Does it Matter? The Role of Photographic Materiality in the Digital Age

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Steven Ramage

Since the birth of digital photography, much has been said in the debate about the merits and shortcomings of it as a medium in comparison to the traditional photographic print. It is only in recent years however that our understanding of digital images has developed into more than a replication of the past, and in fact into a new branch of photography altogether. This is not to say traditional photographic debate, or the comparison of the old and new mediums is not essentially important, but rather we must now think of things in newer terms, as our understanding of the implications of these technologies deepens. Influential writers such as Daniel Rubinstein and Katrina Sluis have written extensively on the materiality of digital images, how we interact with them, and even how they interact with each other with the development of the semantic web. What this essay sets out to investigate however, is the importance of such differentiation which we have traditionally seen in academic discourse. Now that we have a more thorough understanding of the nature of digital materiality, a number of key questions arise: Can we discuss the materiality of a digital image in similar terms to a photographic print? Is it important to distinguish between the two within wider conceptual discussion? Or are we simply fetishizing the traditional due to a sense of sentimentality?

To address these questions, we must start with the importance of traditional materiality, and look at the nature of the photographic print. Sassoon (2007) argues that the true meaning of a photograph is derived from a combination of its content, context and materiality. This statement alone highlights the importance of such a debate, as ignoring materiality would be detrimental to the true understanding of the printed image. Writing with specific reference to the digital archiving of traditional prints, Sassoon questions what information is lost in translation during the processes used. Despite her specialized interest in this area, the importance of the aforementioned trifecta is key to a much wider debate, and forms a great starting point for the understanding of the traditional photograph. Bee (2008) whilst also referring to the process of archiving, makes similar conclusions when talking about literature. He denies that the information contained within written volumes is of primary importance, a stance taken by Budd & Harloe (1997). Instead he offers examples of the format of written works being of crucial importance to how we interact with them, whether it be scrolls, codexes or indeed, a digital screen. Orbán (2014) although not dealing with photography, also argues the importance of haptic communication as part of a multisensory reading process. It would be overly simplistic to suggest that we only read with our eyes, when in fact we connect with visual media using a variety of senses, working in accord to form a more complete understanding of what we perceive.

So too, in terms of understanding the true indexical meaning of a document, the physical properties of a photographic image are of utmost importance. For example, a digital reproduction of an old press photograph tells only part of a story. The original photograph, as printed on newsprint, in the context of other stories and images, paints a much clearer picture of the context in which it was originally displayed. In the realms of photographic debate, this is a well-established and practiced methodology, to the extent that currently huge amounts of money are spent in the pursuit of authentic archiving. The prime example of this is of course the Corbis Iron Mountain facility; an underground, temperature controlled, multi-million Dollar vault inhabiting a Pennsylvanian mountainside, which exists for the sole purpose of protecting the Corbis archives.

It in undoubtedly the case that the archival value of traditional photography has in part been driven not by academic best practice, but rather a booming photographic art market in the second half of the 20th Century. It has become increasingly important in recent years for libraries and museums etc. to consider materiality when creating archives, and when considering the exponential increase in market value of photographs, it becomes clear it is driven by one main factor. When images were predominantly being created using silver and paper, the photographic negative, the original, took precedence over the paper reproduction in terms of archival worth. It wasn’t until the boom in the photographic art market, and the death of certain influential practitioners, before the print itself was considered an original which was worth archiving in it’s own right. With the original practitioner unable to make any more prints, those prints in existence were capable of acquiring much greater value than ever before. The purpose of the negative and the print hence take on different meanings in terms of their archival worth; Whilst the negative would preserve content and at times context, the photographic print provided much more information deemed culturally valuable through it’s materiality, having attained a history of its own. Whether this added value was the result of having been hand printed by the artist themselves, or through the paper object being considered the most important document of time, space and place, the materiality of photography had by this point become intrinsic to the medium as a whole.

This is something that evolved as the photographic medium matured, yet is not a new phenomenon in itself. For example, in painting it has long been considered part of the status quo to address the material properties of the piece. One such example of materiality playing a vital role in our current understanding of an artwork is Diego Velázquez’s painting, Rokeby Venus. Velásquez’s painting was completed between 1647-51. In 1914 however, in protest of the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst another suffragette, Mary Richardson, walked into the National Gallery in London and attacked the painting with a meat cleaver. The damage was subsequently repaired, however it now means there are two stories to be read from viewing the original painting. Whilst the content and context of Velázquez’s work gives us many insights into 17th Century ideals, just as the day it was unveiled, the materiality of the painting as a physical, fragile object also now documents a point in history in the 20th Century, and the fight for women’s suffrage. This is a great example of the importance of the supplementary information which can be obtained from the materiality of works of art, to the point of it providing a whole new story in itself.

So, how then do we apply this way of thinking to the newer medium of digital imagery? To revisit Joanna Sassoon, she wrote that a digital image would seem to have no material presence at all, as a result of a lack of physical and tactile presence. In academic discourse this has been seen in both positive and negative light. In 1991, Kevin Robbins wrote of the merits of the new medium, claiming that only now will photography lose it’s intrinsic link to the real, allowing for a new era of unhindered creativity. Whilst undoubtedly the traditional photograph has always had a strong link to the idea of the real, it is important not to overstate this. As early as 1840, Hippolyte Bayard created his “Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man”, a clever but very blatant disregard for this notion of truth in photography at a time when our understanding of the implications of photography, never mind the processes, were not yet developed. What might be more accurate than Robbins’ statement, is that digital photography has the potential for new creative possibilities, but first we must detach ourselves from the current fetishisation of the traditional. As digital photography matures, alongside the growth of Web 2.0/3.0 and the Semantic Web, the materiality of digital images is only starting to be understood. As with any new media, we must start with looking at how this compares to our knowledge of existing mediums, and our pre-existing assumptions and expectations. As mentioned previously, the materiality of a traditional photographic print affords the opportunity for a whole host of supplementary information to be read from the object itself. The assumption however, that this is non-existent in digital imagery is simply not accurate. Though in the traditional form this can includes things such as artist notes, the paper type, signs of ageing etc, in digital images we have metadata. Often overlooked as a utilitarian by-product of the digital image making process, or serving the purpose of protecting copyright, in actual fact this is a huge understatement of the potential for metadata use. In fact, the volume of information that can be saved in digital form through metadata is huge when compared to traditional materiality. So although we lose the haptic process of reading the materiality of an original, we actually gain much more potential in terms of the amount of supplementary information available. I include the word “original” in the previous statement, as it is important to clarify at this point between the “original” digital state of a digital image, and a physically printed reproduction, which must in part be considered in the same terms as an analogue photographic print.

To revisit Budd & Harloe (1997) and applying their ideas to this debate, it is clear that if one is simply interested in information rather than experience, then in quantifiable terms there is nothing that need be lost in the transition from analogue to digital photography. As discussed earlier however, a large part of the human reading experience is enhanced by our haptic participation, and this cannot simply be ignored. The difference between analogue and digital imagery is not in its link to the real, nor the amount or type of information we can read from it, but rather it lies in our viewing experience. With tablet computers, smartphones and even wearable devices becoming increasingly popular in all spheres of life, we are currently seeing a re-introduction of haptic interaction to our online and digital experiences. Both in etymological and practical terms, it has been said that the digital can be considered an extension of the human fingers (Van Den Boomen, 2014). The personal computer, as with almost any machine, has always required the input of human touch to operate. Whether through a keyboard, mouse, or other input device, the common element is the physical interaction of a user to create a digital response. In relation to photography however, this traditional digital interface was incredibly detached from the traditional, haptic way of interacting with images. In recent years however, with the invention of digital photo frames, portable touch screens and tablet computers, we are seeing a re-introduction of the importance of human touch and gesture into the way we interact with digital content. In addition, these gestural interfaces seek to not only replicate, but expand on traditional modes of interaction. As well as viewing digital images in a haptic way, we can also zoom, crop, retouch and otherwise manipulate them at the touch of a finger. Whilst still crucially different from a traditional experience, the possibilities in terms of information and possibilities afforded to the viewer are almost endless.

In considering these issues, we must also remember that photography as a medium is not just indexical in nature, and avoid constraining ourselves to thinking of it in purely empirical terms. In revisiting the main points of this essay, the question of creativity in the digital age remains central. In my opinion, we must move away from our inexplicable obsession with the process and mechanics of photography if a newer and less restricted creative culture is to thrive. We cannot disregard the specific material properties of a photograph as we study it, just as we would not ignore the choice of oil paints over watercolours in a painting, but this must no longer be the defining characteristics if the medium as a whole is to mature. Just as Katalin Orbán suggest for graphic novels, photography also has born a new sense of materiality which although based on nostalgic foundations, is also distinct from it at the same time. The divide however, is certainly not black and white, and the new digital aesthetic cannot be said either to be a rebellious reaction for the most part. What we are witnessing is both a divergence and also a strengthening of traditional thought on materiality in different aspects. Whilst the technology of making images has undoubtedly shifted towards newer methods, the way in which we read images is actually strengthening the traditional debate around our interactions with these images in the real world. Otherwise we would no longer have any desire to print photographs, compile family albums and so forth. In an age of information overload, we are simply more tactile in our archival methods. It is human nature that we want to be able to read things in a haptic manner, and whilst we may not understand now to do this with digital born images yet, there was once a time when this could be said of a traditional photograph too. What we know for certain though, is that we are reluctant to relinquish the processes of the past before fully comprehending the new.

There is also a debate to be had about the importance of such studies moving forward. Whilst it is imperative that we understand the nature of the medium both past and present, it can also be argued that to do so too readily may inhibit creativity in the new generation of image-makers. The mechanical nature of photography as a medium means we can never truly separate the result from the process, as the former is forever influenced by the latter. So although we cannot discount the importance of knowing the nature of the medium being viewed; and yet by the same account we cannot give it too much importance when critiquing an artwork, where does this leave us? The answer, as with many of the points in this essay, may just be found by looking to the past. ‘Paintings’, the generic term that encompasses a whole plethora of physically different materials has come to define a type of mark making which transcends any particular type of paint or technique. Similarly then, the term ‘Photography’ may come to transcend it’s own literal meaning in time, with the digital revolution simply being the first of many catalysts in a greater evolution of the medium.

References

Bee, R. (2008) ‘The Importance of Preserving Paper-Based Artifacts in a Digital Age,’ The Library Quarterly, Vol. 78, No. 2, pp.179-194.

Budd, J. & Harloe, B. (1997) ‘Collection Development and Scholarly Communication in the 21st Century: From Collection Management to Content Management,’ in Collection Management for the 21st Century: A Handbook for Librarians, G. E. Gorman & Ruth Miller (eds.), pp.3-38, Westport CT, Greenwood Press.

Orbán, K. (2014) ‘A Language of Scratches and Stitches: The Graphic Novel between Hyperreading and Print,’ Critical Inquiry, Vol. 40, No. 3, pp.169-181.

Ou, A. (2014) Underground: The Corbis Image Vault, http://www.nowseethis.org/invisiblephoto/posts/2

Rubinstein, D., & Sluis, K. (2013) ‘Notes on the Margins of Metadata; Concerning the Undecidability of the Digital Image,’ Photographies, Vol. 6, No. 1, pp.151-158.

Sassoon, J. (2007) ‘Photographic Meaning in the Age of Digital Reproduction,’ Archives & Social Studies: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Research, Vol. 1, No. 10.

Van Den Boomen, M. (2014) Transcoding the Digital: How Metaphors Matter in New Media, Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures.

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