The Shifting Relations of Still and Moving Photographic Images
The debates on the advent on digital photography in recent years have largely focused on the question whether the digital turn has essentially altered the nature of photography, and whether digital photography could indeed, strictly speaking, still be considered photography at all. Inherent in these queries was naturally the question of the respective validity, superiority, or inferiority, of digital and analogue photography. Analogue essentialists brimming with nostalgia insisted on the superiority, aesthetic as well as technical, of analogue photography and its attendant trappings whereas adherents of the digital turn insisted on the technotopian promises of the myriad of new possibilities digital photography would afford.
Fascinating and somewhat predictable as they are, these discussions have proved to be strangely inconclusive, not least because photographic practice turned out to be much murkier. A large number of photographers happily work with both digital and analogue technology, others combine the two, in particular analogue shooting followed by digital processing has proved to be quite popular. It seems that we indeed have experienced a paradigmatic shift, yet both technologies will continue to co-exist, at least for the time being, thus muddying clear-cut conceptualization. Much more intricate and multi-layered practices have emerged that were not provided for by the above mentioned fundamental discussions and will continue to escape their premises for quite a while.
In my blog posts I will focus on a shift, this time relational and not essential, effected by digital media that has received much less attention, yet, at least in my eyes, may prove to be quite decisive, in particular also for photography and our understanding of it: Digital media fundamentally change the relation between still and moving photographic images (i.e. photography and film/video), moving them much closer together and restructuring the field of photographic media.
Almost every digital camera allows you to record both still and moving images. Quite in fact, digital photo cameras are among the best video cameras available and are used by many filmmakers. This sentence describes an empirical fact, yet its wording sounds curiously queer since it conflates photography, film, and video just like technology is in the process of doing. Digital cameras face users with the choice whether they want to record a given subject in still or moving images. Whether you make a video or take a photograph is no longer a matter of owning two distinct cameras and mastering two quite distinct sets of technological procedures. It has become a mere matter of decision. And interestingly enough, this development felt quite natural – the capability of smartphones to record and display both photos and videos in a by now rather amazing quality was happily taken up by millions of consumers without giving this development and its ramifications much thought. And yet, one can safely assume that it will change how they use and relate still and moving images.
This shift is not merely occurring on the level of recording devices, it also occurs on the level of digital display. Computers, tablets, media players, monitors etc. are mostly equally capable of showing still as well as moving images – thus, they’re inhabiting the same digital space, so to speak. To name just one example, if you look at the homepage of your newspaper of choice, it will probably offer you text, photographs, and videos. Some news are more adequately illustrated with a photograph, whereas others can be better conveyed by means of a video. In digital space, still and moving images come to stand side-by-side and bear direct comparison.
Consequently, photographers working within an art context have increasingly begun to work with video as well as photography and to exhibit them side-by-side. The same applies to commercial photography where clients increasingly expect that photographers are also capable of shooting videos. It strikes me as a sign of the times that when first-year students at the photo department where I teach were asked at the end of the first semester what technical skills they would particularly like to acquire in the second semester, an overwhelming number named video as their top priority.
If you look at museums and galleries, you notice that moving images abound. The massive resurgence of video is certainly due to the increased quality afforded by digital technology. With the result that biennials or similar large-scale exhibitions sometimes feel like a new type of multiplex cinema. An equally interesting development is that in the past couple of years a number of experimental filmmakers became subjects of retrospective shows at museums, for example Paul Sharits, Jonas Mekas, Bruce Conner, and Oskar Fischinger, and have consequently reached a larger audience than they would ever have on the studio-cinema circuit.
All of these developments result in an enlarged field, where the photographic begins to encompass moving as well as still images, where for the first time the term “camera arts”, coined in the 1970s by theorist and photographer-turned-filmmaker Hollis Frampton, starts to become a palpable reality. In my upcoming blog posts I'd like to reflect on the effects these developments might have on artistic, curatorial, and critical practices, and on the possible new histories we may have to write to do justice to this emerging new set of relations.