Mike over on ToP recently wrote what amounts to a kind of request for a History of the Digital Transition by which he means, roughly, a history of the last 20 years of photography during which photography changed over from analog film to digital sensors, more or less abruptly and completely.
I do not intend to write that history, here or anywhere else. I do intend to discuss some of the problems inherent in such a project.
Histories of Photography tend to be built around two intertwined strands. The first is technical: the tools, chemistry, and methods of photography and the evolution of them. The second thread is a variation on the Great Man approach to historiography, in which central figures are identified, biographied, and their influences traced.
The Great Man approach to history generally casts the Great Men as exceptional, and causal. The conceit is that without Napoleon, the relevant portions of European Political History would have been radically different. The opposing viewpoints assert that without Napoleon, more or less the same things would have occurred under the leadership of another man, or other men, because of social and political reasons. While one might argue about Napoleon, the situation in photography is far clearer.
Fixing the image cast in the camera obscura was a project western Europe was embarked on in the early 1800s. Without Talbot or Daguerre, almost no change. Someone else would have invented similar methods. Perhaps there would only have been one, using sheepskin, rather than two, one using paper and the other silver-plated metal sheets. Without Robinson, someone else would have risen up to thunder Ruskin's philosophies at the burgeoning photographic world. Without Emerson, someone else would have fired back from the redoubts of Impressionism. Without Stieglitz, well, ok, Stieglitz. Probably someone or several someone's would have arisen, likely in New York, to champion American Photography. And so on.
It is exquisitely clear that the technical evolution of photography was more or less inevitable, and that Great Men would crop up out of the social context to perform the specific roles that they performed.
This is not to suggest that Talbot and Daguerre and Emerson and Steichen were not influential. They assuredly were. What they were not is particularly causal. These roles had to be played, would inevitably have been played, and history quite properly records those roles, the relations between those roles, and the ways the roles influenced the progression, the history, of photography. And, while we're in there, we might as well assign the names. But make no mistake, Robinson's influence was the influence not really of Robinson, but of whomever it was that was assigned the job of translating Ruskin for photographers.
Fast forward to perhaps the 1970s, if you will. Ansel Adams is still rattling around the USA writing books, and working out his assigned role of promote straight photography, U.S.A. division and making quite a bit of money in the process. It is somewhere in here that the wheels begin to fall off the intertwined technique/great man approach to history. Technique rolls onwards, a few minor twiddles followed by the digital camera, but there are no Great Men nor even pretty ok people to carry your narrative.
Who, in the last 50 years, has really been leading the charge, telling us how we ought to photograph, what we ought to photograph, and why? Nobody? Or is it that there are too many?
Since the beginning, most photographers have been in some sense self-taught. One might learn a technique here, gather an idea there. A few went to schools, but many schools simply provided opportunities for students to teach themselves more efficiently. Few schools seem to have made any serious effort to transmit a philosophy or an aesthetic, to transmit anything of the sort art historians are in the business of documenting.
Replacing the kind of hands-on osmotic teaching that we find in schools of painting or the piano, we find instead authoritative voices thundering away in periodicals and books. Emerson's influence was not by way of teaching students, but by way of publishing opinions and ideas more or less widely read. Adams wrote any number of books on How and Why To Take Photos, which have been woefully influential, and remain so to a degree even today.
What seems to have happened in the end is a sort of fragmenting of these voices. Today we have literally thousands of people styling themselves as experts, each with some sort of following, each promoting some mixture of useful information (technical and/or aesthetic) and absolute nonsense (ditto.)
Coupled to this fragmentation of authority, we have a curious effect of technology.
In the olden days, each technology, each basket of materials and methods, produced specific looks and had specific working properties. As often as not we find Great Men expounding some particular selection of materials and methods as best suited to whatever they were selling. Adams promotes glossy silvery based paper, and a suite of chemistry, because it best suits his Precisionist tastes. Emerson promotes platinum paper and some methods, because they best suit his Impressionist theories.
In the digital era, all of these things are pressed into post-processing, and are available simultaneously through the application of suitable sliders or, worse, "presets" which you can purchase in bundles of 6,000 or 27,000 or 800 for a few dollars. The photographer, rather than selecting a collection of materials and techniques to laborious purchase and master, to accomplish one suite of looks, one kind of photography, now has access to all of them at once.
You can, as it were, switch in an instant from gum bichromate Pictorialism to glossy silver Precisionism to Cibachrome Egglestonism in the blink of an eye. There is no need to commit, you don't have to pick someone to follow. It's a mere click or two away to some other Youtube channel with 10 Fast Tricks for whatever it is that you glommed on to this morning.
We have always, really, had these ideas more or less floating around society in the minds of the masses, bashing in to one another and evolving. Ruskin's ideas about painting were there, they were going to be deployed into this new discipline of photography. From the historian's point of view, though, Robinson conveniently arose to personify, to embody, this abstraction. He can be biographied, he helpfully provided a selection of handy quotations and pictures that you can decorate that portion of the history book with, and so on.
In these modern times, and especially in the last 20 years, we have no such embodiment. The ideas are still out there, after a fashion, but they have no convenient personification.
Currently, for instance, we have a fad in portraiture for heavily processed skin, and oversharpened eyes. Many techniques exist for "skin work" one of which is "frequency separation" which has a particularly ugly look. It brings up the texture of the skin, but deletes imperfections, leaving an endless sea of glowing perfectly rendered pores, each the size of a bus. Add to this the creepy punched up eyes, and you have an archetypal look which has been quite popular of late.
Would you put this thing into your history of photography, 2016-2019? I don't know. Maybe. But if you did, how would you record it? It was not originated by any one person, it is a collection of techniques, some of which probably originated in the bowels of Adobe, some of which are probably misunderstandings of someone else's technique for doing something else. Is it commercially important? Not really. Is it a historically important style? I don't know, maybe? Certainly millions of words have been written about it, and hours of video tutorials exist on this basket of methods. It is surely more thoroughly documented than Emerson's Impressionistic methods of photography.
How do you write the contemporary history of color science? There are dozens of books, dozens of real authorities and thousands of false ones. There are, again, millions of words of misinformation and millions more words of information. There are theories and ideas. But I cannot detect any organizing principle which can be used to chop this mess down to size. You could simply review the facts of color science, I suppose, but that hardly seems a history.
In some ways I feel that we may be witnessing an end of history here, not in Fukuyama's sense but simply in the sense that the whole thing has gotten so shattered that no organizing structure is possible.
The death of the Great Man is probably a good thing, that was always bollocks, but I don't see anything else popping up to take his place.