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After PhotographyReview - After Photography
by Fred Ritchin
W. W. Norton, 2010
Review by Maria Lakka, Ph.D.
Oct 15th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 41)

According to the view that considers technology as our tool to better grasp the world, the shift from analog to digital media technologies is not simply a mark of technological progress. Instead, it is inscribed in the process in which the use of every new technology produces new ways of perceiving the world, of communicating and relating to others, and thus alters our understanding of ourselves and the cosmos. Media theorists, from Walter Benjamin to Marshall McLuhan and Paul Virilio, have shown in distinctive ways that media are not transparent mediations through which content is seamlessly communicated to us but most importantly they frame the communicative process itself.       

Fred Ritchin's book After Photography endorses these theoretical assumptions in tracing the consequences of the analog–digital shift in the field of photography. The book uses a broad range of examples that illuminate the cultural and aesthetic implications of digital technology and manages to entwine the theoretical argument with a practice-based research in a way that renders the book accessible to the non-specialist yet, without reductively oversimplifying matters.   

In the first chapter of the book Ritchin delineates the main characteristics of the analog/digital shift and thus provides the conceptual schema that will inform his project. He acknowledges the radicality of digital technology by stating right from the beginning that "photography, as we have known it, is both ending and enlarging" [15]. In the course of the book, he argues that even though digital photography is commonly configured as "a seamless, more efficient repetition of the past", that is as the optimization of the functions of its analog predecessor, in reality it collapses the latter's aesthetic foundation which relies on its indexical character. Yet, it opens up a new range of possibilities, which shift photographic value from the appreciation of a photo's singular, inherent qualities to its connectivity with a series of photos or informational resources. Digital technology removes the age-long function of the photograph as a document but offers us much greater control over the individual contents. It opens up to non-linear connections and transforms photographic practice from an act of the intuitive mind to an omnipresent communication strategy.   

The following chapters will explore how the above-mentioned ideas become concretely expressed in photographic practice. Chapter 2 deals with the common practice of photographic manipulation, extensively used to correct, enhance or create a composite image. The author identifies two major consequences resulting from it: namely, the diminution of photographer's autonomy in favor of editing control and the erasure of the photograph's ambiguity in order to safeguard the reception of a single, clear and intended meaning. The example of the Meiselas/Garnett dispute [32-34] on the latter's aestheticized appropriation of the former's photos on the Nicaraguan revolution reveals a shift in broader cultural assumptions. In the case of appropriation, the photographer can have no moral claims upon her images, determining their exclusive meaning and usage, but only legal and economic rights upon her product. Her role is no longer transcendentally conceived as a creator of the image and its singular meaning but as a provider of a content that can be put into new contexts. However, the author also argues in a Benjaminian way, that the massive appropriation of images in a digital pastiche serves and promotes a consumerist ethos that flattens the image's ambiguity in favor of one-dimensional meanings that can be easily consumed. 

The following chapter addresses the issue of the standardization of experience by (analog) photography, exemplified in Suzan Sontag's critique of photography, and examines how the digital version might subvert this paradigm. As Ritchin argues with digital photography "the originality and spontaneity of experience is at stake, with a chance to be revived" [55]. Rather than supposedly testifying to the event as it occurred (thus confusing its partial point-of-view with an absolute Eye), the digital photo offers only one perspective, which may work with several others in order to re-contextualize the event while safeguarding a multiplicity of views. The question then becomes not whether the event is correctly or falsely recontextualized but rather the level or complexity offered in such contextualization, which opens up and sharpens our insight. However, the disconnection from reality's reference severely challenges photography as a reportorial medium and spreads total disbelief as the only attitude able to cope with a synthesized universe. It affects our capacity of being touched by what we see and thus the proliferation of images may "end up making us blind" [67].

In chapter four Ritchin envisages the possibilities opened up by the non-referential character of the digital product. Analog photography has been used as a means of exploration of the world or of self-expression; in both cases emphasis is placed on singular photographic vision. The digital photograph, however, introduces the new logic of the hypertext that creates "mosaic connections", [69] links to other visual or textual information that amplify our initial understanding. It emerges more as a conceptual rather than visual medium and expands our understanding of a situation more than it provokes an insightful knowledge [76]. Probably, however, the most far-reaching consequence of the non-referentiality of the digital is not the latter's lack of credibility but its independence from the human observer, an event with multiple, unprecedented cultural implications.

An expression of this remark is to be found in the field of war photography and it is symptomatic with the gradual "diminution of the eye-witnesss" [88] argued in the fifth chapter. Whether one considers the smart-bomb vision introduced during the first Gulf war, or the cinematic terms – but real in its effects - of the terrorist attack's execution on 9/11, or even the urge for digital photographers reporting conflicts to quickly edit and upload their photos rather than 'to be on site', all examples testify from different angles to how digital media feed into reality to transform it into a mega-reality, a cinematic, sensational yet, at the same time, alienated reality.

Taking into account the danger and the promise enveloped in the virtual, namely that it can have "very powerful real-world effects" Ritchin sets as his task in the following chapters the exploration of how can virtual media be used constructively. Thus in chapter 6 he provides concrete examples of on-line projects that bring into light virtual, collaborative communities as producers of the content. New media appear to bear a great democratic potential as they dispense with professionals and institutional filters, which restrict accessibility and support a hierarchical structure. Nevertheless, a complete removal of any sort of mediative filter, which would provide the framework and contextualize the information provided risks to end up masking real democracy by rendering the bulk of information practically inaccessible and irrelevant.

In the field of social photography (ch. 7) digital technology offers more possibilities for an engaged photography. It is now possible for the amateur to provide her photos of the event, which are less stylized but give us the view of the insider and empower the community. Bypassing institutional filters a documentary photo may now report the event raw without the aesthetic pretext that neutralizes the communicability of the pain.

The last three chapters of the book delineate the principal tendencies of digital photography that open it up to the future, linking it to parallel evolutions in the cultural and scientific fields. Chapter 8 traces the new possibilities of a hyperphotography: by testifying to a new relationship to space, time, authorship and other media, digital photography becomes "a component in the interactive, networked interplay of a larger metamedia" [141]. The frame is no longer conceived as the container of an image but as an informational storage, prismatic and extendable.

Chapter 9 presents and reflects upon aspects of a technological enframing of life, in a way that renders all reality lived a technologically mediated one. Whether one considers the increased visibility provided by street cameras or the human-machine intersection from mobile phones to the possibility of plugged-in micro-computers, or the research undertaken on artificial life at all cases digital technology opens up the way for an undistinguishable human-machine symbiosis in a way that expands the human scope of action but also threatens our capacity to judge or interpret the events of our life.

Finally, the last chapter concludes by implicating digital technology in a quantum world of probabilities. The digital universe freed from the burden of referentiality, of space-time continuity and linear time engages in a spiral dance of probabilities without certainties. Digital photography might work more holistically, opening up, analyzing and synthesizing reality's complex layers in order to deepen awareness of ours and others' condition.

This is an insightful book recommended not only to the specialist but anyone interested in photography and the cultural consequences of the digital revolution.


© 2010 Maria Lakka


Maria Lakka received a PhD in Media Studies from Goldmiths College in 2006 and teaches in Greece at the University level courses "Video History" and "Art and Communication in the Graphic Arts"


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