Digital versus Analogue Photography

‘Digital and Analogue Photography’, panel at Queensland Photography Festival Conference, Queensland University of Technology, 8 October 2006.

As I stared more, at images of people in business suits, on picnics, in a taxi, I became frightened. I looked at the people sitting across from me in the subway car for reassurance, but they too began to seem unreal, as if they were also figments of someone’s imagination. It became difficult to choose who or what was ‘real’, and why people could exist but people looking just like them in photographs never did. I became very anxious, nervous, not wanting to depend upon my sight, questioning it. It was as if I were in a waking dream with no escape, feeling dislocated, unable to turn elsewhere, even to close my eyes, because I knew when I opened them there would be nowhere to look and be reassured—Fred Ritchin, In Our Own Image: The coming revolution in photography. 1990.[1]

This apocalyptic prediction from 16 years ago never came to pass. The ‘threat’ of the digital is now a dead issue. Nobody cares. Photography is still real. For instance, an army of self-righteous bloggers stands poised to pounce on any photojournalist who dares to apply a Photoshop tool to a reportage image. As they did to a hapless Lebanese stringer for Reuters called Adnan Hajj, sprung for not resisting the temptation to add an extra dose of theatre to Israel’s attacks on Bierut with his clone tool.

The digital has become so familiarised that one can easily imagine a 21st century Roland Barthes stumbling on a long forgotten folder in the depths of his hard drive, idly double-clicking on a half-forgotten jpeg and involuntarily being plunged into a mnemonic reverie as the file opens up.

Of course the world hasn’t ended, because photography is a social convention as much as it is a technological invention, stupid! The last decade has established that the indexical is not an immutable technological connection embedded within the photo, it is a mutable effect produced by the photo. And within the current conventions of photography the analogue and the digital are functionally continuous with each other. So now for all intents and purposes there is no difference between the two. They are no longer disjunctive, but now conjunctive.

Nonetheless the whole digital vs analogue thing isn’t quite over yet. In an article “How to make Analogies in a Digital Age” from October 117, Summer 2006, Whitney Davis suggests that, in the work of photographers such as Andreas Gursky, the digital manipulation within the realistic photographs is a direct analogy of the bland, globalised, corporatised, commodified, replicated, conformist world of market capitalism they depict. The cookie-cutter tools of Photoshop are analogous to the cookie-cutter architectural production of today’s corporate spaces. Moreover, this analogy is stitched into the world depicted — something only photography, either digital or analogue, can do!

In Australia there are a bunch of photographers — Pat Brassington, Julie Rrap or Anne Zahalka for instance — who also deliberately embed evidence of digital manipulation more or less deeply into their realistic photographs of real things. These photographs also analogise how real things themselves are ‘manipulated’: the body is manipulated by social conventions, or formed by laws of desire; nature is defined by culture; and the real is produced by artifice.

In some senses this kind of work reminds me a bit of Pictorialism. Like Pictorialists these artists deliberately leave visual evidence of their own conceptual intention on the surface of the work. Both strategies arose during a period of transition in the medium. The impressionistic Pictorialists were leaving evidence of traditional hand-crafted art techniques in order to claim a new higher aesthetic status for the medium. The digital pictorialists cling to a digital look in order to retain a still central conceptual and theoretical status for the medium. One claims for photography the prestige of the aesthetic, the other the prestige of the theoretical. Also, both groups of artists make framed or prosceniumed pictures, which need to be institutionally stabilised for a certain kind of sophisticated connoisseurial scrutiny, in order to work. If Pat Brassington’s images weren’t printed in thick pigment on rag paper, or Anne Zahalka’s images weren’t giant glossy prints, they would quickly lose their conceptual focus as theoretical objects.

Interestingly, all of these artists are of a certain ‘generation’ (my generation), they can all remember 1990, and the apocalyptic hysteria of the period. There still needs to be an echo of Fred Ritchin’s 1990 paranoia, a residual shiver of the uncanny, for their digital analogies to work. But one wonders how much longer these frissons will continue to be generated as we become even more habituated to the digital

I think younger artists are less interested in all of this — in creating a disjunctive conjuncture between the digital and the analogue. They grew up with the digital, so there is nothing to compare it to, no disjunctive ontology with which to conjoin it. But they are seeing in inkjet printing technology the potential for a whole new mobility, plasticity and mutablity of the photograph. Just as the photograph is dematerialising into the Powerpoint slide show or email attachment, they are exploring a counter-strand. Ironically they are interested in materialising the digital image, in manifesting the ‘photographic’ not as a picture, but as an artefactual event. The indexical is used as a ‘value added’ quality to the sculptural. Some examples to end with come from the ANU’s inkjet research facility.

For instance Steven Holland scanned a real 30 foot python skin, then inkjetted the image onto a sheet of paper made by gluing together the cigarette-paper thin pages of a bible, this print was then sloughed around a plaster cast recreating a simulacra of the original snake.

Rachel Kingston has made a bone-porcelain slip using, as the bone in the porcelain, the cremated remains of her deceased grandmother. One of her grandmother’s own photographs, taken before she died, is then inkjetted onto the porcelain. In other experiments she is dusting the ash onto the wet ink before it dries.

In my own work on the ACT Bushfire Memorial I used a process that inkjetted a pigment derived from automotive paint on the membrane between two sheets of safety glass annealed together in a kiln. This allowed me to install five mosaic columns of 300 full colour, full resolution images derived from community snapshots in full sunlight

In conclusion I think that this might be one of the last conferences in which there is a session on the digital and the analogue. I think the discussion is reaching its use by date. For instance, I recently convened a conference roundtable session with other Photomedia departments, amongst the many things we discussed was the way many of us still valued darkrooms and darkroom processes in our departments. A colleague from a new media department, one of those annoying guys who is always the first to tell you of the latest paradigm shift, irritated us all by repeatedly labelling this as mere nostalgia. But he missed the point. We have gone past the point of nostalgia for the analogue. Darkroom processes for students are now a pedagogical opportunity, a chance for them to slow down for instance, or experience the process of image making in a new way. They are becoming a new alternative, not a nostalgic retreat.

[1]  F. Ritchin, In Our Own Image: The Coming Revolution in Photography, New York, Aperture Foundation, 1990.

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