What Happened To Photography

A few thoughts about how electronics changed picture making.

For me, the notion of what constituted the photographic art form started in the early 1970’s, when photography was an analogue and optical-chemical discipline.

For all practical purposes the techniques I used in my formative years were subtle refinements and adaptations on what photographers in the 1930s and ‘40’s had done.  And they were working with subtle refinements on what great photographers in the late 19th Century had created. My 4×5 view camera, film, and chemistry differed little from that used by Ansel Adams or Walker Evans. Their techniques were fundamentally not far removed from what Frederick Evans, Brassai, or Atget used a generation earlier.

Of course, what the photograph MEANT—it’s  content—could be and quite often was very different, but the mechanics were the same. That has certainly changed! Today I often wonder if “photography”, as I learned it, is still “photography” or something else altogether? And, I also wonder if the differences even matter?

I think it is important to realize that music was transformed by electronics long before photography’s transformation. It not only survived but flourished in ways no one would have expected. In the 1970s and ‘80’s, great young artists like Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Robert Fripp, Brian Eno, Keith Emerson, and classical musicians like Wendy Carlos and Karlheinz Stockhausen created a totally new vocabulary of sound through newly invented technology. At the same time they found a way to humanize these technologies by combining electronics with acoustic instruments, brilliant melodic content, virtuosic ability, and the ancient timbre of the human voice.

Today musicians go back and forth between acoustic instruments and super high-tech modeling software seamlessly. They use electronics as a tool, not an end in itself. It makes life interesting and can simplify orchestration, arranging, home recording, tempo and pitch control. What the Beatles and George Martin accomplished in making Sergeant Peppers, and the Beach Boys with Pet Sounds, can now be done in a high school student’s bedroom, if they have the talent and inclination to do so. But technology doesn’t make art better, nor does it make it worse, only different.

I witnessed this change for the first time when I moved from high school in Louisiana to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1976.  It was like moving from one century to another. My teacher at the time, Francis Coelho at Antioch College West, was one of a few well-established artist-educators feverishly involved in making black and white video, the new art form of the moment. They were seeking out old TV studios for second hand hardware to piece together just enough equipment to get the job done.

I had learned the finer points of film developing and printmaking; now people were saying “that’s all over with” and video is where it’s all going. Coelho told me, “as far as technology in the arts goes, when scientists invent things and eventually move on to other newer inventions and discard the old ones, then artists scrounge around for the discarded remnants of that previous technology and make something original with it.” At the time black and white video could be had relatively cheap because it was being replaced by color video.

I assisted Coelho in making a video shown in conjunction with Jack Welpott’s retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1976. It included poetic spoken text and manually created but beautiful sound and lighting effects. The museum may have thought the video was a portrait of Welpott’s work, but it was no less than equal to the still photography it was commissioned to describe.

Coelho was the chair of the art department at San Francisco State when all hell broke loose in the late 1960’s when student riots protesting America’s involvement in Vietnam, the school shut down for almost a year by “sit ins”. That was before my time but I experienced the trailing end of a radicalization in the arts that sought to leave behind the methodology of the previous generation in search for new tools and philosophies. Coelho, in his mid 50’s at the time, was one of those restless Bay Area souls who took well established traditional art making (bronze casting, drawing, and ceramics, for example) and broke the mould that made HIS generation look at photography as one thing and his students look at it as something quite different.

The first experiences I had with “electronic imaging” was gorilla black and white video being done by academic intellectuals, and Kirlian photography being done by Walter Chappell.

Video was transforming the art world in the hands of nimble minds such as Nam June Pak, Dan Graham, Bruce Nauman, Chris Burden, Dennis Oppenheim, William Wegman, Martha Rosler, and the great Bill Viola and Peter Campus.

http://www.billviola.com/

In 1976, most photo art students were still trying to be Ansel Adams, Cartier Bresson, or Gary Winogrand. Some viewed video as an escape from the darkroom and the conventions attached to it. As Nam June Pak (one of the very first video artists of the 1960’s) pointed out, video was like the memory of the human mind and most photography like the object of traditional painting.

Within the bay area still photography arena, I met a photographer who Coelho had known well, he called him “a former beatnik”, and a colleague of Minor White. His name was Walter Chappell. When Chappell wasn’t expanding his mind with substances he was expanding it with innovative and unconventional variants on the traditional black and white view camera image. I thought of Chappell as a kind of dangerous Minor White in a way, as he was difficult to get a handle on at that time. The work of Chappell’s that totally got to me was his Metaflora portfolio.

Walter had resurrected the process of Kirlian photography and combined it with the tradition of large format subtle toned gelatin silver prints. The mix was compelling, to say the least. Chappell created these prints (with much secrecy and mystery) by exposing traditional film placed on a metal plate and discharging high voltage electrical currents through it. The subject, plants and flowers, were placed on the film. This technique goes way back but, to the counter culture art world of the early 1970’s, it was a perfect fit. In this case, although the darkroom and chemistry were the same, there were no cameras or lenses involved. The subject and the object were the same thing.

More on Kirlian photography and Chappell:

http://www.imagesco.com/articles/kirlian/kirlian-photography.html

http://www.photographydealers.com/artists/chappell_walter_2.html

All that Bay Area stuff was a little too much for me in 1976. One day at San Francisco State in a meeting with Jack Welpot he told me I should go to Arizona to study, so I did.

My third encounter with electronic imaging came in Tucson, Arizona, in 1978. I enrolled at the University Of Arizona in that newly developed program. Harold Jones, the original director of the Center for Creative Photography (and before that, Light Gallery), and Todd Walker, a Los Angeles photographer who at that time specialized in multi color silk- screen and color Sabatier innovations, were teaching traditional photo and alternative process imaging. W. Eugene Smith, the great photojournalist, whom Jones had rescued from poverty and his disintegrating loft in New York at the end of his life, was also there. It seemed like an interesting mix and I needed a real education.

By the time Ansel Adams met with us students he was already talking about electronic photography becoming the new standard in a “few short years”. He even asked the Center for Creative Photography to allow future students to “reinterpret” his negatives by scanning them and altering them in the computer (much to the horror of Jim Enyeart, the director of that museum). Adams understood the cutting edge of digital research and knew very well what was around the corner. He also knew he wouldn’t be around to experience it.

Harold Jones had students involved in black and white video at that time. We wandered around Tucson creating videos with early Sony Porta-Paks strapped to our backs. The tapes were edited in a mechanical VCR analogue Panasonic editing deck. It was electronic but more like working with analogue sound tape than digital video. It was very revealing of things to come and exciting at the time.

http://experimentaltvcenter.org/sony-av-3400-porta-pak

The topic of electronic digital imaging came up in one of Todd Walker’s classes. Artists across the country (though few photographers) were starting to think about it seriously. This was before the IBM personal computer or the Apple 2 computer hit the world in the early 1980’s.

There were strange silk-screen t-shirt companies opening up in shopping malls; you could have a portrait “digitized” into very low resolution, blocky giant pixilated images, and printed on a t-shirt. I thought that was pretty interesting; another element to add to my conventional layered photographs. I asked Todd where I could learn more about digital. With a funny grin on his face, he had waited for one of us to ask him about that, he gave me the name of a physics engineer working in the Optical Sciences department at the university.

As it happened the Optical Sciences building had many of the greatest optical physics research scientists in the world working on lenses for the most advanced telescopes and satellite cameras in existence. Electronic imaging was their daily bread. I knew something about the Space Imagery Center because Tim Druckrey, a fellow student and Polaroid sponsored curator at the Center for Creative Photography, had mounted a great show called “Reasoned Space”. He curated work by the leading conceptual artists using photography (Jan Dibbets, Douglas Hubler, Sol Lewitt, Dennis Oppenheim, Barbara Kasten, Robert Smithson, etc. and showed it along side digital mapping imagery of the moons of Jupiter (loaned by the Arizona Space Imagery Center).
In essence Druckrey was saying that the work being done by NASA, and the work being done in contemporary art was different by intention but was beginning to share the resources of technology for objective mapping of the world. It pointed to the coming revolution in photography. Druckrey later became a leading theorist in digital imaging and has written and edited books (Iteration: The New Image, for example) and lectured worldwide on new paradigms for electronic art making and the potential of the Internet as a vehicle for it.

http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=3927

http://www.mica.edu/About_MICA/People/Faculty/Faculty_List_by_Last_Name/Timothy_Druckrey.html

Little did I know what awaited me during a lunch break at the Optical Sciences building, where top-secret research for military applications was being conducted. By chance I ran into an optical-physics graduate student who, among several others, shared a house the summer before with me. They proceeded to show me the REAL digital technology; state of the art multi-million dollar industry and government supported cutting edge mind-blowing hardware.

They took me to a room filled with super computers that had giant spools of magnetic tape that looked like half-inch analogue videotape but wasn’t. It was ultra high-resolution electronic digital tape created specifically for grabbing still images from satellites. As they explained it, one tiny section of this tape—a  few millimeters in length—represented enough high quality optical information to generate a super sharp 8×10 piece of film. NASA (or the Pentagon) gathered the data from satellites. It could be printed and placed on the President’s desk in a day.

I asked what they meant by “ultra hi-res”. My friend explained: “It means you can read the numbers on a car license plate from the satellite or tell if someone at a picnic is drinking Coke or Pepsi.” I left the building completely stunned. T-shirt digital imaging was completely forgotten. It seemed too sophisticated and distant to me. I went back to the darkroom, made some old fashioned Ilfobrom silver prints, and tried to get computers out of mind.

A few years later, about 1982, Todd Walker started his journey with digital imaging. He had thoroughly explored just about every 19th century photo process and had become an expert in multi-matrix photo silkscreen oil pigment imagery. He used offset lithography in his home studio to build up layer after layer of registered color. Todd knew more about color than any photographer that I have ever met up until today. With that background he then turned to the just released Apple Macintosh to expand these ideas. He liked making his own tools, and tinkered with everything. Rather than use early versions of available software he preferred to write his own for specific purposes.

At the end of his life Walker was working with cartography software and doing things it was never intended for. That is the spirit I admire. Taking something designed for one purpose and adapting it for something entirely different. Todd’s use of “arbitrary” self-created color in photography for silk screens and offset work were precursors to what many of us are doing today in Photoshop (with our “paint brush”, “hue-colorize”, and opacity controlled “fill” tools). He would have loved these tools (and the ram and clock speed of today’s machines) and would not have taken them for granted the way we do.

My next encounter with “electronic imaging” came a year later when William Larson was hired to teach photography at the university. Will came from the Chicago school of photography (about as different from the West Coast school as one could imagine). He had studied with Aaron Siskind at the Institute of Design , where Callahan had started the photo program designed by the Hungarian Dadaist and Constructivist Lazlo Moholy-Nagy.

Essentially, Moholy-Nagy—despite reluctantly serving as a soldier in World War I and being run out of Berlin when Hitler took over Germany—was an eternal optimist. While most of the Berlin and Zurich dada artists looked on technology as a great nightmarish destroyer of civilization, Moholy–Nagy was more in line with the Russian Constructivists. They believed in the great humanitarian, democratic, and equalizing potential of technology and machines. Along with Man Ray, in the 1920’s, he was one of the first artists, who were not photographers in a strict sense, to embrace technology as a flexible tool for art making.

I mention this because the next generation of photo/artists from the Institute Of Design (Larson, Barbara Crane, Joseph Jachna, Ken Josephson, Tom Barrow, etc) had a curiosity and optimistic view of the creative potential of machines, science, and technology. This, in no small measure, was the residue of Moholy-Nagy’s curriculum at the Institute of Design. It impacted the direction of photography in Chicago and spilled into the work of other innovators like Sonia Sheridon and her famous curriculum at the Art Institute of Chicago, where copy machines, video cameras, and other imaging devices replaced the camera and other traditional media.

This experimentation with photographic concepts later became fully realized in the work of many artists of the 1980’s, such as Nancy Burston. She collaborated with imaging scientists to invent her “morphing” concept; an idea later popularized on MTV in Michael Jackson’s video, Black and White. Nancy Burston is an amazing artist and was ahead of her time.

http://www.nancyburson.com/pages/onewithdna.html

In Arizona, Will Larson showed us original prints from his book Fireflies. The book was the result of a collection of “electro-carbon” prints that had been created by the same technology used to produce newspaper “wire photos”.

The Fireflies prints were created on paper with carbon pigment by electrical impulses that originated in one part of the country and printed at a distant location. Unlike the book the actual prints have a subtle delicate drawing of lines, they seem precious and delicate like fine etchings.

Not only did Larson’s images use photographs (snapshots), they contained “photogram” silhouettes of real objects, sound imprints from spoken voice that created fine line patterns across the page, and printed text words (as objects themselves). What was a photographer doing, making work like this? Was it photography, electronic imagery apart from anything that had preceded it in history, a combination of the two, or something else? That is still an open question. To be sure Larson’s use of “transmission” lines to send art imagery goes back to the work of Moholy-Nagy who sent co-ordinates of how to construct a painting through phone transmission.

For me this work was asking a question: once a photograph is contextualized by “electronic” communication“ how did it differ from other methods of communication (like voice, text, drawing, etc)? They all collapsed into one kind of organism.

http://www.charlesisaacs.com/exhibitions/images.php/4/3

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%C3%A1szl%C3%B3_Moholy-Nagy

Paul Berger was another American art photographer I came into contact with in the late 1970’s. Berger’s Mathematics series superimposed multiply exposed strips of randomly shot classroom blackboards, in contact print form, in a very precise and aesthetically seductive manner. The silver prints pointed toward the kind of random machine generated language that his work with computers, also in the early 1980’s, would expand upon. Like Esther Parada’s interest in the political area, Berger has always probed the “arenas” of human interaction; math classrooms, dog racing tracks, news magazines (Seattle Subtext), TV weather modeling, or web-based communication in Second Life.  Today Berger’s artworks consist of digital pigment prints of ideas created in the computer as an extension of the mind’s-eye; the graphic form of thought.

http://www.paulbergerpictures.com/world-info-1992-94.html,

http://www.paulbergerpictures.com/second-life-2006-09.html

When I moved on to graduate school in Philadelphia at Tyler School of Art, one of my teachers there was another early “pioneer” of digital imaging. Esther Parada had an established reputation as a major American art photographer working out of Chicago. By 1980, she used digital imaging to express ideas of multi-image/text/installation projects. She had turned to photography fairly late in life, having a background in literature, and studied photography at UCLA with Robert Heineken.

Heineken, like the pop artists and early conceptual people in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, borrowed and stole images from mass media like magazines and TV, or any photographic images that could be recycle for his own purposes. Like Chappell’s Meta Flora portfolio, Heinecken rarely used a camera at all. He had a big impact on his students (Parada and Berger, among many others).

Based at the University of Chicago, Parada had already been layering mural sized prints by making Kodalith transparencies and combining them with still images of a social and political content in a giant multi-dimensional, semi-transparent narrative context. Her Memory Warp and Past Recovery installations at the Museum of Modern Art and elsewhere combined beautiful carefully printed still photographs that exist as fine objects in their own right, but also function as part of a larger layered and installed narrative complex too large to see from one vantage point.

For Parada memory was both the subject and the objective experience. She worked with digital scans and composite pieces in the 1980’s through the 1990’s. It was a perfectly natural progression for her and steadily progressed until her death in 2005.

Her later projects like Transplant, Native Fruits, and A Thousand Centuries explore the relationships of history as it is made and defined by political power. Her work suggests that those who control media control history. It was her desire to add a small but authentic voice to that history. The implication is that with the expanded capabilities of digital media and the web, other contrary voices could potentially rise from stagnation and obscurity.

In her last works the environment and global co-operation took forefront with projects like Demise of the American Elm and Make the Desert Bloom. The goal was to bring Israeli and Palestinian artists together to face the mutual obligation of protecting their natural environment. I only wish she had lived to see the fall of the recent dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya at the hands of young kids texting through Facebook and Twitter. She would have appreciated using technology to do an end run around oppression and ignorance.

Her projects were some of the first, for a photographer, that functioned both as a physical installation of prints and an interactive website event with multiple rooms  in a “hyper-linked” format. She explored photography as the precious object, but simultaneously an intangible one, with the potential for powerful and transmittable sociological force. Esther was a scholar of poetry, history, the science of mass media, Latin American literature, photography, and the best teacher I ever had. She is greatly missed by all her former students.

http://www.uic.edu/depts/lib/projects/parada/html/home.html

Today, in 2011, digital photography has become traditional photography. It has moved down the road; from being a toy for curiosity, a super expensive unobtainable technology for NASA or the military, to be the tool of the masses. It allows people like me to get away from the toxic chemicals and wet dark dankness and work in fresh air and sunlight. It allows tonal and color adjustments never before possible. It has allowed me to make color as well as black and white images that can last for centuries (even when shown in daylight on a regular basis). It has allowed me to combine anything with anything. I can develop a vocabulary for complex combinations of images and have a finished result available to reprint whenever I need it. It gives gray values that go on forever.

What does that mean for artists in the long run? I don’t know.

It could be that we’ll get bored and move on to something new, unlikely for a technology so rapidly improving and ubiquitously available though. My take now is that the vocabularies of three different centuries are blending and complementing each other in odd ways. There is a strong reaction to the “coldness” of digital technology in all forms and this has materialized into a renewed interest in 19th century analogue photo processes (platinum, van dyke, daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, etc) and even a nostalgia for mid 20th century analogue techniques. Not surprisingly many of these prints are being created with negatives made from 21st century digitally enhanced files.

I also see a movement toward the use of LED screens and digitally projected “slide-shows” in galleries and museums. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York wired the building for WiFi in order to accommodate new hyper-text aesthetic and educational formats.

Like the beautiful jazz of Bill Frisell and Herbie Hancock, one can combine the new textures and forms of digitally orchestrated possibilities with the softer content of the human element in whatever forms they may take.

I see in the handmade and the electronic a coming together. People are combining finely made paper or fabric prints with subject matter carried over into digital projections, video, or still image sequences shown on iPads.

Is that the future? Partly, I think. What I don’t think is useful is trying to emulate or recreate a medium who’s time has passed with new electronic means (why compare black and white video from the ‘70’s to 21st century high definition television, or an inkjet print to a silver gelatin one?).

To be certain, photography will continue to morph, like Nancy Burston’s composite portraits, into something we’ve never seen before. Where it will end up nobody knows. Daguerre and Talbot wouldn’t recognize it.

Maybe we’ll give it a new name, and maybe we won’t. Does it matter?

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