Thoughts on the Immortality of Photography

The notion that simply using technology to produce an image makes that image a part of some progressive contemporary art movement is utter nonsense. The fact that photography and other media arts (both old and new) have come to play such a central role in the contemporary arts has very little to do with the technology and everything to do with the nature of the conceptual processes these technologies have finally decided to embrace, permitting the mediums to advance beyond their technology. Artists have been using image-generating technology in the modern sense of the term since the widespread use of the camera obscura in the 17th century. Of course, the concept of the camera obscura had been explored since the time of the ancient Greeks and Chinese.

It is important to remember that the invention of photography was nothing more than the discovery of how to render more permanent, and visible on a material support, the image of a camera obscura. The invention of photography was a technical achievement and not a conceptual breakthrough or innovation. Perhaps this fact, at least partially, explains why since its formal discovery until the 1970s, the field of photography was generally considered less important, less significant, than other forms of visual expression and had a great deal of difficulty being taken seriously along side the slowly dying arts of traditional painting and sculpture. With the exception of some brilliant work done during the Bauhaus days and that of the Surrealists, photography had very little to offer the other arts before the late 60s. If photography and video finally earned a place of respect in the field of contemporary art it was not because of the technology they employed, it was because of a shift in conceptual thinking in the fields that took the focus of the creative process out of the conceptual confines of the equipment employed and into the world of philosophy, psychology and other fields preoccupied with the study of our states of mind and philosophical perspective rather than with the supposedly faithful bi-dimensional representations of 3-dimensional perceptions of reality.

Yet, in spite of this giant conceptual leap forward, there are many places where the photographic field remains locked into the technical mentality of the 19th century. That such places and the people that frequent them enjoy this traditional approach and want to keep its flame alive is admirable and should be applauded. That they try and convince others that they have a monopoly on truth and that somehow doing what they do constitutes contemporary art is simply a lie, whether it is born of ignorance or misplaced arrogance.

Contemporary digital technology represents the first genuine technical innovation in the history of photography capable of liberating the field from the tyranny of concentrating on the reproduction of what we see. Not that such liberation was impossible prior to the digital age; it was simply exceptionally difficult technically and very limited in scope. The digital revolution has begun to redefine photography as well as fields such as video and mixed media in the context of entirely new vectors of exploration that include more installation-oriented presentations and web-based interactive art. Photography in any traditional sense is dead as a vector of innovative development, as are painting and sculpture. Dead? Really? All of them? Well, not really, just chronically ill. Seriously? Well, no, not really, just permanently trapped in conceptual and technical limbo. Traditional photography will live on in the same way parents live on in their children (for good and for bad), and so it should. This is its noble destiny. If there is any concrete sense to be made of the term immortality in the context of the medium, surely this is it.