Pixel Perfect: The Craft of Photography in the Age of Digital Reproduction

First published in Artlink March 2005: The Handmade, edited by Kevin Murray

At first glance it would appear that the digital conversion of photography is all but complete. Beginning with the ‘miraculous revelation’ on the monitor of the image ‘latent’ to its processing, and most recently with the commercial capitulation of film manufacturing to the CCD/CMOS chip, it would indeed appear that most mysteries, vagaries and/or market forces have been won over. Not that it was ever going to be much of a contest. The inevitability of such progress has rarely been challenged, though there remain some strange anomalies. Photographic print processing for example, spurred on by better economies and networked distribution, expensive advertising campaigns like Kodak’s “we miss real pictures … pictures we can hold in our hand … pictures are back”, and numerous practical considerations have ensured that the professional and amateur photo finishing markets have continued to prosper. At the same time, parallel technologies like the ubiquitous ink jet print have created new markets, businesses and outlets for creative and inventive expression. Even a digital Leica M series rangefinder camera is on the drawing board. More than just an exquisite tool and a precision instrument, a Leica rangefinder camera is an icon of photographic connoisseurship. And with ever more powerful computers even Adobe Photoshop’s™ inherent inefficiencies and inconsistencies don’t appear as annoying or inhibiting as they once were. Digital processes have also enlarged our photographic circle of creative collaborators to include programmers, computer scientists, geeks and visionaries.

We have evolved from an era dominated by chemical, optical and mechanical processes to one dominated by electronic, optical and mechanical processes. Though many extraordinary photographic projects still rely on chemical processes, their increasing rate of extinction signals the fundamental change that digital photography represents for many people. Once upon a time “I’ll send you some prints – if they turn out” was a common refrain among amateur photographers. Today almost unlimited and cost free electronic images provide us with instantaneous feedback, choice and satisfaction. The technological distinction between amateur and professional photographers is fading as everyone exploits the same cameras, computers, processes and software. Established fine art theories of ‘disinterested seeing’, ‘committed photography’, ‘spiritual reunification’, ‘political narratives’, self expression and even the credo “I photograph therefore I am” remain no less relevant despite the move from chemical to digital processing. There are even mathematical algorithms that perfectly emulate the ‘ideal lens’, ‘digital minilabs’ being set up in lounge rooms across the country, and the significant environmental and occupational health and safety benefits of electronic processing.

However despite these expansive and rapidly evolving electronic advances and advantages, there is still resistance among many artists to this digital revolution. It isn’t just the steep learning curve, or the economics, or disposable economy of electronic imaging that leaves them wanting. It isn’t the loss of chemical processes, and ‘digital’ is not just another tool. Something is being mourned that has to do with the physical object and its associated labour.  This devolution of labour from demanding processes measured by darkroom timers and the flow of solutions, to insulated electronic processes that are immediate, self sustaining, and in the right ‘hands’ quite liberating, poses for many artists a profound contradiction. If an artist’s thinking and creativity is in part grounded in their repetitive tasks and processes that can now be automated by Photoshop Actions, and if their artistic innovation is in part the result of taming disparate applications and procedures that can now be facilitated by Apple and Java scripts, their crisis is easier to appreciate. At the heart of this dilemma is a tradition that holistically binds the comprehensive, physical ‘craft of photography’ to all technical, commercial and creative photographic practice. As long as this tradition persists, the means of production will remain difficult to renegotiate. We should not underestimate the influence of photography on those who practice it.

Paul N. Hasluck one hundred years ago wrote in his preface to ‘The Book of Photography: Practical, Theoretic, and Applied’ that it “has been prepared at the request of many readers of my smaller books on the subject who have expressed a wish for a comprehensive treatise. My own practice in photography dates back to the time when the operator prepared each plate for his own use; first by a tedious process of cleaning the glass, next by dexterously flooding it with collodion, and finally by sensitising it in a bath of silver nitrate. My first photographs, some of which I still possess, were taken with apparatus wholly my own construction, which served its purpose quite satisfactorily for many years … The intention has been to give explanations that are clear and exact; the Practice is that followed by the most skilled operators; the Theory is dealt with so far as it bears upon the working principles of the art; and there is an abundance of information on the Application of Photography to its many purposes.”

Sixty years ago Ansel Adams in the 1944 American Annual of Photography was still emphasising that “A photograph is not an accident – it is a concept. It exists at, or before, the moment of exposure of the negative. From that moment on to the final print, the process is chiefly one of craft … The common term ‘taking a picture’ is more than just an idiom; it is a symbol of exploitation. ‘Making a picture’ implies a creative resonance which is essential to profound expression.”

David Vestal published his influential ‘The Craft of Photography’ in 1978 and twenty years ago‘ The Art of Black and White Enlarging (1984)’ stating that “Craftsmanship is emphasized, along with the perceptive seeing, feeling, and thinking that distinguish good personal printing from impersonal skill.”

Four years ago in 2000 the second edition of Stephen Anchell’s ‘The Darkroom Cook Book’ featured on its front cover a black & white still life photograph of chemical bottles, packets, measuring spoons, scales and beakers. A book of formulae and recipe-like-techniques, it “is meant to be a point of departure for creative photographers to … create a unique signature of their own. It is also meant to be a potpourri for photographers who just want to play with their craft.”

Today our cultural consciousness is dominated by digital processes, but digital photography, and especially digital fine print making has yet to be valorised or mythologised as an esoteric craft. Amazon.com pairs ‘craft with hobbies’ while photography maintains its own category. The two in-print titles that combine ‘craft’ and ‘digital photography’ only refer to digital photographs as raw material for scrapbooks and related hobbies. There are no equivalent digital texts to Ansel Adams legendary Basic Photography series, and the nearly 500 books currently in print that include in their title the word Photoshop™ are, with only a few exceptions, dominated by simplistic, repetitive and often reductive explanations of Adobe Photoshop™ techniques, processes and procedures. Included in their titles are words like:

Art, Artistry, Bible, Cheat, Commercial, Complete, Creative, Dummies, Dynamic, Essential, Everyday, Fine Art, Hands-On, Inside, Interactive, Killer, Master-Class, Mastering, Masters, Memories, Photographer’s, Techniques, Trade-Secrets, Savvy, Special-Effects, Simple, Visually, Wow, and Wizardry.

The word that never appears is ‘craft’.

To take time away from an electronic workflow to process at the speed of a darkroom increasingly just does not ‘feel right’. The craft of photography’s slow undulations are out of step with the instantaneous feedback and immediate gratification of electronic processes. We can make our pictures by easier, faster and more obvious routes that are free of excessive or heroic labour. We don’t do this because we are ‘time poor’ and nor is the skill of photography being lost because we no longer have the time to make things by hand. We are in fact ‘time rich’ because we now don’t have to waste time making things by hand; we can now ‘get on with other things’. Perhaps we are even beginning to value things not because they are hand made but because they are now not tainted by the human hand. To witness an ‘originating mind’ remains no less satisfying than seeing signs of the ‘originator’s hand’. After all, photography has long been understood as a vehicle for the exploration of personal and artistic ideas, not just acts of labour or scientific inquiry.

There is also a growing appreciation that the lenses we entrusted with the drawing of our images, and the emulsions that faithfully recorded that drawing for us, were also divisive processes. The digitization of ‘continuous tone and resolution’ into steps of resolution called pixels, and steps of tone called levels, no longer represents the underlying atrocity it once did. We have realized that the continuous world has always been photographically rendered into discontinuousness only to be reconstituted as a continuous illusion on smooth surfaced papers. Perhaps it is the regularity and repeatability by which digital technology posterizes the world that emphasizes this act and encourages accusations of a lack of individual character and qualitative differences. While the darkroom connoisseur could immediately identify the material personality of say Kodak TriX film developed in D76 developer, especially when enlarged to the extent that its granular structure dominated the image, we are also beginning to identify artifacts and renderings peculiar to digital media. We are in the process of developing a new aesthetic of ‘square grain’ and ‘digital artifacts’, where digital reproduction though based on sameness, repetition, and simulation, nevertheless still represents individual expression.

While the convergence of technology means that the same keyboard keys can be used to script automated processes or trigger image editing sequences, distribute my images worldwide or write a letter of resignation, it also represents a convergence of labour. And while advertising slogans remind us to ‘work smarter not harder’, I know artists who have ‘given up’ photography, even given away their cameras, and moved onto more physical and tactile mediums. They still host a home page, but make a clear distinction between their home page as advertising, and their physical, object based ‘art’. Their most common ‘complaint’ remains that (digital) photography is no longer ‘a physical or tactile experience. This reminds me of the 19th Century debates over the role of photography as reproductive technology versus artistic medium, and the misconceptions and fears expressed at the time. There are also obvious parallels with photographers like Frederick Evans (1853-1943) who used modern photographic technology to beautifully render ancient monuments, but gave up photography when his preferred medium of platinum printing was commercially discontinued. In a sense he had also already become someone ‘not of his time’. Perhaps that is part of the challenge facing artists today, especially when photographic films, papers and chemistry freely in use at the peak of the ‘craft of photography’ are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain.

Once upon a time photographers were also characterised by how well they adapted things. They always seemed to be twisting or screwing or gluing or welding some thing to another thing, because they had to.  However by the 1970s we had already developed the basis of an alternative photographic practice counter to the technical orthodoxy of a process driven appreciation of virtuoso photographic practice and ‘master photographers’. Conceptual art and its often rough, almost artless and ‘factual’ photographic documentation emphasised the performance or event rather than its reproduction, and prepared the way for an acceptance of alternative processes and techniques whose inclusive democracy facilitated new production, experimentation and expression.

The age of digital reproduction has sharpened this distinction between physical modification and aesthetic relocation. We can now photograph more precisely and efficiently by electronic means, but we are still really only doing electronically what we once did physically and chemically in darkened rooms. The difference is that outcomes that were once limited to highly skilled practitioners, can now be mimicked by almost anyone who can follow a simple digital recipe. Perhaps this is what is meant by the complaint “but I can’t touch it”. I suspect that its double meaning – digital processes are not physical processes, and not being physical I can’t literally ‘mark’ the object – are only passing tremors. Connoisseurship is not restricted to physical acts, though it remains the subtext of encyclopaedias of photography. We craft our ideas no less so than our objects. Digital photography simply presents us with the most efficient mimicry we have invented to date. As the advertising for Live Picture™ image editing software promised over a decade ago, ‘processing at the speed of our imagination’ may in fact be our new reality. We have known for a long time that the most exquisite chemical processes, the most elegant mechanics, the most beautiful optics, and the most precious materials could not ‘on their own’ make a successful let alone ‘great’ photograph. It is our collaboration and acknowledgment, our sharing and facilitating that make the difference.

For we really only make sense of our processes through our actions. It is not our outcomes, nor their intellectualising, but in Paul Carter’s words our “material thinking” that renders true our desires. Our production whether facilitated electronically, physically or chemically remains the craft of our imagination.

Copyright Les Walkling 2004