Fred Ritchin’s recent book After Photography sets out to envision not only a medium more complex, better linked and more ubiquitous than could be handled by the tactile photo, but also how those implications spread from a screen to our own bodies. Two decades after the introduction of Adobe’s Photoshop software, we are just beginning to see how the digital age will morph, clone, copy and manipulate the fabric of a medium that helped define the modern age, a society and possibly a post-species. The pixels have only begun to move.
Ritchin brings a 30-year-long résumé working for Time/LIFE and the New York Times, an academic career at New York University and the International Center of Photography, and prior works on the evolution of the medium to this book. (New York University, 2010) His experience in the analog world of photography is thoroughly matched by his work in the digital. He was a pioneer planner of the early New York Times on the Web and some of its most ambitious early multimedia works.
Ritchin’s work in this book is predominantly personal, drawing on that vast experience to color his interpretations. This is not a traditional scholarly work, heavily citing direct research done by either the author or quoted sources. It is more the culmination of 40 years of experience and examination of the medium of photography. Its organization is meandering, exploring multiple themes under each chapter heading, with many of those themes resurfacing elsewhere, but it is a pleasant and thought-provoking read.
Ritchin opens the book (2009) in broad strokes, setting the stage for topics as diverse as media ethics, war, cloning and cyborgs. He builds metaphors about present and future photography through comparison with past technological change that upended our way of life, using, for example, the move from the horse to the car as a comparable change. He uses this illustration not only to show how the terminology of the former way of life colors the new (such as the clinging reference term of “horsepower” to describe something far from equine), but also as a means of imaging how great and terrible the change might be:
“The horse kept things mostly local, constrained by the biological; automobiles, like cyborgs, did not. The paving of vast stretches encircling the planet, the growth of suburbs, as well as the displacement and degradation of the extended family can be attributed in considerable measure to the automobile. The proliferation of malls, countless deaths in high-speed accidents, and the enduring obsession with oil have little to do with horses.” (p. 21)
With all change comes compromise, and though Ritchin is far from a technophobe and further still from a pessimist on the future of photography, he seems to reveal an urbanist’s view of the car here, only reflecting on the negative changes it has brought. Later in the book when he eagerly imagines a redefinition of society and humanity for the better, he could have easily referred back to the myriad positive social change brought by increased mobility.
“We are also changed, turned into potential image,” he adds (p. 21), pointing out an evolution in the idea of privacy brought by the ubiquity of cameras and images in our day-to-day existence. “‘In a YouTube world, one’s home is no longer one’s private retreat: it’s just a container for a webcam,’ as the New York Times (Green, 2007) recently put it.”
In the chapter “Of Pixels and Paradox,” Ritchin focuses his attention on the difficult youth of digital photography. He cites and describes the canon cases of digital manipulation of photojournalistic images starting with National Geographic’s 1982 cover image in which one of the pyramids at Giza was moved to better fit the image on the cover. That case launched an industry’s continuing self-examination of digital-age practices, and, as Ritchin argues, the digital age of photography.
This discussion is an old and well-documented one though, and Ritchin moves beyond it by extrapolating our will to alter and manipulate images of ourselves and the world as a precursor to altering our physical body, setting the stage for surgical or genetic alterations to the body by making it acceptable in images of ourselves, our models, our movie stars:
“Not only are bytes, unlike chemistry and film, not palpably physical but they become metaphors for a depiction of reality as informational. While photography is conventionally thought of as depicting the present to be seen as the past, we have also, unbeknownst to ourselves, been making coded images of the future — our own as transformed humans, or what some are calling, with justification, ‘post-humans.’”(p. 42)
Where his look at our growing propensity to reengineer ourselves is antipathetic, he moves on to post-tourists with an almost eager anticipation, embracing the idea of “photographing the future” by digitally inserting ourselves into scenes in advance of being there. Rather than waste the time of posing in front of the cathedral of Notre Dame, we could send our friends those manufactured images and proceed to actually exploring the streets, culture and conversations of an unfamiliar new land. No longer will the checklist of “most-photographed” sites separate us from actually being present at the scene.
Ritchin also rethinks how the changing relation to a photograph in the digital age as something mutable compares to memory. Our recollections are not photographic. They are subject to mood, timing, emotion, time and selectivity. Photographs could easily become more of an expression of memory than a perceived-as-subjective document. “The past would be recreated, rethought and reinvented, the process more resembling an oral tradition where divergent views of the community are taken into account.” (p. 58)
Though the photograph, even in its earliest form, was not an informational dead end, the great interlinking expansiveness of hypertextual structure could spill to the photographic medium. Ritchin draws examples at more than one point in the book from early Web image maps, allowing a viewer to click in an area of an image as one would a hypertext link. But rather than a simple link to a different Web page the ability to drill deeply into a photograph — its meaning, context and complexity:
“The photographic frame would then move beyond an excerpt from a visible reality, radiating outward, connecting to ideas, events and images that were previously thought of as external. The photographer, cognizant that framing both does and does not exclude the rest of the world, could then try to be more present, aware, less confident that it is the camera that will ‘remember.’ And as author and viewers grapple over time with the photograph’s meanings, creating new links and interpretations, it will become evident that the photographic process necessarily involves an ensuing contextualization. Rather than encouraging forgetfulness, the photograph might invite too much remembering.” (p. 59)
With his background as an editor in the world of photojournalism it is unsurprising that Ritchin examines the change digital imaging has brought to coverage of war and politics, illuminating how a change in working methods and deadline demands has made more shallow the coverage of events as complex, nuanced and important as both. He points out conflict photographers faced with hourly deadlines and unable to explore the larger scope of the story, and he lays out a brief history of how a political candidate is no longer the person running for office, but merely the image of him or her as designed by handlers. This, Ritchin argues, has contributed to the erosion of the power of journalistic media. “For better and for worse, the result of these last several decades of media manipulation is that people now sense, consciously or unconsciously, that when we watch television we are not watching anything but television, and when we look at a photograph we are primarily seeing a photograph.” (p. 94)
In “The Social Photograph,” Ritchin argues through critic John Berger that photography should be incorporated into the social and political memory rather than using it simply as a substitute for memory. Rather than being a reporter to the rest of the world, he quotes Berger as arguing, the photographer should consider herself a recorder for those involved in the events being photographed. (Berger, 1980) No longer should the photographer fail to consider the contexts and concerns of the photographed, but he should embrace them into the hyperlinked complexity of the photograph itself. Reporter and empathizer, the interpreter communicates not only for himself, but for the interpreted.
Ritchin admits this new collaborator (the photographed) can be a more than problematic one, and I can’t help but wonder where a bright line should be. With his earlier discussion of the manipulation of the media by politics, how could this thought — generous though it might be to the disenfranchised subjects of the ethnographic documentary — be used in connection with a world where all messages, even the personal, are spun as marketing?
His hypertext metaphors deepen again in the book, where he paints visions of “Blade Runner” and “Minority Report” mixed with “Fantastic Voyage.” Ritchin looks toward a “hyperphotography” that extends so far beyond the bounds of a simple paper rectangle that it loses all connection to history and becomes diffused among the sciences, sheds linear story telling structure and demonstrates the relativistic connection an image has to the world. “The new photograph will be read and understood differently as people comprehend that it does not descend from the same representational logic either of analog photography or of painting that preceded it.” (Ritchin, 2009, p. 144)
Throughout the work I wondered silently if he would predict where a professional image-maker, such as me, might fit into his predictions. On page 147 he finally arrives there as well as he could be expected to. How do we use a quickly changing medium in a way that can respond to “some of photography’s frailties, its lies and limitations”?
- In “Unmasking Photo Opportunities Cubistically” he notes we should contextualize the invented realities of opportunity provider by including documentation of the whole planned scene.
- By “Photographing the Future so a Version of It Does Not Happen,” he argues we could illustrate visions of the result of our actions. With the reader let in on the conceit, we paint in visceral images the predictions of a warmed planet, for example.
- By “Enfranchising the Subject,” we give a voice back to the subject of the photograph, first, by making no assumptions about them, but also by handing the camera directly to them.
- Through “Reporting as ‘Family Album’” we design work to illustrate the lives of loved ones abroad, and provide methods for the work to be contextualized by the subjects, adding depth and multiple perspectives to the story telling.
- And by providing “Constructive Interventions,” we lessen a photograph’s voyeuristic nature and allow the reader to react to the image with direct aid, repeat prevention or political action.
Few of these ideas are terribly new. But though all of these ideas as described have been tried elsewhere, he argues for a comprehensive, photography-wide awareness of the consequences of our work and an effort to correct them. This was not a recipe, but a discussion of possibility.
As much as Ritchin looks back into the history of photography, communication and art, and as broad as his imagining of the future has been, I found one discussion conspicuously absent from this book. Change — possibly on this scale — has come to photography before, in 1888 when George Eastman introduced the relatively inexpensive and easy-to-use Kodak that put photography in the hands of the masses for the first time. How did that democratization of media change the landscape of the 20th century? (Lindsay, 1999)
In closing the book, Ritchin’s metaphors grow ever larger as he compares the impossible-to-understand universe of quantum physics to the impossible-to-imagine future of the ubiquity and usefulness of images. In the spirit of some of his own hopes — that a photograph no longer be trapped in a given fraction of a second — he looks both backward and forward:
“Just as a photograph taken in a fractional second of Moses with the two stone tablets might have been meaningless to his contemporaries, for whom a temporal and spatial fragmentation into a two-dimensional photograph would probably have been illegible, so too the digital photograph may appear murky to us until our understanding of the universe advances.” (p. 181)
Berger, J. (1980). About Looking. New York: Pantheon Books
Green, P., (2007). Yours for the Peeping. New York Times, Nov. 4, 2007. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/04/weekinreview/04green.html
Lindsay, D. (1999). The Kodak Camera Starts a Craze. American Experience. Retrieved from: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/eastman/peopleevents/pande13.html
New York University (2009). Ritchin: Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. Retrieved from http://about.tisch.nyu.edu/object/RitchinF.html
Ritchin, F. (2009). After Photography. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. Inc.