Of course, the camera is not obsolete. But the role of the camera in photography, along with the nature of photography itself, is changing. I missed this article in the Times last January, The Next Big Picture: With Cameras Optional, New Directions in Photography (New York Times, January 23, 2014. Registration may be required.)
The Times article reviewed a new show (unfortunately, now closed) at the International Center of Photography in New York City, What is a Photograph?
I missed the show, as well, but having just come across the Times review, I think it addresses a fundamental question in art photography today. It is a question that has been on my mind. To quote from the Times:
Organized by ICP Curator Carol Squiers, What Is a Photograph? explores the intense creative experimentation in photography that has occurred since the 1970s. Conceptual art introduced photography into contemporary art making, using the medium in ways that challenged it artistically, intellectually, and technically and broadened the notion of what a photograph could be in art.
The shift of focus from fact to fiction, and all the gradations in between, is perhaps the largest issue in the current soul-searching underway in photography circles. Questions swirl: Can the “captured” image (taken on the street — think of the documentary work of Henri Cartier-Bresson) maintain equal footing with the “constructed” image (made in the studio or on the computer, often with ideological intention)? (*)
The line between traditional photography and digital image-making is becoming blurred (or, if you accept the premise of the images in the ICP show, more or less demolished.)
(These images from the ICP show.)
My work, at least recently, is much closer to the traditional end of the spectrum than most of the constructed digital images in the ICP show. But I still wonder about the role of digital manipulation and what it says about the aims of photography. My images are extensively manipulated post-capture more and more. I don’t hesitate to go well beyond raw conversion, tweaking exposure, or correcting color. I am interested in bringing out textures, shadows, relationships between light and dark and color, that lead the viewer to see the scene in a new way, often seeing what is unseen with the naked eye. At present, I still feel bound to the original scene as a foundation, still approaching post-capture manipulation essentially as a matter of enhancement, even if extreme at times. But I wonder if it has to stay that way in order to be called “photography.”
The dichotomy between the captured image and the constructed image, mentioned above, is actually a very wide continuum with a lot of overlap. One way to look at this is to reason that if an image starts with capture by a camera, then it’s a photograph, and the end result of the creative process is still a photograph, no matter what or how much post-capture processing or engineering is carried out. That’s my view. Not all photographers agree. But if the end result is not still a photograph, what is it? That is, a work of photographic art can be both captured and constructed. Again, that’s my view.
But how do we classify works such as those illustrated here and at the ICP show site? These are, in fact, more than mere digital constructions. For example, Travess Smalley’s works are assembled as collages, scanned, converted to jpegs, printed. There is a physical presence just as with a traditional photographic print. I have always believed that what the camera produces is just one of the raw ingredients of creating a photographic image. If the elements are produced by means other than with a camera, can it still be photography?
I think it is good for photography, for art, and for photographers that contemporary photography is an art form using “the medium in ways that challenge[d] it artistically, intellectually, and technically and broaden[ed] the notion of what a photograph could be in art.”
Red Dahlia II. Shot in 2012. Extensively manipulated in Photoshop, along with Lightroom and Nik Viveza, involving a lot of color manipulation. This isn’t exactly as the eye would see a dahlia, and we can’t exactly say it’s just enhancement either. But the created image – which is designed to explore the sense of wild abandon of the flower – nevertheless embraces elements that may register on the viewer unconsciously and that contribute to the whole image.