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Isn’t it all immaterial anyway?

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I’ve become confused and a little concerned about the role of the photographer and this concern stems from how differentiated the practice elements are becoming. Increasingly in this post digital age the technologies available to the practitioner are becoming more and more abstruse, expertise accumulating in ever-deeper silos of technical proficiency resulting in ever more decoupling of capabilities that were once a more common currency.
Joan Fontcuberta says in his introduction to his volume of essays “Pandora’s Camera’ “’… digital photography is the product of an economy that privileges information as a commodity, opaque capital and invisible electronic actions. Its material is language, codes and algorithms: it has the same substance as text or sound and can exist in the same networks of transmission.” Fontcuberta is of course alluding to Neoliberalism, but equally important, it is also a recognition of the divestment of expertise of both craft and practice knowledge that were once vital to the practising photographer. As the ‘industry’ cloaks the capability of ‘craft’ under a veil of complication so dense that no one person understands how a digital camera works, it has become a matter of expediency to foster that landscape and ‘off-load’ those complicated tasks to ‘industry professionals’.
Photographic artists are perhaps being channeled to relieve themselves of the need to get involved with material and focus on the immaterial. Bit density and bandwidth are becoming more important than dynamic range, and the tangibility of the image, whether in the hand, on the wall or in a book is being inexorably prised away from the photographer’s gift and left for others to deal with. It is a truth that some photographers see the image on the screen before dispatching a file to the printer who then delivers to a gallery for hanging by a curator. This process is of course vital in a ‘global business’, but there once was a time that the photographer printed the images, or at least attended their birth, and then got involved with their shipment.
This ‘dematerialisation’ that Fontcuberta speaks of is perhaps why the photo-book is becoming more important. The annual OCA ‘factory week in the sun’ in Arles will again feature considerably more prints in book form than on the walls; even if it is ‘the largest photography festival in the world”. In all likelihood there will be more books to view than prints! What the book does for the artist who uses photography as their preferred medium, is to reclaim some vestige of control in the way the work is presented. We all know that curators have their own interests to serve, festivals their masters to cater for, but the medium of the photobook (self-published or otherwise) allows the artist to at least tell their story in a way that makes sense for them at the moment of publication – a final statement of authorship as they bid it farewell. I see more and more artists wanting to get more involved with the physical aspects of their work, and rallying against the cyphering of their imagery into a digital, immaterial ephemeral stream of data. Don’t you like to touch your work?

Posted by author: John Umney
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45 thoughts on “Isn’t it all immaterial anyway?

  • In a word John, Yes. I do like to touch my work. In my practice the screen image is no more than a step in the workflow and a step towards a print. There are two places in the workflow where I have any satisfaction. They are the time of taking and the inspection and sharing of the print. My knowledge of the IT role in my photography is appalling. I know enough to make it work, set everything up and then soon forget it. So, for me the print is the only way to show my work. I made a few photo books in the past but doubt I will do anymore, again due to production issues. I agree that a book is under the control of the author and the flow of reading a set of images in order is often paramount. It’s a step up from the screen only image that is a transient observation, condemned to a life of 101010’s in the dark of a hard drive.

    • Have you see the photo books of Vanessa Winship? “She Dances on Jackson” for example has exemplary print quality – and the narrative’s her own. On the other hand, hand binding hand made prints is another option when making a book.

      • I haven’t John. As a practical person the book making does appeal to me but there are not enough hours left on my days. In vernacular photography digital has democratised the taking process, who can’t do it ?
        Making a print is an effort and it probably won’t look any good with cheap home printers, the ink runs out, etc and the average Joe gives up. The slightly keener Mum or Dad will go to a print station in Asda or whatever to get the sports day pics so Granny can see them. They then have something tactile that is every bit as important as a McKenna.

  • These days though, isn’t print seen as the pinnacle point of the image production, that only the very best images have the resources allocated to them (not only money but time also) to be turned into physical objects. Digital images, whilst easy to produce and display have their place, but it’s the niche few that make it into a physical presence.

    • I’m not sure it is Dave, but assuming it is what, screen would be best to view all the other the work? Projected, backlit or other – does it matter?

  • Yes, I definitely like to ‘touch’ the work and challenge myself with my printer. The print engages other senses than just looking. I even like the contact sheets; making them larger and then cutting them up so I can shuffle images around. I have had a couple of books printed by Blurb but have the ambition to create my own, by hand. What I need is to learn more about the art of creating such photo books and how to edit images (as discussed in an earlier post) and I’m hoping that OCA might take up the requests/suggestions of specialist input on this.

    • You may remember Catherine at the artist talk Johanna Ward talked about sequencing when she made her work “I shall say goodbye..” and it is this notion of developing a story that seems important about a book – as much as the physicality of it.

      • Yes – I do remember us talking about sequencing and it’s how to make that jump from sequencing 8 or 12 to a larger number; deciding on placement and sizing. I’m fascinated by the complexity of the decisions involved.

  • Hi Catherine,
    It would be great if you could forward any suggestions/ideas for resources to coursesupport@oca.ac.uk so that we can log and action if applicable. There will be a series of almost mini courses or projects available to all students on things such as collage, perspective, colour, 3D work, lettering, etc that will be useful on a cross discipline level and again we could potentially add to these with student suggestions such as the book making.

  • One or two immediate thoughts, John; you are, I think, focusing (understandably and appropriately) on the photograph in an art context. The biggest impact of digital dematerialisation of the image is through some of the many other strands of photography’s plurality. In fact, it could be argued that art is the last bastion of the material photographic image; and we have discussed before the interesting extent to which contemporary artists working with photography return to traditional processes to produce their images.
    Joan Fontcuberta, in the last chapter of the (superb) book to which you refer (a chapter titled ‘Why do we call it love when we mean sex?’) deals the with the question of whether it is still appropriate to call it photography. He doesn’t get hung up about the question, and nor should any of us in my view, but the fact that the question is asked suggests you’re not alone in the confusion to which you refer in your first sentence.
    I do like to touch my work. I do intend to make use of the book format in the not too distant future. BUT I’m am greatly enthused by the immense scope for creativity that digital technology has brought to photography. Whether I fully understand all the tools I’m using doesn’t seem crucial – other than if I’m missing some opportunity to make more use of it.

    • “…other than if I’m missing some opportunity to make more use of it.” how will you ever know?
      I wonder if we are witnessing the death of photography, whether the image makers and image making devices will occupy that place. Is it in fact a photography degree?

  • Readers and correspondents in this thread may well be interested in the upcoming Fortnightly Discussion that I will be starting in the Visual Studies forum sometime this weekend. The topic will be Post-Internet art and has, I think, much resonance here.

  • Well it is a Photography degree, because that’s what it ‘says on the tin’ – but what that might actually mean is very different from, say, 20 years ago, and very very different from 20 years before that. We live in exciting times with all manner of fascinating creative possibilities (in which context, to answer your question, I can never know everything, but I can jump in a try). There’s plenty of room to work with photographic images in a material sense and/or in digital form – to be experimental, to explore the boundaries.

    • I slightly disagree with one aspect Stan, yes, very very different from 20 years ago, but almost similar to all ages of photography before that. And I wonder if the boundaries are opening or narrowing?

      • Maybe narrowing for some strands of photography and opening for others? I wonder, maybe, if it’s this shifting process that that leads to a feeling of confusion a lot of the time. If you mean that there is a return to the avant-garde amongst many contemporary artists working with photography, I would certainly agree with that.

  • While I would agree John, that there is no substitute for getting your hands on a physical print, a book or stand in front of a print in an exhibition I am not quite sure it can all be hung on the digital technology. Nowadays even if one is making work on analogue equipment such as film camera somewhere along the way, for the most part that analogue image will be digitised to turn it into a physical object by scanning, possibly retouching and using a digital printer to output it to paper. Skill set or the craft is still required to make prints or a book or organise to display the work as an exhibition its just not the same craft. sadly though the vast majority of people never bother to print their images – whether artwork or even family photographs. They all seem to stay on a hard drive nowadays.

    • I agree Brian that the digital world has and continues to encroach into practise of most photographers – and other mediums alike (where would writers be without it these days) – that is not really my concern, but rather that collaboration with technology where the practitioner, almost as an act of faith, has to rely on processes way beyond their ken. Processes that are becoming more and more complex yet portrayed and enabled as the simplest way forward, thereby divorcing the artist from many of the crafts that were traditionally in their hands. The digital revolution is making the work ephemeral, it’s life expectancy reducing.

  • To be honest I’m not bothered whether I touch my work or not. If I were a poet would I want to touch my words? If you’re getting hung up on the technology then you’re missing the point of photography
    1 Have something to say
    2 Make sure it’s worth saying
    3 Make sure your images actually say what it says on the tin
    4 present it in a way that is sympathetic to, and perhaps adds to, your message
    If you let equipment or materials dominate your approach the message, the bit that really matters, is relegated to second place. Yes there is scope for materiality in presentation, but what you capture the image on is immaterial. The craft of photography is what you do with your equipment to determine what you produce and that’s still there regardless of whether you have a digital or a chemical reaction inside the camera.
    How I take images hasn’t really altered – the costs have come down and I don’t do battle with scratches and dust as I used to …and I get to see the pictures quicker. What I think of when I shoot, i.e. timing, position, lighting, direction, angle of view, exposure, focusing point, depth of field etc etc are just the same. What will distinguish your work are the decisions made in shooting and editing and, more importantly, the ideas behind it and how well they are delivered.
    I agree it is easier now to produce an image, but then it is easy to paint a picture – a 5 year old can do it. Production, whether easy or difficult, isn’t related to quality. You can make a top quality print of an awful picture, or a nice picture that has nothing to say. There were bad photographers who mastered the technology 30 years ago and there are plenty now too. When I see work I admire I don’t ask whether it was shot on film, any more than I’d ask a film director whether they used film or digital …if the film is a winner of oscars and a palm d’or, and I love it, who cares what film stock it was on, or not on?

    • Many topics Derek. Film/digital is an issue of aesthetics and a decision that needs to be made to work with the story and the final output. In my practice it is a decision that I take with care.

    • By touching your work you have the opportunity to gauge whether the work is reproduced in the manner you decided, as an artist, that the medium by which your message is delivered was indeed, as intended. It is not about analogue versus digital, but about how the elements of design are being extracted from the artist to ‘experts’. It is true that in the field of analogue photography, which is presented increasingly as a ‘black art’ by the present day establishment, is in fact simpler than the current digital process, and that has been achieved by enabling the process, by ‘democratising’ the tools to such an extent that even a 5 year old can do it. That in itself, I would suggest, doesn’t make it better – quality and comprehension are habitual companions.
      As a poet I would be very concerned how my words were presented, of course I cannot protect how they may develop another life post composition; but my words on the back of a fag packet mean something different to those on vellum and indeed by the method of inscription.

  • Ive never been very bothered about the physicality of my images, digital was just fine. But today I made a hand bound book for the first time, just with draft quality prints and cheap paper, and I was as excited as a small child! Something about making a thing, crafting it, feels far more satisfying than messing about in photoshop. I think it is difficult for those of us who havent ever processed a film to see photography as a craft, even though I love my photography and I would argue all day for its importance as an art form, I still cant help but perceive it differently to the physicality of painting a picture.

  • In the Bauhaus, school of modern art, photographic students had to have a knowledge of mathematics! I think this marriage between art and technology is an important part of photography. Using a machine to create art and a good workman needs to be familiar with his tools.
    Of course, one likes to touch one’s work …

  • Would there be interest in a hand made book day workshop, I have worked with a great artist in Bath and could see if he could teach a class for oca students and we could see if there was any ocasa support. He teaches a range of different books so we could select one or have one adapted to our needs.
    He is teaching a class which may appeal to photography or drawing students
    Bookmaking Workshop: Print Album / Book
    Sunday 24 May; 10:30am – 4:30pm; £40 (includes all materials)
    This workshop is designed for participants with or without bookbinding experience.
    During the workshop, participants will have the opportunity to make and take home a pocket sized Print Album / Book designed to incorporate added printed/paper material.
    This book structure has guards within the pages at the spine to compensate for the additional added paper thickness.
    Extra paper/prints are accommodated within the books pages using integral slotted corners.
    The page structuring for this book is multi sectional.
    All equipment and materials will be provided for the workshop.
    Tutor: Guy Begbie

  • I agree partly with you, it is a yes and no, John. It depends on my vision of photography and my standpoint what digital media is. From the economic perspective you are right, and the overwhelming nature of what is going on is to do business with images. Images become big data, like in medicine – not the subject counts, but the use you can make of the data. On the other hand digital media give images also that static being. An image as representation of a moment can create many more such moments the more people can look at it, and the perception of the image remains static – it is a statical representation of a moment. I think insofar images in digital media are somehow a paradox, but they really can stand against that, because they have their own power. Concerning the production process you mention this will inevitably change, same as in medicine again – today there is no such thing as hierarchy of knowledge anymore, or it disappears increasingly.

  • John, I accept much of what you are saying here but do have an issue with one statement you make … “in this post digital age” … I can not see that we are in a post-digital age but there is a “post-digital” movement within the arts.

  • I would agree with Amano, that the first answer to your title question that comes to mind after reading your article, John, is ‘No’ – but that may have to do with my age and the book culture I grew up in, and with my motivation to start learning photography in the first place. I know photographers who never print anything and are happy to simply discuss their images electronically with others around the world….so this could be in part a personal preference.
    On the one hand I love the fact that photography has become so much more varied, that it is possible to experiment so much electronically – immaterially. But then at some stage I want to see a ‘product’ – I want to be able to go to a photographic exhibition and see pictures on a wall. I want to touch the paper my photographs were printed on…..
    Needless to say my grandchildren may feel different about this. Even now they are infinitely more fascinated by immaterial stories on the internet than actual books.They will watch my photographs on the computer for a longer time than they will look at photo-books of the same subjects. At the same time I am sure that the tactile pleasure people continue to take from being able to handle ‘material’ photographs will continue and so I do not worry that soon it will all be ‘immaterial’ anyway.

  • I haven’t had time to read all the above, but flicking through it sounds a bit like we need to put up the barricades and keep the 21st century and new technologies out!
    I think its a better idea to do as Derek suggests, image make intelligently….and use whichever modes of dispersion for our images that we feel is most appropriate. Maybe across several modes. Surely one of the most interesting features of photography is that the photograph is not in one fixed site, it can crystallise itself into different materialities and innumerable versions of itself, not all of which are under the control of the photographer.
    Do we always want to be in control of our images anyway, maybe on occasion it might be more interesting to think of them going off into the world working on people and propagating themselves digitally as though they were alive rather than only existing as some fetishized dead archival print in a cupboard somewhere 😀
    Having said that I think that the reception of the work is very,very much affected by its material presentation, the context its in, the images its next to, its size, print quality, etc.

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