Fred Ritchin, After Photography (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2009).
The nature of photography and the photograph has changed remarkably in a very brief time. The photographic image is no longer fixed in any meaningful fashion and how photography is employed is a sea change away from how it used to be. Fred Ritchin, professor of photography at New York University, offers an engaging book about the new nature of photography. His “book makes no attempt at prophecy. It is rather an attempt to acknowledge the rapidly evolving present for what it is and what it might become, while engaging one of the less violent strategies for social change still extant: media” (p. 10). As such, Ritchin ranges back and forth between the problems and promises posed by the new digital photography, providing a good sense of what archivists, librarians, and museum curators face in dealing with the new photography.
Ritchin provides a clue as to when the digital photographic era was birthed: “If I had to pick a date when the digital era came to photography, it would be 1982. It was then that National Geographic’s staff modified a horizontal photograph of the pyramids of Giza and made it vertical, suitable for the magazine’s February cover. They electronically moved a section of the photograph depicting one of the pyramids to a position partially behind another pyramid, rather than next to it. It was a banal change – after all, the original photograph was an already romanticized version of the scene that excluded the garbage, tourist buses, and souvenir hawkers – but it opened the digital door” (p. 27). This is close in time to when the new era of electronic records work also emerged, when we shifted from worrying about the output of large mainframe computers to the products of the personal computer beginning to appear on everyone’s desks at work and home.
Ritchin’s book is an interesting exploration of the challenges archivists now face in preserving something of the modern (postmodern?) photographic documentation. Photography is a dynamic process: “Increasingly, much of the photographic process will occur after the shutter is released. The photograph becomes the initial research, an image draft, as vulnerable to modification as it has always been to recontextualization” (p. 34). Ritchin comments on how publishers and the news media have been reluctant to impose understandable limits on the manipulation of images, and the challenges this poses in the multiple ways in which digital images can be displayed, interpreted, transformed, and so forth. He notes how news photographers, now reliant on the digital cameras, merely click and send immediately images of what is happening around them, no longer having the time to sort through and interpret the pictures they have taken.
Ritchin drives home his point about the malleability of the digital image at every opportunity in his book: “The digital photograph, unlike the analog, is based not on an initial static recording of continuous tones to be viewed as whole, or teased out in the darkroom, but on creating discrete and malleable records of the visible that can and will be linked, transmitted, recontextualized, and fabricated” (p. 141). Without question, the implications for archives can be immense: “Many digital photographers may be erasing pictures they don’t like, so there’s no permanent record. And the storage of the images depends upon having available software decades later in order to be able to correctly reconstruct the 0’s and 1’s stored on a disc.” (pp. 144-145). While Ritchin might have explored some of the options archivists have been exploring in maintaining digital stuff, emulation and migration, what he has presented is enough for archivists to mull over when they consider how they will deal with this new visual media. I have heard of too many archivists who have stopped working with photographic documentation after 1980 because of the kinds of digital issues described by Ritchin in his book.
The book is richly illustrated and the choices of illustrations nicely serve to underscore his main points.