Quantum Photography - Part 2


A 21st Century Recognition of the Medium

(From Quantum Photography - Part 1)

When more than a million photographs are instantly available to anyone, any time, with a web connection, how does the intersection of production and expectations make some of them matter more than others?

The new landscape obliterates many traditional boundaries that have been used as conventions for evaluation. Creation has become production; Exhibition has become broadcasting; and Marketing has become social networking.

From the perspective of critics, the language of discussion shifts heavily towards new defaults. Photographs as objects are primarily media presentations. Photography as a practice is not a special philosophy of perception but instead just an imaging craft. Almost anything of note is usually about the impact of a picture on viewer experience. And in the realm of experiences, it’s a buyer’s market.

This story covers the following issues in current photography:

- Products and Factory

- Method

- Production Values and Performance

- Context and Relevance

- Design and Distribution

- Culture and Critique

- Environment


Part 2:


The impact of modern technology on photography is most rationally investigated in certain ways.  Different approaches are individually worthwhile, but because of technological impacts, none can ignore how they overlap each other.

One possible investigation would be about the artistic influence of photography in an image-saturated world. When “viewing audiences” are constantly consuming a spectacular range of visual stimuli, how does a picture distinguish itself “above” the commoditizing pressure that over-abundance puts on all images? For that, we have to consider marketing.

Another investigation would be about the practice of self-identifying as a photographer. The analysis here need never be definitive because this self-identification has only two uses: public and private; and both realms are ever-changing. The difference between being a camera owner, a camera user, a photo-maker, and a “photographer” is normally irrelevant except in professional or social contexts. For example, there is often some excitement surrounding the discovery that a person professionally or socially re-known for one type of practice (say, acting, math, or music) is proficient in a different practice such as picture-making. We have always had the convenience of the label “advanced amateur” to indicate that pictorial expertise exists outside of the rules of commercial acceptance, all the while layering over it with the label “professional artist” specifically to signal which activities have the practitioner’s highest priorities. These personae, blown to bits by the actual portability of any photo-image across networks, are maintained mainly for the benefit of providing limited warranties to picture-users, in combination with the legalities of licensing. The side-effect of needing the warranty is that “serious photographers”, to protect their personae, adopt production methods that make it easier for them to enforce the warranty they want to offer. Consequently, perhaps undesirably, such methods will increase some kinds of uniformity in the forms of work produced. So far, protecting the persona has been misconstrued as being a nearly unsolvable problem of defending intellectual property rights. In reality, for photographers who really need the persona in order to feel satisfied, the problem is an old one: how to maximize the brand while minimizing the supply level needed to maintain it. The trade-off now is that high-volume is more necessary to establish the brand in the first place -- before limiting the supply of future work will not limit the “serious” audience for it. This becomes strategic. For example, will having many different audiences and multiple personae allow a photographer to “succeed” with lower volume for each audience? Ironically, because of networks, this may be happening “to” the photographer now, not “because of” the photographer, entirely without any demonstrable compensation for the photographer’s effort.

A third, investigation would be about why a picture maker chooses photography as a method. An “aesthetic” is sometimes defined as “A set of principles underlying and guiding the work of a particular artist or artistic movement.” While this need not be taken as the only useful description of aesthetics, its virtue is largely in that it identifies “work” as the reason why aesthetics matter. An aesthetic is a characteristic of production.

In the production of photographs, this definition of aesthetics aligns well with the notions of “instrumentality” and “orchestration”. Simply put, instrumentality refers to an emphasis on distinctive effects producible through typical uses of an instrument; orchestration refers to planning and arranging those effects for a desired complex and synergistic result.

As an instrument, the camera is used as the most direct connection between the photo-maker’s observations and that maker’s ideas. The ways that the camera initially shapes and transmits observations are the intended effects of the instrument. The camera aesthetic includes the principle that this directness supplies credibility to the picture maker’s ideas, specifically because the ideas are about how meaning derives from observation. Meanwhile, the picture is a “proof” of the idea.

The camera aesthetic, consequently, supports a huge diversity of work, because the aesthetic does nothing to arbitrarily suppress the simplicity or complexity of ideas, nor does it suppress the ease or difficulty of proving them. Instead, there is continual exploration and celebration of what ideas can be tackled and how, using the camera. As part of this, the instruments evolve, to offer a variety of tactical approaches.

A fourth, if not final, investigation would be about how the presumed unification of the technique and the medium is disintegrating, making it less clear what the term “photography” is supposed to even mean. For that, we have to consider that all photography has been rendering, and all rendering is essentially Drawing.  The matter at hand is not whether drawing with light is obsolete (it isn’t), nor whether drawing with pixels or bits is legitimate (it is); instead, the emerging concepts that must be in the foreground all have to do with Style and with the relationship of visual “fidelity” to visual “definition” (high-, low-, or somewhere in between). At this point, amongst notions of the evolution of photography, the “aesthetic” of the Camera (which is a cultural aspect) is more important than any other. What we come to understand from this is that as an instrument, the Camera plays many types of images just as a saxophone or piano plays many types of music. The instrument, and its associated aesthetics, does evolve -- offering both additional ways of expressing things and additional kinds of expressions. Once beyond the camera, there is little that distinguishes photographs from the results of other manufacturing methods.

Beyond the camera per se, the top disruptive developments in the field of photography have one thing in common; each one permanently resets expectations about the sources and consumers of pictures, simultaneously. The most well-known of these are not necessarily the only examples of their type, but they are great reference points. CGI, Photoshop, and digital printing are clearly permanently disruptive, both separately and, especially, together. But the following examples are hugely prominent for the purpose of charting the continuation and adaptations of the camera aesthetic:

Apple iPhone 4s

1080p Video in DSLRs with freeze-frame

Google Street View


Getty/Flickr partnership

Canon Project Imaginat10n



A current discussion on Wikipedia is as follows.

“In the famous thought experiment called Schrödinger's cat: a cat, a flask of poison, and a radioactive source are placed in a sealed box. If an internal monitor detects radioactivity (i.e. a single atom decaying), the flask is shattered, releasing the poison that kills the cat. There is a supposed 50% chance of this happening. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead [a state called superposition]. Yet, when one looks in the box, one sees the cat either alive or dead, not both alive and dead. This poses the question of when exactly superposition ends and reality collapses into one possibility or the other.”

When a photograph is initially produced today, networked audiences detect it, triggering some degree of further transmission. The probability that the audience will be initially favorable is varied from time to time. But at any given point in time, the picture is either being propagated and used, or not. Without specifically checking, it is assumed that after a while the picture is simultaneously in circulation and out of circulation. Yet when tracked down, the picture is either in circulation or out, not both in circulation and out. Reality collapses into one possibility or the other.

In photography, this collapse is only the reality of the moment. Due to technology, the autonomous life of the picture seemingly never ends; instead, it is merely articulated by occasions of rediscovery and reuse – here one day, and there the next. Reality never collapses permanently into one possibility or another…

Photography today is mostly characterized by the increasingly unpredictable life of the photograph. The picture morphs, migrates and manifests, in ways that have practical purpose but otherwise respect few enduring limits. Because technology has made it very clear that these conditions are now virtually inherent in any image, the influence of photography will be more and more characterized by the ways in which these conditions are managed or exploited to achieve a picture’s relevance to context -- by the episodic occasions of selectivity and style, and of design and distribution.

If there is a primary message in all of this, it is that photography is a practice that, overall, is enduringly more important due to its impact on culture than to its place in art. Yet through its impact on culture, it drives ongoing adaptations of our understanding of what we think is art.

Copyright 2013 Malcolm Ryder / all rights reserved

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This page contains a single entry by published on January 13, 2013 9:20 AM.

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