“New Photography” in the digital age

posted by – 01/19/16 @ 3:46pm


‘The Sun,’ pages 1-2 from volume one of Mishka Henner’s ‘Astronomical’ (2011). Photo: Mishka Henner/Bruce Silverstein Gallery.

Recently, the Museum of Modern Art in New York introduced the 25th edition of its show “New Photography” that offers up-and-coming photographers and their work invaluable exposure to both the art world and to general audiences. However, as art critic Richard B. Woodward points out in his article for the Wall Street Journal, this show represents a marked change taking place in the photography sphere. According to Woodward, “for today’s artists, computer skills are now more needed than camera know-how.” This statement may be a bit harsh but is not without merit.

Historically, photography has served as a truth-telling medium in that it records a specific moment in time that can be replicated and shared just by saving the film. In its early stages as a medium, photography documented reality as it happened and catalogued the history of the time and place in which it was taken. It limited the artist’s ability to edit the result; the image captured by a camera’s lens and printed through darkroom ritual exposed a true moment. Any edit would be obvious, obtrusive, and overtly false.

Now, photographers are not so limited to that one perfect exposure. Besides evolving photographic techniques and modern in-camera technology, artists today benefit from seemingly infinite amounts of computer software that can alter the original image beyond recognition. This software allows the most amateur photographers to alter the reality captured by their camera. With just a few clicks on Photoshop, photographers can erase their subject’s superficial imperfections, change a model’s hair color, or make a shot of a dawn sky look like one at dusk. No longer must “photographers” settle for the product of a darkroom’s manual process.

So what, then, qualifies as photography today? At a certain point, can we disqualify someone as a photographer? As Woodward insinuates, it seems that some of the skill previously required to capture a perfectly-lit, thought-provoking image in one take, without the crutch of digital tools, could soon become a rarity. Sure, software can be used to simply enhance a raw image in terms of contrast, color, and sharpness. When, though, do those edits produce falsities that photography alone could not produce? With digitally enhanced work, we may lose some of the honest and documentary aspects that traditional photography promised and that viewers valued.

To learn more about “Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015,” click here.

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