Arts & Culture

Is Curating as Good as Photographing? Digital Camera Technology Is Transforming an Art

#82.948842, Detroit, MI (2009), 2010, from A New American Picture (Aperture 2012) © Doug Rickard, courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York and Stephen Wirtz Gallery, San Francisco

Aperture Foundation sparked one of the longest, liveliest, and most viral comment threads in the organization’s online history recently when it announced the upcoming publication of Doug Rickard’s A New American Picture. The hardcover collection of “street-photography,” originally published in 2010 and being re-released by Aperture with an additional 40 images, was gathered exclusively with Google’s Street View.

Rickard spent thousands of hours virtually traversing blighted American neighborhoods with Google’s 3D mapping software. From the safety and comfort of his desk, Rickard searched out evocative moments, decided how to frame them, and captured them for printing. The subject and style was not unprecedented, but the tools and approach were.

Rickard, who runs the aggregate websites American Suburb X and These Americans, calls himself an “obsessive archivist.” Reactions to his work have been passionate—from enthusiastic and laudatory to virulent and dismissive. Some critics found it “compelling,” “fascinating,” or an “extremely interesting” way to explore a nation’s topography without “having to spend a penny on travel.” Others called the experiment “lazy, turgid, pathetic and entirely uninteresting.”

The comment thread at Aperture Foundation fizzled out with a slew of question marks. Is it photography? Is it art? Is it easy? Is it any good? And most often: Is it legal?

What seems to be most unsettling to the photography community is an anxiety mirrored by comments on photo news blogs like PetaPixel that report radical digital imaging advancements on a near daily basis. The fear is that technologies like these are writing photographers out of the picture.

A wide range of modern devices and technologies free photographers from any and all creative decisionmaking at the instant the depicted image is captured: distortion-free optics; gigapixels; high-definition video capability; robotic cameras; and light field technology that allows one to decide which subjects are in focus and which are blurry long after the “photograph” has been taken.

As with automation in so many fields, the tools threaten to put the tradesman out of a job.

In addition, cameras are now everywhere, logging data continually. Whether captured by crowds of camera-phone carrying amateurs, by the more sinister surveillance-state lenses, or by one of Google’s numerous Street View vans that roam cities around the globe, any image imaginable can now be found online by someone with enough time to search for it. Does it mean that professional photography paychecks will shift from those with instinct, intuition, and dedication to do the footwork to those with sheer patience and data mining skills?

Rickard isn’t the only artist to have taken this tack. Artists such as Michael Wolf and Jon Rafman are among several who are experimenting in innovative ways with these technologies. But experts doubt the trend will wholly supplant traditional photomaking or even drive away many jobs. In fact, it could mean quite the opposite, they say.

Lesley A. Martin, publisher of books at Aperture, says, “Camera technology becoming more automatized and the photographer becoming obsolete sounds remarkably similar to the way that people characterized photography in the very beginning.”

Since the inception of the medium, photographers have struggled to prove it’s not just the machine doing the work and to qualify their art as just that, especially in relation to painting. Edward Tenner concluded in a recent lecture at Florida State University: “Everything has changed and nothing has changed, and that’s how technological history works.”

Martin says new technologies are “just pushing back the moment at which somebody enters the creative decision-making process.” There might be less need for the instinctive responses once integral to great photography. But, she argues, the professional photographer must “make decisions on how to frame, which moment to grab and which to leave behind.” Technologies that reduce the need for processing while shooting and eliminate physical and social boundaries “leave people more free to think about other possibilities,” she says.

To Martin, the technique employed by Rickard and others like him “is less experiential and less performative, but … a good reflection of a contemporary set of social issues.”

To the ire of established professionals, however, this new way of looking at the world and making images further dilutes an already overwhelming supply of visual information and marketable photographs. New York University photography professor Fred Ritchin, author of After Photography, says the response to image overload will be careful curation—a task that cannot be outsourced or automated. “The answer is not in algorithms,” says Ritchin. “It’s in training students to be curators instead of producers of more images.”

After all, A New American Picture is a work of artful curation. In selecting his unglamorous images of poverty-stricken areas of Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, and elsewhere, Rickard drew attention to bits of visual data that would probably otherwise have gone unnoticed on some server somewhere. What it means in the long run for photography, and even for local economic policy, remains to be seen.

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  • davidkirkpatrick

    As a longtime lover of photography, I find this controversy fascinating, and indicative of the sorts of thing that people in many industries find themselves facing–unexpected transformations in the very way that industry’s central process or activity is performed. And as usual, the incumbents, the old guys, the ones whose ox might be gored by a new method of behavior or, in this case, creation, are opposed. And by the way, I find the image from the book that illustrates this piece both evocative and beautiful, and clearly artful.