Volume 8 • Number 2 • July, 2015
A Rose by Any Other Name
Note- The following is an editorial response to an essay written by photographer, Martha Casanave, in 2011 – which she later significantly revised (in 2015) after having learned of my strong disagreement with her basic premise – and in which she (regardless of referenced version) continued to argue that digital photography should not be considered (nor even be labeled) as being an act of photography, at all . (Casanave's 2015 revised version of her original essay can be downloaded, as a PDF file, by clicking the following link: Casanave.pdf.)
A Rose by Any Other Name
by Huntington Witherill
Words are like eggs dropped from great heights; you can no more call them back than ignore the mess they leave when they fall.
Great art seems nearly always able to convey a compelling story. And, with most forms of art we rarely find it necessary to question whether or not the story being told is actually true. Yet, when it comes to the art of photography, the relative truth and objectivity associated with the endeavor is too often invoked as a guileful means to question the overall legitimacy of the art form, itself. Why is this?
Defining a work of art by assessing the relative objectivity inherent in the process used to produce that art seems an entirely inappropriate benchmark by which to appraise the relative merits (or the overall legitimacy) of any form of artistic self-expression. Surely, we don’t consider the relative truth and objectivity associated with the story (or the process) inherent in a finely crafted painting. Nor do we make these kinds of judgments in relation to music, sculpture, and a host of other art forms. Why is it that photography (and in particular, digital based photography) is being held to a different standard in terms of the relative objectivity inherent in the process, itself? The whole notion seems misguided, at best.
Now, lest you think we’ve all gotten beyond judging the legitimacy of photographic art based upon the perceived objectivity inherent in the working process… think again. In the realm of fine art photography there remains a relatively strident cadre of art educators, critics, gallery owners, and even a few photographers, themselves, who seem determined to segregate an entire approach to photography (digital photography) based, in part, upon their belief that conventional photography is capable of objectivity, whereas digital photography is not.
To be fair, the naysayers do not claim that conventional photography is somehow “better” than digital photography (though I’m compelled to note that characterizing the digital approach as a “Trojan horse” (see After Photography by Fred Ritchen) does seem somewhat curiously derisive). Nevertheless, they do advocate that what they perceive to be conventional photography’s objective nature – by comparison to digital photography’s fictitious nature – dictates that the digital approach should not even be considered (nor even be labeled) as being an act of photography, at all.
In an article titled: Equal But Separate: A Plea for Linguistic Clarity, photographer Martha Casanave has gone to great lengths in an effort to persuade us that this particular discrimination is being necessitated by nothing more than an innocuous search for “linguistic clarity”. Yet, given the untenable nature of combined arguments put forth to justify such segregation, I am left to wonder if motivations run deeper.
Included among what, for the most part, seems an awkwardly assembled collection of intellectually irrelevant arguments, Casanave provides the following chosen quotes as (presumably) convincing evidence of the necessity to re-define digital photography as something other than photography: Geoffrey Batchen (Associate Professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of New Mexico) writes in his book: Burning with Desire, the Conception of Photography: “The main difference is that whereas photography still claims some sort of objectivity, digital imaging remains an overtly fictional process.” And, there’s Robert Hirsch, from his book: Seizing the Light, A Social History of Photography, wherein he writes: “Digital imaging breaks the customary prescription by giving imagemakers the ability to not only determine place and time, but to control space and time.”
Setting aside the fact that it is fundamentally improper to use the characterization of a specific artistic "process" as a means to define (or re-define) the more broadly defined artistic "medium" – the reason the above arguments fail to establish that digital photography is anything other than a bona-fide form of photography is that both conventional and digital processes are overtly fictional. Neither approach is capable of unassailable objectivity. And, both conventional and digital photographers share the ability not only to determine place and time, but also to control space and time through their respective processes. In short, the demonstrable objectivity of both approaches can (and should) be called into question, just as with any other form of art.
Furthermore, even if we were somehow able to blindly accept the notion that conventional photography is uniquely capable of objectivity, and/or successfully determine that “digital imaging breaks the customary prescription”, that still would not warrant redefining the digital approach as an entirely separate medium. Both processes remain unquestionable acts of photography in keeping with the strict etymology of the word used to describe the medium, itself. “Photography: From photos, light, and graphos, writing” (Oxford Reference). In short… writing with light.
And here, I’m also compelled to point out that because the foregoing etymology conspicuously fails to mention any form of chemistry, light sensitive emulsions, light-sensing diodes, types of cameras, lenses, enlargers, printers, scanners, or any other process specific accoutrement – we are left to take it on faith that proponents of the “digital is not photography” dogma are not also attempting to suggest that the well established etymology of the word: Photography now warrants redefinition as a means to accommodate their position. The definition of a process is not the definition of a medium!
It doesn’t really matter which artistic medium you choose to consider, inherent objectivity will not be found in the art, itself. Art tells a story by proffering personalized and stylized interpretations of truth and reality. And those interpretations – which, by their very nature, will always remain subjective – carry with them the potential to inspire us to soar well beyond the confines of objectivity in search of a more personalized and meaningful connection with the world around us. Despite the level of perceived objectivity presumed to be inherent within any specific artistic process, or the intrinsic truth associated with the interpretive stories being communicated through the medium, itself – inherent objectivity is simply not a function normally associated with artistic self-expression.
I’m left to conclude that if one truly desired linguistic clarity in defining each of the processes in question, they would be faced with no choice but to conclude that both approaches are most assuredly different processes associated with the very same medium: Photography.
While some may seek to engage, participate, and genuinely experience art as a potential means to better understand and connect with the world around them, others prefer to quantify, classify, and define those pursuits – too often as a seemingly surrogate means of actually experiencing and understanding the endeavor, itself. Clearly, the two concerns are decidedly unalike. As Alfred Korzybski famously said: The map is not the territory.