Sunday, January 23, 2011

Fred Ritchin: After Photography

Sometimes you just have to buy a book. Sometimes, marketing works. I was gloomy the other day, and walked into Diesel, even though I knew they didn't have the book I wanted, but I Just Needed a Book. They had a very cool display of all white books. Yes, I literally bought a book off of a shelf that was organized by color. Sidenote: I've also organized books by colors, so maybe it was a subliminal message?

always wanted to do this

So I picked up Fred Ritchin's "After Photography" and read a few pages, just to convince myself that I wasn't buying a book for its cover or color. And bought it. Similar to Lippard's "Lure of the Local", Ritchin situates digital photography in time, then posits where he believes it's going- not as "prophecy" (his word)- but as a deeper look at the revolution that digital photography engenders. The "digital revolution," he believes, is not just a cute phrase. Human beings have become "users" of technology, and often feel at a disadvantage when faced with the products of the revolution- outsmarted by "smart" machines that the majority of us don't and never will understand. Ritchin writes "digital media translate everything into data, waiting for an author or an audience (or a machine) to reconstitute it." People are now understood to be the sum of their DNA, and photos are the sum of their pixels.

Creepy, right? The whole book is creepy and unsettling like that. Some of Ritchin's ideas, when he gets done spinning the premise, seem far-fetched, but when you think about it, they're probably not wrong. Photographs, the film kind, would have been unthinkable before they were thought of, why shouldn't Ritchin's ideas be plausible. Ritchin quotes John Berger on analog photography:
What served in place of the photograph before the camera's invention? The expected answer is the engraving, the drawing, the painting. The more revealing answer might be memory. What photographs do out there in space was previously done within reflection.
Ritchin goes on to talk about the alteration of the landscape of memory and existence with digital photography, but I'm still stuck on the idea of memory instead of photography. Back in the post I linked to from almost exactly a year ago, I was wondering the same thing- why all the photos? What are they for? What are we trying to see? What are we trying to remember? What are we trying to experience? Can we experience anything without an LCD screen? Ritchin uses a picture like this, with a caption that phones are the new lighters:
The Crowd

Two thoughts on this: one, I don't think phones are the new lighters. I'm sure that sometimes, a band asks people to hold up their phones as a light, since most venues don't allow smoking and/or lights anymore. Second, it's all in the captions. My first thought when I saw the picture was "wow, people can't even go to a concert anymore?!" I've experienced this at A's games with fireworks, but I really don't go to concerts. I look down my nose at this kind of photography, because photography is what I "do," but really, it's all the same. Says Ritchin, chillingly, "even analog photography divides up the world into rectangular images that are recorded from a segment of the electromagnetic spectrum in fractional seconds- discrete segments. Each of these segments, the photograph, wrests a record of appearance out of what is only the tip of a complex and changing, multilayered set of physical and conceptual systems, many of them unknown." Photos turn life, a multi-dimensional thing that exists in time and space, into something flat, "paused" into a frame in time. They are "both salutary and distancing," making the known unknown and the unknown known.

I've only scratched the surface of Ritchin's book. It's slightly science-fiction-y in tone, when it's not textbook-y. It's a must-read for the intellectual photographer, but it's also disturbing for anyone who wants to think about what they're doing. I'm both glad that I finished it two days before I leave for a photography trip and sad that I did so. Sometimes, I just want to enjoy myself, without thinking too much. But then, I wouldn't be themacinator.