3. The euphoric phase of the digitalisation of photography

Enthusiasm for technology and rigidity in conservative behaviour patterns

The euphoric phase of digitalisation, as it can be referred to here, has been and is characterised by experimentation with technical innovations. Parameters like depth of focus, resolution and “cleanness”1 seem to play a central role here. One wants to present photography in a large and clear format, hyperreal and cleanly. The new technologies make it possible: imagesetters and ink jet printers produce the large formats on rolls, which, pressed behind acrylic, provide the desired photograph-like surface. In the post-processing of the digital or digitalised photo data, the best image parts from various capture moments are collaged together without the break lines remaining recognisable for viewers. Photographed areas are cleaned up and unintended details are retroactively deleted: trash, street signs, people – all of the “unattractive” traces of the recording that might still have preserved and displayed information about the capture moment (in the sense of Roland Barthes), but which were not intended by the creator of the image. Falling lines or lens distortions are manipulated in post-production, and all lines in the image are retroactively straightened: the result is the allegedly perfectly and completely composed and arranged image.

Especially the recordings of the so-called Becher pupils are distinguished by compositional stringency. The photos of her teachers Bernd and Hilla Becher follow fixed formal parameters: prevailing is soft sunlight shrouded in clouds, meant to prevent the registering of cast shadows, overexposures and strong reflections. The found, most important object of the representation is always positioned in the same place in the interests of series production. Falling lines are straightened with the help of the large-format standard (absence of distortion). The focus is on the production of a series, the individual images of which demonstrate the same compositional and aesthetic quality. This choice of an artistic strategy of “formal stringency” has the advantage that a recognisable quality is created and that the individual works can join the ranks of the body of work. On the other hand, specifications and limitations are then set for the creative process, which impair a certain openness toward an orientation to the situation. Found image motifs must primarily function in the interest of the series and continue to demonstrate their formalities.

The possibilities of digital image manipulation now provide precisely the ingenious tool for observing the formal stringency of a series, as the photographic recordings can now still also be retroactively adapted to the chosen idea and language of form.
In the beginnings of the digitalisation of photography (see time bar2/Start in 1990 with Photoshop 1.0), the possibility of the digital manipulation of images with Photoshop as a new tool for dealing with photography was celebrated, and the digital portfolio of effects (especially apparent in the advertising of the early 1990s) was thus used exhaustively. The actual technical revolution we were dealing with at this time was thereby merely played around with and initially continued to follow the passed-down conservative specifications of photography.

“Although they profit from the advantages of the fluid image, many actors decline to explore its new potential and instead prefer to extend a status quo that is just as marked by the retention of formats as the morphology of the equipment. At the beginning of the 21st century, while digital data storage devices were establishing themselves everywhere, a magazine still continued to look like a magazine, a camera like a camera, a print like a print, as if nothing had changed, or at least very little.”3 (André Gunthert)

The persistence in conservative behavioural patterns in photography and in digital photo graphics can be understood as a reaction and as a sign of deep insecurity due to the rapid co-optation of the optical industry by computer technology. The Digital Divide was discussed at the time as a socio-economic divide and a societal phenomenon, whereas this appears to still only be of significance today in the context of international comparison. At the beginning of the 1990s, those actors in both the applied and artistic sectors who had access to current hardware and software and to the knowledge of how to deal with these were at an advantage. The first digital photo graphics and photo collage works presented in museums initially fascinated visitors with their brilliance and size. Ink jet prints on rolls pressed behind acrylic demonstrate a seemingly photographic surface that leads viewers to interpret these images as “photographs” in the conventional sense and to assign existing patterns of reflection and stylistic directions to them: for example, the American “New Color Photography” or “Neue Sachlichkeit” (new objectivity) in Germany.



1 „cleanness“also see the lecture: Franziska Heller (Universität Zürich): Ständig zurück in die Zukunft. »Mythos Digital« und Konzepte der Mediengeschichte im Alltag, congress: Post-Digitalität und Film, University of Hamburg 19./20. July 2013; see also „cleanliness“ Hayward 2013, page 106f.
2 See time bar in chapter 3, pages 29 – 53; Wudtke, Birgit: Fotokunst in Zeiten der Digitalisierung. Künstlerische Strategien in der Digitalen und Postdigitalen Phase. transcript Verlag, Bielefeld 2016
3 Gunthert, 2019, page 18

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