-modern artists are currently questioning. It is therefore reluctant to abandon, or even question, those notions that were integral to the elevation to its current lofty status.

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Peter Wollen’s Fire and Ice is a meditation on time and tense in photography and cinema. It deals with issues regarding what sorts of temporal experiences can be embodied within both forms and how the viewer’s means of engagement impacts upon this. The essay was first published in 1984 but later included in Liz Well’s 2003 book, The Photography Reader.

Photography is inextricably bound up with time. A photograph stops a moment and preserves it as a fragment of the past. The moment captured is of near-zero duration and located in an ever-receding ‘then’. By contrast, the spectator’s ‘now’ is of no fixed duration – the spectator can spend as long as he/she wishes, looking at the photograph. This contrasts sharply with cinema where the spectator’s experience is of fixed duration and often only available at set times.

Wollen applies these observations to Barthes, and claims that this temporal distinction between photography and film explains Barthes’s love of photography and antipathy towards film. Barthes privileges what the spectator brings to the work over the input of the author (as evidenced for example in Death Of The Author), and hence favours a medium like photography, where the spectator is in control over the time and circumstances of the viewing of the work, over film, where that control is ceded to the author. As Wollen puts it: ‘Time, for Barthes, should be the prerogative of the reader/spectator’. The implication of this is a bias against an author-imposed narrative structure and a preference for a freer, more interpretative approach controlled by the spectator. (more…)

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John Szarkowski’s book The Photographers Eye was based on an exhibition of the same name held at the Musuem Of Modern Art in New Work in 1964. It featured the work of Friedlander, Evans, Strand and many others, and attempted to give an overview of the fundamental challenges and opportunities of the photographic medium. In the introduction to the book, he offers a brief historical overview of photography in terms of how it has evolved and how he sees it as a unique artistic medium.

Szarkowski begins by stating a core tenet of his outlook on photography which is that it is fundamentally different from other picture-making processes in that it is based on selection rather than synthesis – the photographer takes elements of the real world for his picture, whereas the painter makes the elements of his picture from scratch. This immediately posed a new creative dilemma – how can this process be used to create meaningful pictures and valid art? This question would not be answered by means of recourse to existing theories of visual art, but instead tackled by a rag-bag consortium of commercial photographers, amateur enthusiasts and casual snap-shooters, who may not have been consciously trying to answer it at all, but nevertheless have managed to evolve an aesthetic practice that defines what photography is. (more…)

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