The Effect of Digitisation on the Methods and Practice of Photographers

Digitisation has had a massive impact on the field of photography, our perception of the media and the nature of practice within the field. Artists like Andreas Gursky have embraced digital manipulation to create iconic work, however is this at the cost of a belief in the “truth” of photography? Digitalisation has made the work of a photographer easier and cheaper, and could be seen to have made photography available to everyone. However it has raised new issues and problems as new technology is bound to do.

Andreas Gursky is one of the most successful photographers of our time. A German photographer renowned for his enormous colour photographs of landscapes and architecture he is the author of the most expensive photograph in history, “99 CENT”, which sold for 3.3 million dollars at auction.

Gursky studied in Düsseldorf under the influence of Bernd and Hilla Becher, becoming well versed in traditional photographic technique and the documentary tradition. However in the mid nineties, with the advent of digital image processing, Gursky was to abandon many of the rules of documentary photography and embrace new technologies to add a new and unique dimension to his work.

Though Gursky has never fully abandoned traditional methods in favour of digital photography he has been combining digital design with traditional photography for the past 15 years. Digital processing allows photographers such as Gursky far more control in post-production, not only in terms of controlling colour and exposure but allowing individual elements of the image to be removed, re-arranged, or bought together to create a new composition. This technology gives Gursky the power to “design” his images, creating powerful fictions combining his personal vision with reality.

“He re-formats an ordinary photograph to form a giant geometrical composition”. [Syring M.L. (1998) Where is “Untitled”]

Gursky’s work favours pattern, symmetry and impact and in works like “RHINE II” he has used digital technologies to doctor his images to maximise these qualities. In “RHINE II” elements of the image have been removed and rearranged to create an impossible and contemporary view.

“In order to stress the idea of nature, sparse and minimalist, having being straightened out by human hand, Gursky elides the factory in the background.” [Syring M.L. (1998) Where is “Untitled”]

Digitally constructing his images allows Gursky to create the new spatial contexts, viewpoints, and geometric constructions that give his work so much impact and make it unique. He can alter the proportions of buildings, extend landscapes into sweeping panoramas and fuse elements into a more concentrated design. His works are “fictions based on facts. Representation and idea are united” [Weski T. (2007)]. Although his work appears ordered it often confuses, the digitally constructed viewpoints no longer follow optical rules and can seem strange and powerful.

It is debatable whether Gursky’s photographic montages have any place in the documentary tradition. The manipulated images cannot be said to constitute an unadulterated image of reality, “the decisive photographic moment loses its validity and can only exist as a construction” [Weski T. (2007)]. This lack of validity, or belief in the “truth”, of photographs is one of the major impacts of digitalisation on the field.

In the early days of photography photographs were considered the ultimate, objective method of capturing reality, devoid of the inaccuracies and subjectivity of the work of artists. Photographs were considered to be indisputable, a record of fact, accepted as legal evidence. Since the image was created by light passing through the lens and reacting with the silver halide particles on the film it was considered to simply create an objective image of the subject in front of the lens. However as technology gave increasing artistic control to the photographer the “truth” of photographic images began to come under scrutiny. By control of the framing, viewpoint, composition and often subject the photograph became the product of the photographer’s perception; subjective rather than objective. The image captured could not be considered to convey an objective “truth” of a situation or place since the moment captured is so brief and often contrived. The photographer can also create a fiction through the direction of the subject, where he/she has full control to manipulate the shot. Although the camera captures an accurate representation of the scene in front of the lens the image cannot be considered to show any greater “truth”, ideas/ events may be suggested but the only accuracy is that which is actually shown. “Every photograph is accurate, none of them is the truth.” [Richard Avedon].

In the midst of this discussion over the role or indeed importance of a photographic “truth”, the introduction of digital imaging was a critical turning point. With images editable on the computer at pixel level it is now possible for professionals like Gursky, amateurs, and the mass media, to easily manipulate images indiscernibly so that the image is no longer even an accurate representation of what was in front of the lens.

Programmes such as Photoshop also allow easy digital manipulation not only of colour, contrast and levels but also of the entire image. Commercially this is prominent in the mass media images of the beauty industry, where images of models and celebrities can be altered to look more perfect through air brushing, reshaping and even changing characteristics such as eye colour.

Modern cameras themselves even perform editing and manipulation of colour and contrast within the camera, without the direction of the photographer, so that the photographers level of control over the image is reduced and alterations to the “truthful” image can occur even without our realisation.

This loss of belief in the “truth” of photographic images has obviously had a massive impact on the way in which we view the media, and its application. Duane Michals suggests in his image “THIS PHOTOGRAPH IS MY PROOF” that we have a very special relationship with photography for this reason; we consider them proof. We hoard and keep photographs because we see them as a form of memory, but one that is untainted, a proof of “the way things were”. With the loss of belief in the power of photographs as “truth” or “proof” will we begin to lose the magic of this relationship with the photographic image?

Digital technologies have also has an effect on the way photographers are able to market and display their work. For artists like Gursky the digital environment provides a much easier platform in which to display and sell his work. The advent of email and the web also makes communicating with galleries and buyers easier and faster and allows samples of work to be sent digitally across the world, much easier than visiting potential exhibitors/ buyers in person.
For less established photographers the Internet provides an easy way to reach large numbers of people and possible clients through portfolio websites, more cheaply than the traditional method of producing a book of photographs. The web 2.0 environment also encourages an interaction; so that artists can share opinions and critique each other’s work. Digitisation has also created a market for photographers to create images for digital stock image sites, used by magazines and many other media companies.

However this digital environment may have turned the life of a photographer into a rather lonelier one. The use of email and the web means that most transactions and discussion occur online rather than face-to-face. The idea of visiting clients or galleries with a portfolio in hand is becoming outdated. Also digitalisation has meant that rather than spending time in communal darkrooms with other artists a lot of photographers spend a lot of time in front of their computers alone. Does this loss of direct contact with other creative artists impact on the work being produced? Certainly there is a degree of loss of creative communication and feedback, which may result in potential ideas/ collaborations never coming to pass.

Digitalisation has also enabled a mass production of images that was not possible before. The digital image can be printed by a variety of means both relatively cheaply and on a large scale, and this mass production has an impact on the value of photographic prints. Whereas with painting there has always been a very clear line between an “original” artwork and a “print”, photography has never has an “original” in this sense, numerous prints can be made from the same negative, and thousands from a digital file, and this makes it more difficult to place a value on the print. Photographers traditionally, and now in the digital age, have to get around this problem by producing a limited number of prints. Gursky’s solution is to work with limited edition iconic single photographs.

It is perhaps this understanding of the power of a single image that has made Gursky such a success. He does not work with series as many photographers do but instead relies upon the power of “the icon” or individual image. This has made his work extremely saleable since “limited availability justifies exorbitant prices” [Boris von Brauchitsch (2009)] and individual images, rather than series, lend themselves to the market’s preference for “one-of-a-kind” works.
“He has relied upon the fact that it is not films or photo series that affix themselves the collective consciousness, but single images. Perhaps he also noticed that all great artists sustain their positions in art history with fewer than five works.” [Boris von Brauchitsch (2009)].

Digital technology has been an important aspect in enabling Gursky to create images, like “MADONNA 1”, which have the visual impact to stand alone in this way.

The image “MADONNA 1” is one of the best examples of Gursky’s use of digital techniques. In this image of the singer’s concert, multiple images from the over the course of the evening are fused into a single image. This allows Gursky to capture in a single image what traditional photographers would produce in the form of a sequence.

Digitalisation has also had a massive impact on the field of photography in respect to image authorship and copy write. In the days of negatives and silver prints these issues were relatively simple, the photographer retained his negatives and the right to print images from those negatives and could sell the prints as he/she wished. With the introduction of digital images, and later the Internet, these issues become a lot more complicated. Images are not produced from a negative they are recorded as an electronic code, which can be stored and perfectly copied. With a lot of artists choosing to upload their images onto the Net and into image banks it has become increasingly more difficult to ascertain the true ownership of an image. Anyone wishing to access these images could view them on screen, print, download, even edit them. In the case of the latter the issue of authorship becomes even more complex. Although copy write currently retains the ownership of each image by its creator there are changes occurring with the introduction of the “creative commons license”. This allows artists, wishing to share their work with others on the Internet, to be more specific with the rights to their images, allowing them to be used freely by others or with conditions imposed upon the use. Both amateur and professional photographers now have a lot more copy write issues to consider than they did before digitisation.

Digitalisation has without a doubt made photography more widely accessible and the production of images more profuse. The majority of people in this country now own a digital camera of some kind, either in the form of a DSLR, a compact digital camera, or a digital camera within their phone. Digitisation means that it now costs nothing to take a photograph, there is no film cost and images can be stored or deleted with no cost at all. Compact and phone cameras have also been designed to be as easy to use as possible so that the user need do no more than press the button and the camera itself will make the decisions about exposure, ISO, focus, and will even make alterations to the colour and contrast.

Interestingly this idea is based on the same principle as Kodak’s “You press the button, we do the rest” principle, which was conceived long before the invention of digital. Kodak encouraged users to use a ready loaded roll of film and then mail it back to Kodak to be developed and printed, so that the user need do nothing more than “press the button”. The idea of that campaign was to make photography more widely accessible to people without the time or inclination to understand the full photographic process. Digitisation and modern camera manufacture has built on this idea, allowing users to easily produce high quality images without the cost or effort of understanding traditional photographic skills such as exposure control or printing. Post production software also means that a lot of key decisions and alterations can be made to the image after the image is taken. “The picture taking becomes a smaller proportion of the process.” [Oliver A. (2008)]

With storage capacity and image quality constantly improving and becoming cheaper photography is now quicker, cheaper and easier than it has ever been, allowing everybody to become a photographer. Professional photographers with a full photographic education such as Gursky may find themselves in a field where it is creativity rather than this formal education that is what matters. This can be seen to be a positive for the field of photography, bringing in new talent that might otherwise never have had the opportunity to explore the medium. However there is also a concern that this is breeding a generation of photography that is reliant on the technology, rather than a full understanding of photographic skills and principles.

“Though digital cameras and post production software cannot yet make aesthetic decisions, they do effectively- and ‘by default’- make key technical decisions about lighting, which can deliver perfectly acceptable images. Yet for many photographers who believe light to be the element that evokes emotion – a core part of ones image-making vocabulary rather than a constraint enforced by the technology- this can be a problem.” [Oliver A. (2008)]
The sheer volume of images being created must be far greater than at any previous point in history, all adding to a mass consciousness of imagery. As a culture we are now overwhelmed with images; from the media, the Internet, magazines etc. and it is debatable whether this mass of imagery is adding to our consciousness of the world or taking away from it. Do these images inform us and deepen our understanding, or are we becoming desensitised? Certainly an image of war/ famine/ suffering in a magazine or newspaper is considered less shocking than it might have been in the past, perhaps we have become so used to such images they no longer shock us in the way that perhaps they should?

Overall digitalisation can be seen to have had a profound impact on the work of artists like Gursky, and on the field of photography in general. Gursky has embraced digital techniques in postproduction to create completely fictional compositions, which would not have been possible using traditional photographic techniques. This has made his work unique, iconic and above all saleable. The digital environment has also provided a new platform on which to market his work and communicate with galleries and buyers around the world. However this use of manipulation could be seen to have resulted in the loss of trust in the photographic image and the documentary tradition. In a wider context digitalisation has made photography more accessible to everyone allowing new creatives into the industry and making photography cheaper and easier for everyone. Digitalisation has raised new issues, such as copy write, as well as solving old ones. However for good or for bad photography is now more profuse in our culture than it has ever been.

Bibliography

Coleman A.D. (1998) The Digital Evolution, Arizona: Nazraeli Press

Weski T. (2007) The Privileged View, Andreas Gursky. IN: Weski T. et al (ed). Andreas Gursky,
Cologne: Snoek.

Syring M.L. (1998) Where is “Untitled”. IN Syring M.L. (ed). Andreas Gursky, Verona: EBS, 5-7.

Oliver A. (2008) It’s About Time. Eye Magazine, Vol. 70, 73.

Boris von Brauchitsch (2009). The Gursky Phenomenon. European Photography, Vol. 84, 3-9