Digitally Manipulated Photography: Can It Ever Not Suck?

May 7, 2010

Just finished reading/sorting through Sylvia Wolkfs new book Digital Art, who several people I know are represented in, but those people aside there’s only one artist I would not put on the chopping block: Alexandr Apostol’s stripping of doors and windows off of s. American high-modernist architecture, leaving them look like giant dirty legos.

It’s a subtle intervention, and where subtlety gets lost, cheesiness begins to soar: witness Chris Jordan’s endless collections of endless collections of stuff photographed and edited together digitally, for example.   But that’s just one minor league slip in a book full of total groaners, which prompts me to wonder about the question in the title of the post.

The reason digital art does suck right now is that it never transcends the level of a gimmick; it’s primary existence is to point back at itself to show both the I guess utopian possibilities of digital manipulation as a new field as well as to make the viewer very aware that the photographer/artist is really good at Photoshop.   And that’s about it; if the actual intellectual content of most digital art leaked back into it’s content the results would be flat gray fields of nothing in particular.  Or even let’s just call a spade a spade: this stuff is on a more or less even playing field with photos taken via an iPhone app called Hipstamatic that makes any image you take square and oversaturated.  (Or, actually, that might be more interesting than hours of labor in front of a computer.)

Why this is a bad thing and not just the growing pains of a new branch of photography has to do with the fact that this stuff is gimmickry, and the history of photography is riddled with gimmicks, and usually those gimmicks have short shelf lives.   And I’m thinking less of pioneering stuff done by artists like Moholy-Nagy or El Lissitsky screwing around with the medium than in things like the half-frame camera or stuff like “spirit photography.”  For the former: the likelihood that you are too young to know what one of those is proves the point, and for the latter, all that was was standard techniques fiddled with to create a specific effect that was then passed off as magical.   What I’m proposing that most current digital art is doing is the eqivalent of spirit photography, where the apparently seamless results are designed to deliver a shock, though in this case the shock is not “spirits live among us” it’s that “photo-editing technology has limitless capabilities.”  And it does: but most of those possibilities suck.  An artist whose name I can’t recall edited two photos of himself (presumably) together so that his tongue was a single line.  Wowsers!  Is that a trenchant commentary on french kissing, maybe?

I guess ultimately the way for this stuff to succeed is that it has to point back to our experience of the world in a way that’s not overhanded or intellectually simplistic–a good example, again, is Apostol’s work, which “haunts” modernist architecture with its own refusal of real engagement with the world around it or in its use as the production of a specific kind of space vs. just some concrete rooms.  More of that, please, and less of the fact that the new version of Photoshop now has a feature where you can add realistic film grain to your shots (!) to make your digital snaps seem more, for lack of a better word, real.

And some bonus fake magical floating orbs art courtesy of yours truly.  Pictured are a woman and the floating orbs of wonder that, uh, guide her.  She summons them with a special dance.  And it’s not just the result of using the “burn” and “dodge” tools in Photoshop, I swear.

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