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“Overlooking / Underseeing”

A few weeks ago, I saw the keynote lecture of a seminar where Peter Schjeldahl told an old-world crowd of darkroom photographers /archivists /collectors that digital was here to stay because “it’s human nature — we’ll take the easy way.”

It was one of many gems he dropped in a rambling address that staked claims and generally laid brilliant waste to those afraid of digital’s manifest destiny. But he wasn’t without warnings. While slamming Sontag & Barthes, feting Arbus, and complaining how Ansel Adams “just doesn’t do it for me”, Schjeldahl claimed that digital photography is helping to create, maintain and popularize a culture of “overlooking and underseeing.”

Those three words sum it all up, I think. On screens, photography’s as much about the image as it is about next, next, next. It’s impossible to have a physical connection with a digital photo on a screen, so there’s no reason to linger. You can’t stand back and get a new view. You can’t lean-in close to examine the infiniteness of its detail. You’re not sharing its air. Everything’s perfectly sealed, at arm’s length. If the photo’s really good and throws you a curve, a question, or there’s a lot to look at, you may stay a bit longer, but it’s so easy to click that the click nearly clicks itself. Quantity trumps quality. Obviousness over subtlety. Commercial creams complexity.

Back to Schjeldahl. He said digital photography “confuses the novelty and fun of a medium with artistic expression.” (!) Photojournalism and snapshots have fallen for digital’s fast/cheap/easy, and nothing can be said for those who think they’ve made art because they’ve pressed a button. (In a digression, Schjeldahl said you can’t take a great accidental photograph twice.) If the argument about photography being an easy art is true, what can be said if in the last ten years it’s gotten a whole lot easier? (This is not my take, but it’s worth consideration.)

Beate Gutschow considers it via his photo-composite that’s currently up at SFMOMA. The link doesn’t show it, but the image is large, about six feet wide, and is printed with a big white border. In the border, Gutschow has printed all the digi-information about the manufacturing of the image; the filename, the resolution, the date — photo-processing info, essentially. A placard explains how the view doesn’t actually exist, and was composited from something like thirty individual photographs.

I had a gut-level reaction to the image, but admired its thrust — how it champions its own creation/falsity (kind of like the making-of documentaries on any recent blockbuster made with cgi), and in doing so, creates a new truth, all under the guise of traditional landscape photography. It’s a calm piece on the surface, but its elbows are sharp. I’m not sure where they’re pointed, but you can feel them jutting out.

What does any of this mean, and what does this have to do with street photography? I’m not sure, I only know that Schjeldahl’s onto something. In my own experience, carrying around a rangefinder on the street feels better than any digital camera I’ve tried, but I don’t think this means anything about the future of photography. Some day there’ll be a digital camera that’ll completely mimic the ergo-analog experience; in addition to being perfectly personalizeable, it’ll be both manually dumb and automatically smart.

Although digital technology can already mimic nearly everything that film can do, it’ll never be a perfect replacement until some braniac invents the round pixel. Maybe more on that later.

Here’s hoping (as a viewer, not an artist) that the art world doesn’t collectively fail and fall for underseeing. Good work, like bad work, eventually finds its audience. Schjeldahl said that one of the fascinating things about contempo-photography is not evaluating how great the photographer is, but “if this (photographer) is any good at all.”

Kinda heartwarming, no?

Tag: Tidbits