“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?

6 thoughts on ““Overlooking / Underseeing””

  1. Trying to figure out why we’d think digital can or should be a replacement? Aside from everyone getting out of the various aspects of the film business, there’s nothing that says digital will replace film; it’s a different technology that, like all different technologies, creates different behaviours, artifacts and institutions.

    I wonder if ‘film’ won’t be a saner, more interesting place once the dust settles?


  2. I wasn’t trying to get into a value judgement about film vs. digital (though there’s no time like the present to pick-up used film equipment).

    I’m just concerned about this concept of “overlooking” and how more more more isn’t necessarily a win. There’s something cranky in what I’ve said — and it’s probably about my own resistance to the cultural shift being dictated by digital’s pace.

    I like to look and linger. I like taking time with things (anything, really) and I like to think. I feel like I can do this better by looking at photography in books or on a wall; not on the Interweb. And I say this knowing the small part I play in increasing the digital glut.

  3. I’ve spent every spare penny I have on photo books. I know that for me there’s no better way to view a body of work. I just bought Bruce Davidson’s new book on England & Scotland, and to see what he was able to achieve in just a few months with a small camera and 187 rolls of film, is humbling to say the least! To each his own…

  4. Yes. I see what you mean about ‘overlooking’ and I think you’re right. But I’m not sure we can lay it all off on digital photography. Perhaps on ‘digital’ in general, but also on the much more insideous and long term effects of television, mass-everything and the suspect economic models and mentality that is lumped under the words ‘globalization’ or ‘convergence.’

    In other words doing a thought experiment, if somehow there were no digital photography and everything else were the same, I think we’d be singing the same sort of lament.


    PS: on photo books — every spare penny is right, they are so very expensive. If you are a book addict, you have to put up with the small format, low production value editions which also militate against lingering and savouring.

  5. This post is imperfect; I hear you, Ed. The earlier drafts were total nonsense.

    On photo books, I’ve been impressed by the small-edition quality of two titles from jandlbooks.com; the Mike Slack book (an old fave) and the Gus Powell book (a new fave).

  6. Lawrence Weschler talked with David Hockney for an article in the New Yorker in 1984, and Hockney was saying almost exactly the same things — only he was comparing the entire field of photography to painting. Before Hockney started his famous polaroid collages, he (in Weschler’s words) “celebrated the richness of the experience of looking at…paintings–especially when compared with the poverty of the experience of looking at most ordinary photographs. … [T]he only thing photography was much good at conveying–or, at any rate, conveying truthfully–was another flat surface, as in the reproduction of a fine painting.”

    Hockney: “My main argument was that a photograph could not be looked at for a long time…You can’t look at most photos for more than, say, thirty seconds. It has nothing to do with the subject matter.”

    He goes on and on: “[P]hotography is all right if you don’t mind looking at the world from the point of view of a paralyzed cyclops–for a split second.”

    He almost perfect echoes your words when you say “…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.”

    You can read the whole article in Weschler’s wonderful collection “Vermeer in Bosnia.”

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