Of Comets and Pixels: On the decline of art photography and the rise of pixelography

‘The world is going to hell in a hand basket, and so is art photography.”

As I am an aging member of the Boomer generation, it should not be surprising that I believe the first part of that statement. Supposedly every generation, as it approaches the end of its rope, feels this way. So far, all past generations of Q-Tipers have been wrong about a looming apocalypse. But given the probability of global warming causing environmental disasters, terrorists wreaking havoc with dirty bombs, a killer comet paving the way for the insect world to have its at-bat, diminishing fresh water supplies undermining the already tenuous civility of human society, a cyber-Pearl Harbor causing the meltdown of our financial infrastructure, and the ticking time bomb that is the Yellowstone mega-volcano, well I think my generation may have a better chance of being right than wrong about this world-going-to-hell thing.

Still, there is really no new news here. The current younger generation, as have all previous younger generations, likely will shrug off the concerns of us old farts and somehow muddle on.

But what about the ‘… and so is art photography’ bit? What’s that about? More drivel from another geezer stuck on the ‘Zone System’, you say? Well, perhaps. But hear me out.  I think I’m much firmer ground with this one.

Have you ever noticed that art photography is the only major art form that needs the word ‘art’ in its title? Nobody refers to ‘art painting’ or ‘art sculpture’. The ‘art’ branch of photography must be distinguished because photography has a red-haired offspring, the run-of-the-mill snapshot (sneeringly referred to as ‘vernacular photography’ in the … uh… vernacular of art photography). Thanks mostly to the ubiquitous smartphone with its just-better-than-a-pinhole-camera lens, a bazillion snapshots are posted online every day.  Vernacular photography is stronger than ever. Well, maybe not stronger than ever, but for sure there is a lot more of it than ever.

So why then is art photography in danger?  As with vernacular photography, are there not more art images than ever before? Well, yes. But whereas snapshots still primarily rely on photons to form the image, even the digital image, art photography is ever more reliant on the manipulation of pixels to create the ‘art’. In art photography today the photon is more like what clay or marble is to sculpture—merely a raw material, merely a starting point. As NYU Professor of Photography and Imaging Fred Ritchin states in the introduction to After Photography, his look into the future of photography,  “Rather than a quote from appearances, a [digital photograph] serves as an initial recording, a preliminary script, which may precede a quick and easy reshuffling. The digital photographer—and all who come after her—potentially plays a postmodern visual disc jockey.” In short, art photography is in retreat and a new art form based on the manipulation of pixels, an art form many are calling ‘pixelography’, is on the rise.

Of course the usual retort is that manipulation always has been a part of art photography. True enough. But to argue that therefore nothing has changed is to miss the point that the bulk of today’s ‘photographic’ art imagery is possible only by the manipulation of pixels, not by the manipulation of the impact of photons on light sensitive mediums. Ever more, the image that the artist pre-visualizes can only be realized by manipulating pixels. Furthermore, photons are not needed to create the pixels; they are merely a convenient way to do so, and the trend is away from the photon from even that role.  In Photography Reborn: Image Making in the Digital Era, an exploration into the impact of digital technology on photography, author, educator and photographer Jonathan Lipkin asks “What will happen as modeling software becomes increasingly capable of generating photo-realistic imagery that cannot be distinguished in any way from real life?”

In the world of art photography it is not the art that is going the way of the Dodo; there is more art labeled ‘photography’ than ever before. It is the photon that is losing its essential role in the creation of that art. As a consequence the word ‘photography’ in the art form’s title is becoming a quaint anachronism. Art photography—the species of art realized by the capture of photons and the manipulation of light sensitive materials—is headed towards extinction. Pixelography is its killer comet.

This entry was posted in Essays.

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