CAPTURED IMAGES / VOLATILE
MEMORY / NEW MONTAGE
Reproduced, with permission, from the exhibition catalogue Digital Photography, co-curated by Jim Pomeroy and Mamie Gillett, SFCamerawork, Inc. (San Francisco, California, 1988).
We have observed with interest the growing presence and increasing complexity of computer pictures for almost three decades. Until very recently, access to systems capable of producing such work has been limited to governmental research facilities, large corporations or major academic institutions by prohibitive cost, limited manufacture, and esoteric technical skills required to use them. As personal computers become cheaper, more powerful, and easier to use, these tools now fall into the affordable range of many contemporary artists. Consequently, the look of "computer art" has shifted from the hype of flashy geometric logos tunneling through twirling "wire-frames," graphic nudes, adolescent sci-fi fantasies, and endless variations upon the Mona Lisa, to a rich spectrum of increasingly ubiquitous, often challenging, innovative imagery. Much of this new work is critical and self-reflexive, probing its origins and context, questioning its aesthetic, technical, and social environment as it dissolves media boundaries into newer genres, interactive encounter, and provocative, broadly-cast visions.
While much critical attention has been recently focused upon the ambivalent potential of computer-enhanced, high-resolution photo-retouching--limited to television networks, major publishers, and extremely costly graphic production studios--our primary concern in Digital Pbotograpby is to present rigorous, mature work by contemporary artist/photographers imaginatively utilizing accessible systems. Our intention is to show a variety of ideas through different forms of exposition, distribution, and engagement. In opposition to the oblique strategies of concealment employed by the media industry, most of these artists handle their ideas, transparently and aggressively, as montage.
Compared to classical art. forms, photography is a recent development. As a product of the Industrial Revolution, one of its strongest attributes has been a constant relation to invention, change, and "improvement." Its apocryphal characterization as a technical medium is based upon the qualities of continual revision supplied through industrial manufacture, relying upon an inordinate affinity for apparatus, process, and precision. Few photographers master their craft, then settledown to an unbroken career bound to specific tools frozen in format, process, and application. While some of a photographer's perpetual upgrading is market driven, much of it is motivated by convenience in use, reduction in labor, increased sensitivity, more accurate exposure, elimination of fragile plates and toxic materials, and general extensions of effectiveness (roll film, photoflash, faster lenses, and shutters motordrives, etc.). These obvious advantages are often gained at some sacrifice,most frequently, loss of resolution, tonal range, or archival permanency.In most cases, this trade-off is felt to be justified (and obsolescenceburies the evidence of contrary possibilities). The road from daguerreotype to disk camera is paved with such compromising advantages.
Digital photography will not replace 'chemical' photography anymore than photography replaced painting --but painting, and the rest of the world, did change profoundly with photography's widespread inception. As producers, these changes consciously, or unconsciously, affectthe way we work, our products, and the perceptions of our audience. Increasingly, the swarming constellations of invention, new resources, shifting economics and demographics, and political/social change combine in revolutionary alteration of our cultural landscape. Perceiving this determinate fulfillment as natural, historical, we accommodate our aesthetics, attitudes, and world views to their slightly prior existence. As a case in point, the utopian promise of electronic media was quite different from its present realization, yet that is the surround against which we must now color our expressions. The art of the last 40 years bears this out-many of our most highly regarded cultural figures are those who have been able to sense, adjust, and effectively produce within this changing linguistic. Traditional approaches endure, but are increasingly marginalized as anachronisms, excluded from relevant, timely discourse.
Beginning as crude, 19th Century attempts to imitate painting or pictorial jokes on novelty postcards, photomontage emerged in the 1920s and '30s as energetic, expedient enigmas, startling assemblages of violated quotations, and often, powerful rhetorical devices. Dada, Surrealist, Bauhaus, and Constructivist artists such as John Heartfield, Hannah Hoch, Raoul Hausmann, Alexander Rodchenko and Lazio Moholy-Nagy employed frequent usage of what Bertolt Brecht called Verfremdung, a theatrical device invoked "to make strange, alienate, or detach." These pictorial composites, deliberate cut-and-paste burlesques,efficiently placed disparate elements--industrial machines, sexual fetishes, commodity objects, political figures or allegorical, religious representations into dramatic engagement, activating ludicrous combinations incatalytic mixtures of parody and ridicule. This style of algebraic figuration often results in agitational compositions which function as rebuses --quickly read and instantly solved. As practiced by radical artists like Heartfield, photomontage became meta-photography, resonating with layers of language, association, reflection, irony, and unambiguous conclusions. Skillfully blended, these satiric constructions (or de-constructions, rather) continue to confront contradictions in the present, didactically exposing the plasticity of manipulable information. Ideally, one is stimulated and wary, informed and empowered.
Long ago completely assimilated and respectable, contemporary montage is abundantly available in advertising, humor, art, as well associal commentary. Although it can be manifested as Fine Art, unique or in limited editions, photomontage lends itself well to reproduction and distribution. Since digital information is easily copied by modem transfer, disk duplication, and other methods, computer images are equally adaptable for mass media publication or tiny, samizdat runs -- anyone with a compatible computer can print-out the material. Every receiver becomes a press. Systems such as Commodore's Amiga and AT&T's TARGA board, are also designed for video applications. With real-time digitizing frame-grabbers, video is directly scanned, reworked, programmed, and recorded into animations, slide shows, visual data bases, and titling overlays. Sherry Milner's hilarious and potent 1987 videotape, Out of the Moutbs of Babes, uses Amiga gen-locked graphics to reverberantly layer texts of historical precedent and current US foreign policy over the contrapuntal vehicle of a Ronald Reagan narrated, World War II indoctrination film.
"Digital photography" can be defined as the electronic recording of visual information such that it can be recalled, viewed, processed, transmitted, and reproduced by means of computer memory and storage. Significant to this definition is the term, digital: The encoding of information into numeric values which a computer can then process. These numeric codes are binary, base of two, yes/no, plus/minus, on/off, one and zero, empty and filled. All the computer does is to add and subtract, contrast and compare binary values, call them and store them, take them and send them. It can do this very fast, with some very sophisticated, logical arithmetic, but that's really all that it does.
Digital photography is where the "persistence of memory" meets the "persistence of vision." Instantaneous pointillism, luminescent needlepoint, stitches in time woven through a grid, lodged in a matrix, arrayed in raster. Relatively coarse, graphic, and modular picture elements (pixels) display an orderly mosaic of responsive cells. Instead of the smoothly flowing wipe of a watercolor, or the infinitely incremental chiaroscuro of tightly clumped silver halide grains in a photograph, computer pictures are highly organized maps, representing discrete quantitative values governed by the accounting processes generically known as "imaging." Yet this gridlocked discreteness allows the storage, treatment, and exposition of a unitary, and global nature impossible in the fluidic mud of "analog" gesture. And given sufficient memory, it is possible to 'capture' even this gesture within the highly resolute confinement of digital sampling. Such is the blessing and curse of this procedure -- the simplest comparison between computer systems is based on how much memory they can handle, how fast. This explains the difference between the jaggy, contrasty tiling of a Commodore 64 print-out and the exquisitely detailed Scitex renderings which invisibly shifted the Pyramids for the cover of the February 1982 National Geograpbic. It also roughly encompasses the most relevant difference between a $200 personal computer and a $2,000,000 corporate mainframe.
Easily copied (with built-in error correction), binary data disseminate quickly, without deterioration, through countless generations and transmissions. Digital images are not re-produced as much as they are re-created. There is no difference or loss in digital facsimile. As Alan Rath aptly writes..."The images are not stored, their descriptions are." In order to view (or hear) a digitized image, it must be called into being as a re-constructed entity, not as a recorded remnant. Noise and decay literally "do not compute." Limitations certainly exist in resolution, scale,and computational speed, but these fall into the familiar realm of the acceptable compromise.
Most digital photography is currently done through fixed, studio-bound component systems relying upon previously obtained images (either from video or flat, printed copy). Now, widely publicized and long-awaited efforts are tardily bringing to market hand-held still videocameras which record analog video images onto tiny magnetic disks. The images are "read" on a monitor or television and can be copied, transferred to videotape, printed, or digitized. The first release, Canon's RC-701, was priced out-of-reach ($7,000 to $30,000 per system) for most individuals, finding initial use in broadcast journalism, medical research, and law-enforcement. Casio's VS-101, at roughly $1,500, offers the first real opportunity for artists/photographers to experiment with portable electronic photography. Still video is nothing like the crystalline sharpness we're used to in standard photography, but it does offer some very attractive, and "hot," considerations: instant color images with 280,000 pixel-resolution, readily presentable (as well as printable, transmittable, tape-able, "malleable") as 50 erasable frames per two-inch floppy disk (exposed at up to 5 frames per second), from a two pound, remote-controllable, camera/playback unit the size of a Hasselblad (but cheaper). If prices drop and the technology continues to improve, still video is the next likely area for a lot of exciting new pictures.
Computers are not altogether utopian solutions, however. Chip and printed-circuit manufacture is toxic, and can be polluting. Their assembly exploits cheap labor abroad, contributing greatly to flight of domestic jobs, tax revenue, and the trade deficit. Widespread computer usage is beginning to undermine many intermediate services, such as typesetting, printing, graphic design, and jobs like audio engineers, studio musicians, clerical positions, and perhaps soon, photographers.Instead of replacing a print-oriented society, computers have become a major contribution to the choking paper tide of unnecessary information, trash, and deforestation. They are not cheap, and even if they lasted forever, their applications, peripherals, software, and support quickly obsolesce to newer products (creating even newer waste).
These tools, like all of their predecessors, are double-edged. Their saving grace seems to be that personal systems offer individuals and groups the ability to effectively, cheaply function in a world which is increasingly dominated by the proliferation and influence of pervasive and powerful technology. 'Desktop' media (photography, publishing,and video) are seductive, gratifying, and relatively economical. They facilitate ready composition and instant feedback. They resist commodification and maximize communication. As cheap media, they result in camera-ready, broadcast quality, tele-communicatible products granting creative individuals significant autonomy with a powerful leverage. Likewise, they can be interactive, responsive, expansive and leveling, encouraging dialogue, growth, literacy, and empowerment if imaginatively designed and emplaced.