BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 01 MAR 10
Featured in
Issue 129

Long Exposure

The death and resurrection of photography in a digitized world

BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 01 MAR 10

Cindy Sherman, Untitled 67, 1980. Courtesy: Metro Pictures, New York, Sprüth Magers, Berlin / London.

Photography is dead. That news may come as a surprise, since obituaries about art tend to be written about painting. Invented in the 1830s, photo-graphy is still in its infancy as an art form compared to the centuries-old medium of painting. Despite inventions like portable paint tubes and fast-drying acrylic, painting has not undergone the transformations that digitalization is bringing to the medium of photography.

Of course, I’m speaking about the death of film photography. Happy to save on the cost of film and the time taken to develop it, consumers embraced digitalization with such gusto that a whole industry is dying. In 2005, the film photography giant AgfaPhoto filed for bankruptcy. In 2009, Polaroid ceased the production of instant Polaroid film, and Kodak discontinued Kodachrome film. Digital photographs are not only cheaper and faster to produce; they can be stored endlessly and shared instantly with countless friends. Polaroids, though ‘instant’, could not be emailed and tweeted.

For artists, such mass-market developments are turning film photography into a specialist field, like lithography. Old paper photographs will soon become a rarity at flea markets and then a pricey collector’s item. As such, found photographs become harder to find, artists who worked with them will see the meaning of their efforts radically change in the coming decades. By 2020, the black and white portraits in, say, a Christian Boltanski installation may no longer mix eerie anonymity with the familiarity of an heirloom album. For many, such installations may look like dial telephones or eight-track tapes: not just old but obsolete, if not awkwardly comic. Boltanski, whose appropriated photographs are of the disappeared and murdered, likely wasn’t looking for that effect.

Professional photographers, whether artists or journalists, have also embraced digitalization. Even if a photographer sticks with an analogue camera, the shots will likely be processed digitally, unless they do the developing themselves. Getting analogue quality with a digital camera comes at a price. Yet in journalism, quality no longer counts anyway, with so many newsworthy images actually provided by amateurs with camera phones. From the scenes of abuse at Abu Ghraib to the pictures of ‘Cocaine Kate’ Moss, the most widely spread images are often not taken by journalists, nor are they in focus.

Digitalization brings photography closer to cinema, too. The galloping horse that Eadweard Muybridge photo-graphed with 24 cameras can now be captured with one high-speed digital camera. While analogue cameras take five frames per second, the digital ‘burst mode’ can take 30 high-quality frames per second (and over 1,000 in lower quality). Photographers may keep their fingers on the button and choose the best frame later. In light of these developments, artists who made photographs look like film stills – Cindy Sherman in her series ‘Untitled Film Stills’ (1977–80) or Raymonde April in her series ‘Sans titre’ (Untitled, 1979–80) – anticipated the transformation of photography from a fleeting image to a moving one.

Yet, if a camera can take 1,000 frames per second, are the resulting images photographs, stills or clips? If an artist prints one frame selected from 1,000 is she a photographer or an editor? Words like ‘snapshot’ and brands like Kodak’s Instamatic cameras reflected the old desire to capture a moment that would otherwise disappear. With the speed and storage of today’s digital cameras, it becomes hard to miss any moment. Once taken, digital photographs keep on moving: the digital slideshow turns photographs into moving pictures, complete with a soundtrack. Even the traditional family picture frame – outfitted for digital images – works like a mini movie screen, if not a homely version of Chris Marker’s classic film La jetée (The Pier, 1962).

If artists like Sherman and April anticipated the cinematic turn, others such as Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince made photography slower, if not redundant, by photographing photographs. Camera speed became superfluous in Levine’s series ‘After Edward Weston’ (1981) or Prince’s infamous ‘Cowboy’ series (1980–92). Before digitalization, these artists pointed to the digital darkroom and web copyright issues. There’s an echo of their practices in the works of later photographers who take pictures of things that don’t move, from Thomas Demand’s snaps of paper sculptures to Hiroshi Sugimoto’s ‘Portraits’ (1999) of wax figures from Madame Tussauds. In terms of speed, that’s like parallel parking with a Ferrari. In terms of art, these photographers may be trying to distance photography from cinema.

Younger photographers seem to embrace the high speeds of digital photographs, if not exaggerate their mobility by transposing them onto three-dimensional surfaces. The group show ‘Photography – in Reverse’, which ran from November 2009 to February 2010 at the Foam Fotographiemuseum in Amsterdam, featured Dutch photographers born between 1977 and 1979. Corriette Schoenaerts’ The Implicate Order #1 (2008) projected a jungle scene onto plastic plants painted white, while Anne de Vries’ Build, as We Are Not (2009) presented photographs of everyday objects, such as a basketball, glued to similarly shaped wooden forms. Photography teetered between projection and sculpture.

Despite my forecast, photography – like cats or painting – may yet have a few more lives. In any case, if most viewers can’t tell whether pictures were taken with analogue or digital cameras, who cares if film fades? Whatever photographers use, their goal is no longer taking pictures but showing how their work is not painting, cinema, sculpture or any other medium. The negative is no longer a square of film: it’s a question of survival. 

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.