I do so like it when people actually take a credible swing at "what's it all about then?" sorts of questions in photograph. Colberg has written a piece, The Perfect Imperfect Picture. Don't misunderstand me, he's all wrong, and I am about to talk about why, but I appreciate the effort, and I appreciate that people are thinking about this kind of thing.
First of all, he's more or less right that there is a great deal of variation in what we actually get to look in with a digital photograph, just as there was a certain amount of variation with analog. He does start right in with muddling things up, though. In the analog world he seems to be talking about frame-to-frame variation. This piece of film rendered this scene in one way, the next one rendered this other scene, this other picture in another way. In digital land, he's talking about how differently the same picture is rendered in various contexts.
Later, he revists this idea in a way that makes it clear that the first thing (different renderings of the same picture) is irrelevant, even to Colberg.
Next up, he jumps to a brief vignette on "what is a photograph anyways, where is the, you know, the actual thing itself?" which is a perfectly good question to ask, and one that doesn't have a good answer, but he fetishizes technology for a moment by saying "it must be the code, the code is the thing" which is a refrain I find numbingly tiresome. In the first place, "code" is the program, it's the app, it's the part that does calculation. "Data" is the passive stuff upon which calculations are done. What Colberg is talking about is, technically, "data" not "code", unless his phone encodes pictures as a FORTRAN program that, when executed, writes out a JPEG file. Which I can assure you is not the case.
To say "code" sounds cooler, though, so it's kind of in vogue.
Anyways, it's all irrelevant, because in the second place there's a clear and precise analog between the first generation file (JPEG, DNG, RAW, whatever) and the negative. It's the unique thing produced by the instrument, and if you must answer "what is the actual thing?" then that's as good an answer as any. And it's simply not very interesting (unless you're planning to fetishize technology, which apparently you must) to examine the differences between "negative" and "first generation data file", they're the same for all ontological purposes. And then, just as every print pulled from a negative is a little different, so every rendering of the file is. In digital land, surprise, everything happens a lot faster, a lot more frequently.
After a mysterious trip to the world of gratuitous and wrong-headed slams on Sontag, Colberg gets to to the meat of his thesis.
People, he asserts, like imperfections in their pictures.
The first problem here is that he's approaching this like an engineer and an amateur gearhead photographer. What on earth is an imperfection? He sounds like some douchebag on a forum bitching about "missed focus" or "white balance is wrong."
Colberg is now back to muddling up variations in renders of the same picture with variations in handling of different pictures, but here it is important.
Nobody cares much if colors look a little different on their phone and your screen. This is variation between different renders of the same picture, and most people consider it irrelevant unless the differences are enormous, and then they find it irritating. The important point here is that the renders remain indexical. It is important to note that an indexical representation of a scene, one that corresponds directly to the scene, is not unique. There can be many indexical representations of the same thing. There can be, in short, many photographs of the same thing, each exactly as "true" as the other, all different.
When people apply filters to their phone snaps, to make them look like vintage film, obviously they do care, and they like the look. This is handling different pictures differently, or sometimes making multiple different pictures from the same underlying first generation file. It doesn't actually have anything to do with the things Colberg started with, with this notion of different renderings.
Finally, Colberg gets around to something sensible and interesting.
So, people are smashing up their pictures with filters and whatnot. Somehow, this is not damaging the credibility of pictures (or is it?), and somehow, people seem to want to want the look of glitchy, weird, serendipitous accidents, and that does indeed have to mean something.
Unfortunately, he leaves it right there, just when it's about to get interesting.
He has an opportunity here to draw his two muddled things back together, to talk about something like the evidentiary properties of a photograph. We, collectively, will accept various renders of the same picture, as well as quite a lot of deliberate variation in the form of edits and filters, as evidence. You can smash a picture up fairly brutally, at least in technical terms, and we, your audience, will still treat it as proof that you were at that diner, that party, that beach. If my screen renders your picture with a weird green cast, or if Facebook's servers have made it all soft with overcompression, I still treat it as proof.
There's nothing inherent about digital technologies here, to be sure. Commentators like Colberg and, and well everyone except me as far as I know, are obsessed with the idea that digital photographs are somehow, inherently, in their underlying nature, different. That is simply not true. There are direct analogs with every aspect of analog photography (of course they are, analog photography is the model the digital guys copied, and continue to copy). There are at least two different approaches to Adams's Moonrise over Hernandez photo out there, and many different prints. Nobody, however, denies that Adams was there on that road, at that time.
What is different is the pace, the amount, the numbers. Rather than 4 different prints, all subtly different, we have a thousand, a million, a billion different renders on different screens. We have different interpretations through filters and photoshop, 2, 5, 100, as many as you care to churn out, every one a click away. None of the individual instances is substantively different from what might have occurred in the bad old days of film.
But the sheer quantity is different, is new. It changes things, in ways we don't fully understand. Digital has changed things, it is different.
Commentators and critics like Colberg and Bush are, however, quite wrong about why.