Thursday, April 18, 2019

The History of the Digital Transition

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.


  1. Well-stated review of the contemporary world of "photography." Your term Great Men reminds me of the "Great Photographers" who expound their self-professed expertise and drivel on the infamous Dpreview. Sadly, that site probably epitomizes what has happened to the world of contemporary imaging. No textbook needed, just peruse over there......

    1. The Great Man is actually a pretty well established and formal "method of historiography" which has also been broadly criticized. Wikipedia has a decent primer.

  2. A history of digital is complicated by it coinciding with the second democratisation of photography.
    The first shattered the status quo and saw a leading photographer comment “Here comes the rabble” and give up photography within a year. An industry semi-collapsed and camera wielding men and women became a real social nuisance. On the other hand it led to pictures of subjects never seen before made by ordinary people. Aunt Mary and her tennis racquet, couples at home on the couch.
    The assumption that's never mentioned in histories is that of progress. We see technological changes as the inevitable path to utopia, but I wonder if an assessment of the quality of what's being done with the tech is even possible.
    The first wave of photography's democratisation, say 1880 - 1910, seems to me to also coincide with a disappearance of most of the great men and women in photography, compared to what came before and after.
    If the emergence of digital follows a similar track, we'll need to wait another 15 years before much can be said about what has really happened.

  3. In a way, what you describe is simply the way real life is turned into "history". Sure, no-one knows now what or who will be come to be regarded as notable nodes in the narrative, but they'll be there, somewhere, even if they have to be invented! (or, more likely, constructed like some Frankenstein's monster out of the leftovers). I doubt many private soldiers knew they were at the "Battle of Waterloo", for example, as opposed to just having a particularly busy day at work.

    Who knows what daft photographic fads came and went before digital, without leaving a mark on the official "histories"? Although you can get some idea by looking at copies of popular photo mags from the 1950s and 60s, or even something as aspirational as Aperture: end-to-end hilarity and bafflement! This is a different kind of history, though, like the study of office-work or household cleaning products, things The Chosen Exemplary Few rarely have to deal with. When it comes to our digital age (assuming a good proportion of our websites, blogs, social media, and actual photographs do survive) future historians are going to have a truly massive "noise v. signal" problem, though... History may need to have more in common with data-mining than story-telling.


    1. Well, that's kind of the point isn't it? To invent great men to carry the narrative will, I think, be quite a bit harder this time around.

      I may have beef with Ansel Adams and Alfred Stieglitz, but to promote Ming Thein and/or Michael Reichmann as the Great Men of their era would be ludicrous. It could happen, I suppose.

      The best method I have so far devised to tell this history would be to make up 2 or 3 or 6 archetypal, fictional, characters, and follow their trajectories through 2000 through 2020.

      "in 2000 Bill is 16 years old, aspiring to be a sports photographer..."

      and so on. It would be a radically different style of history, and could be entertaining as hell to read.

    2. Well, nobody gives tuppence for the likes Thein or Reichmann as artists, even now, though their role as "influencers" might come to be seen as significant or at least typical.

      One thing that strikes me as interesting, now I come to think of it, is the number of contemporary photographers I'd rate highly as artists who have clung to film in the digital era, or only come to digital quite late in their career. Perhaps that's because the photographers I think of as "contemporaries" are actually quite old, now... Or perhaps it's linked to galleries' reluctance to accept digital prints as a valid medium? Whatever, it's unlikely that anyone who does not make it past the Gatekeepers now will figure in any history books. Sally Mann or Alec Soth or Paul Graham will remain Names on the list: the future will decide who on the list is up and who is down.


    3. That's kind of where I am at. Trying to grapple with it traditionally seems to boil down to: Well there were a lot of influencers who weren't much of anything artistically, and anyways are too numerous and indistinguishable to name. And there were a lot of photos made. It was very popular. And there were fads that came and went but in the end everything looked pretty similar, and everything got photographed. And there were filters? And social media?

      It just seems chaotic and directionless. Do you just boil 2000 through 2020 down to "and with digital there was a sharp uptick in popularity of photography, followed by a gradual decline, and also Facebook." and then leave it at that?

    4. Maybe, but I'd add: with the advent of digital, photography became too easy, and too ubiquitous, thus exposing the essential banality of the enterprise as a art medium, as if keeping a diary ever made anyone a writer, or going on holiday ever made anyone an explorer. So, short of finding something no-one had ever photographed before, the interesting things (i.e. the things that would attract the attention of the Gatekeepers) became (1) to handicap yourself with Ye Olde Processes, or (2) to ironise the essential banality of snapshots, or (3) to start seeing what digital could do that straight photography couldn't, without descending into mindless, preset-driven kitsch. Oh, like incredibly tasteful photo-collage, for example ;)

      But, as I say, don't underestimate the ability of historians to find retrospective patterns in apparent chaos. "Pareidolia", I think it's called...


  4. Wouldn't such a history be a description of how photography became the most common language on earth?

  5. It seems to me that the writing of "history" is easier once a bit of time has passed, so that one is indeed writing "a history", and not a description of the present.

  6. I like your idea,A.M.! "The best method I have so far devised to tell this history would be to make up 2 or 3 or 6 archetypal, fictional, characters, and follow their trajectories through 2000 through 2020."