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Visit any high-end camera store and you’ll see an overwhelming trend: digital equipment and supplies are taking over a lot of shelf space, sitting next to (and sometimes replacing) the tools and materials associated with a traditional darkroom.

But as I talk to successful photographers who have been working in both the film and digital realms for many years, the issue of replacing tools is not the point. In fact, many professional photographers do not replace their old tools with new ones; instead they add to their repertoire. On one day they shoot with a Canon 1Ds or Nikon D100 in raw format; on another day they use a 4 × 5 with a Polaroid back. They choose from cameras, substrates, films and file sizes. The concept determines the tools they use.

The transition that photography is undergoing is much deeper than adding tools to a toolbox. It is about the new ways in which we make and consume the image.

Philipp Scholz Rittermann is a photographer whose career has encompassed commercial and fine-art photography for 30 years on 3 continents. He has been involved in changing technology throughout his career, and has a deep interest in the increased mobility of the image. This is a phrase that Philipp uses to describe a complex set of changes in photography, and what it means for an image to be digital. A digital image is mobile: in a literal sense, the photograph is no longer a fixed object that resides in a specific location; it is often in transmission, existing as code rather than a tangible surface. In a more conceptual sense, there are new questions. What constitutes the “original” version of a photograph? Where does its value lie? When does an image actually become a photograph?

I asked Philipp to talk about the mobility of the image. His ideas are the result of many years of thinking about photography from a personal and historical perspective. His thoughts contain insights not only about the future of photography, but also about how we will preserve the past, and about our own legacy of images: if, where and how they will exist.

What is the “original”?
One of Philipp’s interests is the path a photograph takes from its inception to its final form. More accurately, he points out that there is no longer a specific instance at which we can identify the inception or the final form.

“The photograph is no longer a single object: It’s not a Daguerreotype on a clasp, like the Civil War where you have one photo of your sweetheart, and it’s around your neck. Back then it had to be a single object because of the process of production. Each image was unique; there was no negative. We’ve been working with multiples for a long time, but they came from one original transparency that had to be physically accessed.

“Now that question is more complex when you consider the digital file, specifically in raw format. The raw file is unprocessed data that an original can be derived from.

“It’s not accurate to think of the raw file as the same as the negative. The latent image before the negative is processed is more akin to the raw file. Once you’ve processed the film, the die is cast. Whatever is fixed on that film is what you can print. A raw file however, contains data that can be reprocessed as often as you want.”

With a raw file, you have a collection of bits from a scene. You can, to an almost eerie extent, revisit that scene. You can change the exposure, the temperature, contrast, saturation and so on. Does this mean that the next advancement will be revisiting not only the moment, but also the whole afternoon, in a TiVo-like experience?

Philipp and I talked about implications for collectors of fine-art photography. The quest for the original will always be an obsession for the collector. Will someone pay a lot for the file that has the earliest extension date? With a digital photograph, the question of the original increases in complexity. Is it the raw file? Is it the Photoshop file that has all the working layers? These layers are the digital version of “pentimento”: the underlying images in a painting that show through, conveying the artist’s thinking. As a creator of a digital file, you choose the layers to bring forth, to cover or to reveal. An original painting contains all of that. Which is more valuable, a photograph that actually contains its entire layer history, or one in which its process has been “flattened?”

And what if this file is not kept current with technology? Curators of collections must be IT savvy and update the data for each new iteration of image decoders. If an image cannot be read, then it is lost.

The image’s urge to replicate
Professional photographers have had concerns about copyright infringement, loss of income opportunities and misuse of their images for decades. In the digital realm, replication is rampant, adding to the problem. Philipp describes this as part of the mobility of the image: “The digital image is built to propagate, whether we like it or not.”

Let’s say Philipp e-mails a link to five or six people to view one of his images. One link, and they all can look at, download and print the image. That in turn can precipitate an exponential number of other people going to the same link. The image replicates like a spore. Philipp says the German word for this is vervielfältigung. That sounds appropriately entangled.

“The image is often in flight, in transition. Not only is it not physical, it’s also constantly in motion. You cannot control someone taking the image and messing with it. This has always been true but now the sheer numbers are huge. Replication used to cost a lot—people would have to pay for reproduction, slides, copy negs and so on. Now it’s easy, and no outlay of money is required.”

Along with this, there is a blurring of legality. It used to be clear that duplicating a professional’s photography was, at the very least, an unsavory act. Now, with the growing belief that information is free, there is a naïveté about copying and appropriating images. I have heard innumerable stories of people proudly telling a photographer that they copied all of the images from the photographer’s Web site and used them as screen savers, or as part of their own Web site. They felt that they were giving the photographer a giant compliment.

Safety in numbers (and in transmissions)
Although he has these concerns, Philipp views the phenomenon of replication from another, almost opposite, perspective. He feels more secure because there are many of his photos out there, in many locations, and they are being transmitted. Because they are multiplied, they will last. This multiplicity will in fact preserve his images. “The image does not get lost and it’s out there a helluva lot more.

“By allowing an image to be digital, it’s more likely that someone will have a copy. If I only have negatives and my house burns down, I’m screwed. But once an image is on the Web, it replicates.”

So, in a strange way, the less tangible the information is, the more likely that it will survive. If an image is in transit, it’s safe, like being on an airplane during an earthquake. This is especially true for professional photographers, whose images are constantly being transmitted from place to place.

In addition, you can choose whether and when to produce any number of the exact same thing, with no loss of quality—provided, of course, that the highest resolution is maintained. Think about all the controversy regarding the archival print. All sorts of substrates are deteriorating, and their emulsions or coatings are fading. In fact, we cannot possibly know the true longevity of any of these materials. In that sense, the digital archive is a safer one, provided we continually update the data to be compatible with a device that can read it.

The disappearing archive/Images and ATMs
The pictures that you have created—including your choices of tone, sharpness, contrast, saturation and so on—now reside as a collection of ones and zeroes, probably on hard drives, CDs, DVDs, on the Net in some server, and they may be in transmission at this very moment. At any point in time you can transmit those bits into hard copy.

Philipp thinks of this as currency, and compares it to the ways in which we deal with money. It does not actually exist until you “withdraw” it. He seems comfortable with this new paradigm, where we no longer have one image in one place, insured.

“Do you know where your money is? Does it sit on a server? Is it in L.A.? Chicago? New York? Actually, it is not physically anyplace (unless you keep your cash under the mattress). Your money materializes where and when you need it at some ATM. Images are just as abstract and decentralized as money. An image does not exist until you need it and download it.

“With a networked kiosk, you can punch up images and order a print: print on demand. It’s like an ATM dispensing images. Perhaps you have a monthly subscription. And perhaps the image as an object will be a quaint idea, and we won’t consume images as emulsion or ink on paper.”

As Philipp described kiosks, I remembered the Christmas present I was so enthralled with a couple of years ago. It was an electronic picture frame into which you could download twelve images, and they cycled continuously at the rate you selected. You could “update” the images whenever you wanted. As we move to a cashless society, where most of our transactions are with virtual money like credit cards or online checking, we divide our currency into real and virtual—precious gems and real estate vs. stocks and bonds. And that leads us back to the questions: What is an original? What is the most valuable rendition of an image? What is the best way to ensure its safety and preservation?

Philipp’s Web site is www.rittermann.com. CA

© 2004 W. Richmond

Wendy Richmond (wendyrichmond.com) is a visual artist, writer and educator whose work explores public privacy, personal technology and creativity. Richmond has taught at Harvard University, the International Center of Photography and the Rhode Island School of Design, and she serves on the BRIC Artists Advisory Council and the MacDowell Fellows Executive Committee. Her latest book is Art Without Compromise*. Richmond’s column began in 1984.

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