The Desensitisation of Photography

A critique of the phenomenology of contemporary digital image editing. First published in Photofile No. 60 August 2000 by the Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney

Who  hasn’t watched in growing frustration as a computer progress bar slowly  scrolls across the screen obscuring our image from view, instantly blocking  our participation in the very process we had just initiated. Maybe such  an experience is behind the outburst I witnessed the other day that went  something like this: “Digital imaging sucks. I am sick to death  of it. I’m sick of the thinking and the attitudes behind such software.  May digital imaging die the terrible death it deserves.”

What has happened to what we once called photography? The past decade of digital imaging guaranteed photography’s eventual shift from a medium specific discipline to a interdisciplinary concern. Digital processes being inherently distributive and democratic, and to date relatively unencumbered by the traditions of discourse or apprenticeship, remain the new frontier. The ubiquity of digital imaging repositions photography onto a trans-disciplinary plateau; an advantageous position that photography has probably never before occupied. From the one software package, all possibilities appear possible in a ‘who do you want to be today’ corporate culture. High profile advertising amidst the uncertain instability of a constantly changing digital geography, may simply be making it too easy and too comforting to mistake digital imaging to be ‘everything and anything’.

While fine art photography is as much the prey of fashion and indifference as any other aspect of culture, I fear there is more to my friend’s reaction than some simple misunderstanding or disagreement over interpretation. But to be fair to digital imaging, she had been trying to manipulate a very large high resolution image file on a relatively under powered computer. Her frustration is perhaps a product of both the faith and trust that she had placed in digital imaging, and its inability to deliver everything that she had come to believe should be possible. But to be fair to her, sustained critiques of digital imaging (including what it can’t do) are quite difficult to find. Of the numerous and voluminous textbooks, training and ‘do it yourself’ manuals that have gathered over the decade, most present digital imaging in such an encyclopedic and uncritical fashion that a photographer could easily come to believe ‘before the fact’ that it is capable of almost anything. However hard experience and numerous ‘workarounds’ for this or that problem simply reinforces the main problem; most of us still don’t understand why digital imaging is not really synonymous with photography. The seemingly endless technical complexities and creative possibilities guarantees we never feel comfortable or knowledgeable enough to offer a specialist critique. Instead, we sometimes end up like my friend, screaming at this unfeeling, unthinking, uncaring conglomeration of bits and bytes that we have with feeling taken into our concerns.

In 1970  at the Art Institute of Chicago the American artist Frederick Sommer  spoke  of his respect for sensitized (photographic) surfaces, that have such  an “honesty, an inevitableness; it just can’t do anything else, but show (us) what some process showed to it” (1). Sommer recognized  and privileged photography as an accumulative process. The heart beat  of analogue photography, this sensitive surface, retains the latent memory  of events ‘experienced’. A hair, accidentally caught in the film gate  during exposure, is faithfully inherited by every subsequent process.  Its imprint is remembered and transformed but not forgotten. It is still  present and has to be accounted for in the final print. In this way even  our accidents are collected and archived by the analogue process, alongside  our memories, hopes, dreams and desires.

Digital imaging however doesn’t ‘work’ in this way. It’s memory is one of loss, rather than accumulation or conservation. It alters image values through the wholesale destruction of those values. Even basic image adjustments can result in a loss of image data (2). In order to gain something we have to sacrifice a previous advantage or association, and therefore each subsequent move we make in the ‘digital darkroom’ results in a further loss; a constantly decreasing return on our initial investment. An over manipulated image reveals the scars of digital editing as discernible ‘banding’ or posterization in the image. In this sense digital imaging archives its own destructive tendencies. That very few people appear to understand let alone observe this phenomenon is even more mystifying and difficult to explain.

At one time we spoke of photography’s chemical/archival fragility, and the effort required to preserve our prints. We now discuss the digital fragility of virtual photographic images as if they were an endangered species. Digital imaging has even been referred to as ‘Photocide’, as in genocide, because of this ‘destructive approach’ (creation philosophy) to photo editing. I therefore have no problem extrapolating an aesthetic response (reading) of ‘loss’ in images that result from this process.

There are other aesthetic and methodological limitations directly imposed upon the image through digital imaging. Take for example the relatively simple but eloquent task of dodging a print to locally redistribute its values. In the analogue darkroom you simply cut a disc of black cardboard to what ever size is required and dodge away. For some print makers the ‘kinesthetic relationship’ they establish between their feelings and their performance of the print, a dodging and burning narrative ‘dance’ in the dark, is practically impossible in digital imaging. How infuriating and disconcerting it can be to wait for a digital imaging program to ‘catch up’ and render the areas that have already been dodged. Even basic moves on photo-resolution files take time to digitally edit, and therefore disrupt this poetic narrative. Despite ever faster computers such simple tasks remain digitally compromised by limited and finite brush sizes and complex selection techniques. Scaling the image smaller on the screen won’t help because these programs also proportionally scale their pixelated brushes and selections.

The digital editing of large photo-resolution images is further complicated when all image pixels (data) have to be simultaneously loaded into memory (RAM), and often duplicated many times over. This is despite the fact that a monitor can only ever display a very small number of pixels at any one time. Any image pixels loaded into memory in excess of what the monitor can display remain resident in memory, slowing down the computer and in general interfering with production efficiency. When you save a digital image you save all of its pixels, and additional layers and history palettes take up even more memory further slowing down the creative process. Also a history palette with a fixed and limited memory that can’t be saved, renamed or recalled as part of the image whose history it maps, renders a process blind to its own evolving creativity. This is just not photography.

But the problems and disappointments don’t stop there. We also experience the discrepancy between high resolution prints compared with low resolution monitors (displaying the same image), and the effect this can have on our aesthetic judgement. There is also an almost universal adherence to the screen as a softproofing medium, rather than viewing it as just a sophisticated instrument panel, and the effect this has on our expectation of the print. Softproofing relies on the displayed image being a facsimile of the final output (print or film). This can be approximated in terms of colour and density, but not in terms of scale. The physical limitations of the screen compared to the variable scale of our prints intensifies the effect this can have on our ‘gesture’ and ‘mark making’.

However  the ‘desensitization’ of photography, this attack on the ‘gesture’  and the  ‘mark’ and our aesthetic judgement, does not have to be this violent.  My friend doesn’t have to become so frustrated with the digital imaging  process. The really tragic aspect is that it doesn’t have to be this  way  at all! Imaging software like Live Picture® promote a radical alternative that marries the broader framework of fine art photography to the wonderful utilitarian attitude of digital processes; developing, accentuating and benefiting from that association. Live Picture® completely rethinks  the software approach to digital imaging. It remembers and accumulates  advantages while remaining a speculative enterprise. It’s remarkable  efficiency,  file size and resolution independence, infinite selective undos, processing  and layer logic, and superior image quality make it an exception to the  rule. It works in real time and at the speed of your imagination. First  released in 1993, it has become one of photography’s ‘best kept secrets’.

In the analogue  darkroom I make extensive use of pin registered negative and easel masking,  which has evolved over the years from Frederick Sommer’s original concept  of his ‘Printing Pack’ (a series of over laid translucent sheets separately  cut and assembled on top of the negative to selectively redistribute  print  values during the exposure) (4). What I most admire about this approach  is that it recognizes and reinforces the inherent mnemonic character  of  the photographic process. My analogue fine print making is a direct result  of this facility, and it has taught me to respect what the process  doesn’t ‘forget’. Live Picture® works in exactly the same way. All creative  moves are recorded in separate resolution independent layers and work  is not saved as edited or remapped pixels, but as a mathematical description  of our intentions. There is no memory/speed penalty for experimenting  with and storing any number of different versions or combinations of  an  image. And at any time, today, tomorrow, ten years from now, I can return  to my saved image and all of my edits will be exactly as I last left  them.  My creative decisions are therefore archived in a way that can be individually  or collectively renegotiated without compromise (just as in my film masks  and printing packs).

During the  greater part of the history of analogue photography manufacturers offered  a staggering array of papers, surfaces, weights, sizes, processes and  other qualities that today would be almost unimaginable if not for  inkjet  printers. Inkjet technology once again allows us to print on just about  any surface or media. In combination with this ‘liberation of the print’  Live Picture® guarantees that photography itself is still in very good shape. Three important procedural advances have arisen out of this utilitarian attitude; we can now all create with electronic precision and repeatability, compared to the mechanical (though pin registered) precision of the specialist analogue studio; many more artists now have access to this precision and the resulting creative choices, compared with the few rare print makers who can make these moves in the dark; and the increased speed and efficiency of electronic production, where we can now accomplish in a matter of hours what takes weeks in the analogue darkroom. The critical distinction here is that software like Live Picture® achieves  this by facilitating, building upon and democratically re-distributing  the advantages of the analogue darkroom. It thereby entirely avoids the  restrictions, cumulative errors, artifacts and resulting loss of image  quality normally incurred in step-by-step pixel editing. Nothing is lost  and everything is gained as part of this wonderfully generous, creative,  thoughtful, cooperative and collaborative process.

These are  a few of the reasons why I often refer to traditional digital editing  breaking a notional accord that goes back to the chemical and optical  origins of photography. However we choose to name this event, the fact  remains that a program like Live Picture® doesn’t break this accord,  and thereby preserves the wealth of knowledge, achievement and desire  that has accumulated over time. Personally I value such accumulation  in  my work. I don’t consider this a necessarily nostalgic or romantic response.  It is a desperate creative necessity.

Les Walkling 2000


(1) Sommer,  Frederick. ‘An Extemporaneous Talk at the Art Institute of Chicago, 1970’, first printed in Aperture, 16, no. 2, 1971. Subsequently reprinted  in  Petruck, Peninah, R. (ed.) The Camera Viewed: Writings on Twentieth-Century  Photography, Vol 2. E.P. Dutton, New York, 1979. A reworked version  (1983)  was later included in Sommer, Frederick, Sommer. Words/Images, University  of Arizona, USA, 1984.

(2) For a simple proof of this create a ‘continuous tone’ gray scale  in a digital imaging program. As an 8 bit digital file it is actually  divided  into 256 discrete levels of tone from black to white. However the difference  between each level is so subtle we don’t identify it as a jump in tonality, so it appears as smooth continuous tone. Apply a moderate contrast increase to the image (equivalent to printing on grade 3 instead of grade 2 in the analogue darkroom) then inspect the image’s ‘before’ and  ‘after’ histograms and note any difference. Any gaps in the ‘after’ histogram  indicate the levels (image data) ‘lost’ or remapped by the digital editing  process. With less than the 256 levels (that are required for the illusion  of continuous tone) we begin to observe these gaps as jumps or bands  of  tone.

(3) The  final version (2.6.2) of Live Picture® was withdrawn from sale  in 1997. Its radical alternative to pixel-editing procedures incorporated  the vector-based  approach used in illustration applications – see more in Mike Leggett’s  article Thinking Software on pp 26-29, Photofile No. 60.

(4) For a discussion of Sommer’s printing packs see Emmet Gowin’s article in Kelly, Jain, (ed), Darkroom 2, Lustrum Press, New York, 1978.

Copyright Les Walkling 2000