1. The Shifting Relations of Still and Moving Photographic Images
Veröffentlicht: 14.01.2013
in der Serie Shifting Relations of Still and Moving Photographic Images
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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.

3 Kommentar(e)
Carol Yinghua Lu
Abgesendet am 17.01.2013 um 17:21

Dear Martin,

First of all, it's a great honor to be invited to respond to your blog entries in this upcoming month. It's largely thanks to the digital technology that we have this opportunity to meet on the cyberspace and exchange our views, despite our distances, although, this is not new. I do agree with you that digital technology has brought changes to the potential of the photographic images, especially the shift from the still to the moving and the fact that it’s affected artistic and curatorial practices as well as the presentation of moving images in museum spaces and large-scale exhibitions. It’s no coincidence that last weekend in the solo exhibition of Beijing-based artist Guan Xiao, she presented a new work, titled Cognitive Shape, which was a three-screen video consisting of collages of both still images and video clips, which she’s collected from youtube, vimeo, satellite TV programmes and dvds. The evolution of the Internet, according to Guan’s observation, has opened up an open field of knowledge. All channels of information and imagery are of equal importance and accessibility. There is no hierarchy in terms of what is more authoritative or decisive in the formation of our perception of the world and our value system. Guan Xiao has made a random selection of these pieces of information and knowledge from all categories of information, regions and cultures, based on color, shape, composition, speed, purpose and so on, to give shape to her cognitive process and how she arrived at her thinking from the information she was exposed to.

On the same day in another opening, I was introduced to the new work of Li Ran, another young artist based in Beijing. He told me how the multi-screen installation was made of videos shot directly on his mobile. The short films portraying himself in all kinds of setting, such as the back of a supermarket, giving monologues about his own position as an artist in the history of art, were shot with high quality imagery and didn’t give away the fact that they were just shot on his mobile.

In both works, I did see how moving images have played a role in the artists’ perception of the world and how they chose to engage with the world and their system of knowledge but I still refrain myself from thinking that technology would play a definitive role in shaping the practice and thinking of the artists. What ultimately made these two works appealing are less their contemporary forms of story-telling but the stories that they were telling. I would like to venture an argument that the content and the ideology that the artists would like to articulate come before the forms that they would employ to tell their stories and that there is a great degree of flexibility and freedom in terms of means with which the artists would use to tell their stories. But in the meantime, moving images are an important feature of contemporary society, which brings us closer to the reality and to the multi-facets of the reality. Looking forward to your further discussion on this subject.

Elisabeth Lebovici
Abgesendet am 21.01.2013 um 13:39

Dear Martin,
Right away, you point up a series of common supports for all recent activities of what you call the "photographic", derived from the use of the smartphone camera, shifting easily from still to moving image, to posting on a website (including social media such as facebook, twitter, tumblr… ).
Both you and Carol, (hello, Carol!) have been addressing the relation of this digital economy of "doings" - of production- to the topic of reception and more specifically, to the one of the exhibition, which I find very brave…and more problematic.
This could leed to my first questions, that I would like to open after agreeing with Carol's highly interesting remarks. I would formulate it very simply : does the museum accomodate, actualise, contextualise the palpable reality of this technological promiscuity ? In other, more simple words : what happens in galleries or museums displays ?
But your post really drives my art historical curiosity to the « new histories » that you are also alluding to. I would say first that it is in the interest of any art historical endeavour to map the relationships between technologies and what they do to the image (whether scientific or aesthetic, etc…) -that is, to describe how fields and disciplines that mediate body and the world are separated or joined, instrumentalized or dismissed.
It is compelling to draw an archeology for your post, at this moment in which we partake the idea that the image and the moving image are perhaps the same "thing".
Thus I would like to drive my thoughts, and hopefully yours, towards another example, which will introduce to the notion of anachronism,- that is, to me, a way to conduct the revision of the clear cut between an already fixed past and the present and therefore, an operative tool that your posts immediately brings to my tortuous comment.
This notion has been recently exemplified by the series of "Camera Obscura" that Zoe Leonard has installed in 2011-2012 (in Cologne, Galerie Gisela Capitain; in London, at the Camden Arts Centre; in Venice at the Palazzo Grassi and in New York at Murray Guy gallery). Through a hole pierced in the wall or window separating the exhibition room from the outside world and with help of a lens, the light rays entering inside would project a continuously changing image of the exterior, coming in upside down and reversed.
Observed and recorded as a natural phenomenon, the camera obscura has been highly instrumental as a means of observation, knowledge, draughtsmanship, or thought, as "technè" and philosophical tool- a model used, respectively by Freud and Marx & Engels, to describe the unconscious of both the subject and the commodity driven capitalism.
So that Zoe Leonard’s "Camera Obscura" offers a resurgence of what has historically governed a particular making of images and pictures in the Western world, while countering the supposed linearity of a teleological time, which would position it as precursor leading to the birth of photography. The camera obscura, indeed, proposes a common ground for photography and other technologies of viewing, whether moving or not
Zoe Leonard's iteration has always been, in its different occurrences, one of an entire room, in which you could enter and stay: an immersive environment, with no fixed duration, no hierachized point of view either, no printed or recorded image. Giving way to the unpredictable.

Martin Jaeggi
Abgesendet am 21.01.2013 um 18:31

Dear Carol, dear Elisabeth

I am delighted to have you as co-bloggers. Thank you for your responses. So here's my responses to your posts.

Basically, I agree with what you're saying, dear Carol. However, I think that it is quite dangerous to split form and content so neatly, since it risks degrading form to a mere vessel for content. Quite in fact, I believe that in good art form and content cannot be separated. The use and the engagement with specific media and their properties is very much part of the content of an art work. Hence, I would not reduce content to storytelling. I believe that investigating the nature of images (which are necessarily generated and determined by the medium used ) and what they are capable of is an as essential part of the work of any artist.
Dear Elisabeth, I promise to be less sprawling in my future posts! The ways in which museums and galleries actually use displays, projections, etc. is naturally often very problematic, I would absolutely agree with that. More often than not, they are just an added level of "multi-media content," a means to turn exhibition into spectacles that drown out the viewer. One reason for this sorry state is certainly that there seems to be very little reflection on how to put still and moving images in a dialogue that actually enhances the very qualities of both. As fascinating as I find these technologies, I believe that their use demands a high precision that we do not yet see very often.
Zoe Leonard's "Camera Obscura" is indeed a highly fascinating piece. It incites the viewer to reflect the history of a decisive technology and the ideologies shaping it, and yet by divesting this technology of any use turns it into something else – a means to create an fleeting image shaped by contingencies that may escape to partake in the history of mastery inscribed in the very medium it uses.

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