Monday, February 13, 2012

On Media, New and "Old"

I made this as a part of a the "United By Edit" logo competition on Instagram.  No photos were used (or harmed) in the making of this image.

Ever feel like you are a social movement of one?  I know the feeling.  And of course, the irony of those two sentences is that they contradict: If there's two of us, we are no longer alone.

Click to enlarge to see a bit of my process in making this.
Now that we've limbered up with a little verbal calisthenics, let me get to my point.  I feel like I am waging a private war at times against the presuppositions of photography in  online image sharing.  The preponderence of sites (Twitpics, Flickr, Instagram, Picasa, etc.) default in their language to the idea of sharing photography, when a cursory glance through people's feeds suggests something more interesting is going on here. 

On Instagram, I participate in groups like #we_edit and #unitedbyedit, formed in part in response to photography groups who regularly criticize "too much honey" in a photo edit.  But even in these groups, photography is not always the base.  Plenty of folks are working with digital graphics apps and software that allow them to render from scratch or modify other captured content (preferrably open source or Creative Commons, but admittedly, not always). 

Actually began as a photo, but made to look painted.
Then too, many apps and software packages still predominantly identify their filters and effects by the ways they (roughly!) approximate darkroom procedures for retouching photographs.  "Burn," "dodge," "vignette," "HDR," "Orton," and so forth have become common parlance in digital photo editing -- although the results are often quite different from their print photography analogues.

Now don't get me wrong: I am not against digital photography or its imitations of its analogue ancestor.  And I see the value, on paper or on screens, of the minimally edited photograph.  But as we celebrate the ways tablet and smartphone technologoes are opening up people's creativity and generating "new" art movements (c.f. "iPhoneography"), I think it behooves us not to be too beholden to the familiar and to acknowledge the plethora of image creating possibilities these tools allow.

I think the real inovation of these tools is less the camera (although that is part of it, but certainly also available on lower IQ phones) than the screen.  The screen is increasingly how we frame our shots (as opposed to the analogue and early DSLR view finder).  It is also where we edit and view most images (since only very few of us print out our pics, and then only very few those, relatively speaking).  But it is also where we forgo the camera entirely to use stylus or finger to draw, paint, clip, and blend images.

So, there's a photo of a drawing in this one?
So what are the better terms?  What is a little less beholden to the way things were, a little more responsive to extant practice, and a little more visionary for the future.  Increasingly, I use "pic" (the online-savvy abreviation of "picture")  or "image" when talking about the images I create and share.  These may be photographs, may include photographic elements, or may never have involved a lens in the process at all.  I also object to "edit" as the default term for image manipulation since it implies some photographic original that I am revising and reworking, some qualitative distinction between making an image and revising it.  Instead of "edit," maybe we should call this work "pixel pushing."  Leaving aside vector graphics for the moment, "pushing" seems to capture both the sense of moving and also the sense of transforming through filters the basic structure of the digital image: the pixel.  "Pixel pushing" captures the idea of edit and of paint, and it frees us from the erroneous perception that we are engaged in anything really like darkroom editing.

Maybe this is all just a matter of semantics.  The "photo" in "Photoshop" hasn't stopped artists from using it even when they don't have a photograph to build on.  More people use Instagram than those using digital "Instamatics" or their imitators.  And every time someone complains about someone else's aesthetic or use of a tool, the offender tends to form communities as reaction formations to arbitrary rules.  Making art is frequently about breaking rules and using tools in ways other than they were intended.  No harm, no foul.

Click to enlarge some of the steps.
Even so, now might be a time to lift up our heads and take a good look at what is going on.  Something is changing in our capacity to make and circulate images.  The camera in your phone that is also a phone that is also a powerful computer....is also a powerful digital arts studio.  This combinatory morphing, this portability, and this digital ephemerality of the final work is creating truly new media, something that owes much to the predecessors we can name but something also significantly different.  With or without the social movement of one or many, our practices are leading the way into fascinating territory. 

Your Heart of Hearts.  Made with a digital brush made from a heart diagram.  
Happy Valentines Day!

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