Saturday, December 22, 2007

Photo/Byte Editorial, Susanne Holschbach

The oldest in the succession of new media, photography, continues to maintain a central position—both in the field of art as well as in the sphere of mass media. This is why its technological conversion from analog to digital, which began over 20 years ago, triggered off a fierce debate amongst photography experts and media theorists. There was talk of a ‹photographic revolution,› the ‹death of photography,› of the ‹dawn of the post-photographic age.› The emotional charge of this debate clearly shows that this is more than just an issue concerning the simple substitution of one technical process by another: With the arrival of chemo-optical photography, the values and myths of the photographic itself also seemed to be at stake—in particular the ‹promise› of not only being able to represent reality, but also of being able to verify it. In the meantime, this technical transformation has permeated our everyday lives. More digital than analog cameras are already being sold in the consumer area; major photographic processing laboratories are being closed down or are converting to prints from digital data; the advance into the area of mega-pixels is also making digitalphotography relevant for professional photographers. The examination of questions of technical detail, such as e.g. the securing of electronic image databases or the standardization of storage formats for the so-called ‹raw data› of a digital photograph, are replacing speculations over the social consequences of this media upheaval.

The thematic module «Photo/Byte» starts out from the fact that photographic practice has already changed, which the individual contributions will illustrate using concrete examples. The artistic sphere as well as the private, journalistic and archival working methods of photography will be examined. Following the subsiding of the first wave of agitation over the disappearance of analog photography, the aim is to enable a temperate interim appraisal of the significance of photography as art and as a medium under the sign of the digital. The advantage of digital over analog photography lies in its ability to be connected to interlinked electronic media: Digital photographs can be processed directly on the computer and distributed via the Internet. Once they have been integrated into the graphical interface of the screen they can be placed into any number of intermedial relations, i.e. linked with text, icons, sound, video streams, etc. As demonstrated in the text by Susanne Holschbach, the precursors to these multi-media options can be found in the coupling of photography and print media. In view of the «Continuities and differences between photographic and post-photographic mediality,» which the text of the same name illustrates from a historical perspective, the most recent technological transformation in photography thus proves to be less a radical break with its conventional application than a multiplication of its uses in (mass) media, i.e. those uses based on the dispositive of mechanical reproduction. The epistemological cut between analog and digital photography is the result of its chemical carrier having become obsolete. Digitalization makes the circuitous route via film development and print superfluous; however, in the same move the photograph loses its materiality—it can be instantly deleted or altered without leaving behind a trace of its original state. However, the use and the reception of photographs as documents—or rather verification of the existence ofsomething—were based on precisely that specific aspect of the chemo-optical process of irreversibly fixing the photographed object or scene as a trace of light on the photosensitive layer. The loss of this indexical materiality blankets the promise of the photograph's reality with lasting doubt. Nevertheless, journalism and shutter photography in particular still continue to make an appeal to take photographs as a strategy of authentication—new forms of communication such as taking and sending photographs per cell phone even speak for an intensification of photographic immediacy through its digitalization. In her text «Instant Images,» Kathrin Peters pursues considerations of in how far the overemphasis of the coincidental puts the status of the amateur on the one hand, and that of the professional press photographer on the other hand, up for debate: Both of them have acquired certain skills, technical know-how and aesthetic standards that are unnecessary in the immediacy of digital shooting, distributing and consuming, and which are even a hindrance to expressing authenticity and ‹realness.› Peters suspects that along with the digital production and circulation of images, the differences between high and low, between mastery and dilettantism, between gifted eye and merely ‹aiming› will become blurred; differences that have marked quality within the field of photography. Beyond this, the media difference between still and moving image becomes blurred if pictures and movies can be both created and viewed with a single piece of equipment.

Authenticity and a reference to reality also continue to play a fundamental role in artistic photography. However, at the same time documentary movements such as topographic photography regard themselves as a critical reflection of the naive belief in the immediacy of photographic realism. Documentary work is a question of attitude—towards the object being examined and in the analysis of one's own perspective—and not one of technology. The switch to digital media will no doubt transform the practices, the aesthetics, and the forms of presenting documentary photography, but not the documentary agenda as such.
Recognition of photodocumentation as an artistic movement is a comparatively late development in thehistory of photography; in the beginning photography, which wanted to be regarded as art, relied on setting a stage in front of the camera and later processing the image in the laboratory. Fantasies were lent visual credibility by means of photographic rhetoric; staging and post-processing, on the other hand, allowed photographs to develop into an allegorical reality. Electronic image processing has vastly expanded the spectrum of possible intervention in the photographic image. The text by Anette Hüsch, «Artistic Concepts at the Crossing from Analog to Digital Photography,» examines how artists specifically employ electronic image processing, in what way it finds expression in the aesthetics of the image, and not lastly, which subjects and discourses the digital images primarily deal with. While Jeff Wall makes evident that photography has replaced painting in depicting modern life, its digital processing necessarily leads to the question of from what degree of intervention the photographic completely disintegrates into electronic ‹painting.›

In the course of its history, photography has led to the accumulation of an incalculable, heterogeneous reservoir of images. Artists have accessed this reservoir from the very beginning—at first as picture copy, and finally also in order to analyze the appropriated material, to process it, to recontextualize it, to reevaluate it. This reservoir not only continues to grow with digitalization, it also makes images available that one previously at best came across accidentally or by way of one's activity as a dedicated collector. However, of central significance is the transformation the image archive is undergoing through its transferal into the non-locality of digital networks. The text «Archive—post/photographic» by Jens Schröter looks into the conditions and the consequences of digital image databases. He examines the paradox of the potential endurance and mechanical impermanence of digital data, of the general accessibility of electronic image archives, and the actual limitations of their use. Not lastly, with the distribution of artistic, journalistic, private, etc. photography in the Internet, the issues of copyright protection and authorship gain new explosiveness; the extended availability of images also opens up the possibility not only of conceiving of new orders of images (i.e. beyondadministratively controlled access), but also of testing them.
These thematic contributions are supplement by documenations of a lecture series curated and organized by Susanne Holschbach and Dieter Daniels at the Academy of Visual Arts Leipzig (winterterm 2004/2005) in which artistic positions and academic analyses with regard to the topic "Photo/Byte" were presented and discussed.
© Media Art Net 2004

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