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Clever Photographers

The Brain Center at Whipples’s,  The Twilight Zone, 1964.

There is a lesser known episode of the Twilight Zone called “The Brain Center at Whipple’s” that I think might serve as a contemporary parable.  The protagonist of the story, Mr. Whipple, owns a large factory.  He is excited about advances in technology that will enable him to make product more efficiently and more cheaply.  Unfortunately, this new, automated technology is so efficient that all the human factory workers are laid off.   Mr. Whipple is heartless, clever but not wise.  The twist of the story is that Mr. Whipple makes himself obsolete.  He is fired by the shareholders of the company as he no longer has anyone to manage.  A robot is installed to replace him.


The development of photography in the 19th century was no less a threat to painters than automated factories were to blue-collar workers.  The hardest hit were painters who did portraits, which to be fair, was nearly all painters at the time.  The speed of photography and its economical price meant that middle and lower classes might afford portraits that previously were only available to the upper class.  Artists that embraced photography and were willing to keep up with the rapid advancement of photography during the mid-19th century stood to make quite a profit.  Painters who continued to paint lost a great amount of business.  If this sounds like a story about technology and money but not art, it is because it mostly is.  Photography had an uphill battle to establish itself as a fine art during this time.  Only some photographers saw themselves as artists.  Others were hobbyists or entrepreneurs.  All were tinkerers.


This rivalry between painting and photography is not the first painting had.  Painting also fought with sculpture for a while.  There have also been many civil wars between hostile schools of painting.  The famous declaration that painting is dead comes from this rivalry with photography, and in many ways photography really did win.  Contemporary works in photography, including cinema and video,  are far more universally popular than painting.  Everyone has been a movie theater, but some have never been to an art gallery.  Painting did not die, though.  It certainly changed, perhaps in part because of photography.  Contemporary painters certainly seem less interested in commissioned portraits in the 21st century than they did in the 19th.  Also, most painters no longer feel limited to realism.  Photography freed painters to experiment with abstraction and to look for things that painting could do that photography could not.


Like Mr. Whipple, the success of photography may be more clever than wise.  Traditional dark-room photography is now being eclipsed by digital photography.  In the art schools and universities, this change is becoming clear.  University darkrooms have closed just as computer labs opened.  Major lines of film stock have been discontinued.  Digital SLR cameras now are available in resolutions that are finer than the grain resolution of traditional 35mm negatives.  Many traditional photographers feel as if a sea change is occurring in which craft and the role of light in the darkroom is being lost to purely digital processes.  They complain that the role of the hand and that of physical material is being lost to the mechanical and virtual, and they may not be aware of just how much they sound like a disgruntled painter.  Perhaps, worst of all, though we live in a time when few people feel qualified to draw let alone paint, everyone has a camera in their pocket at all times.  Photography today can feel as casual as doodling as it is so common and so accessible.


Of course, something is being lost.  The convenience of new technologies and cheaper costs mean many new people will have access to the medium, including those with little to no formal training.  Like all novices, their work will seem inferior to those of professionals.  So much could go wrong in film photography.  The shot could be over or underexposed.  The correct darkroom exposure could involve a drawn out process of trial proofs before a suitable final state.  The best photographers often made deliberate manipulations to the image in ways that most viewers would never notice.   Each mistake meant more film, more paper, more time, and more money.  This sense of cost and investment helps focus the mind, forcing the photographer to really decide what they want from the composition.  The ease of use and lack of similar limits in digital photography does make it harder for the mind the focus in the same way.  If the shot comes out wrong (and the camera essentially has an instant replay), one can just take the shot again.  A bad exposure can sometimes be fixed in post.  What is lost is not just the limits but the attentiveness.


Painters are in a good position to advise traditional photographers.  We have an idea about what they will be going through.  The decision to continue in an obsolete medium is not one that should be taken lightly.  Artist supplies will occasionally feel like antiques rather than something shiny and new from the Apple store.  Commercial utility will slowly fade until the medium is solely reserved for a fine arts context.  All those strange photographers that started reviving daguerreotypes in the last decade, well, they are now not really any more eccentric than the film photographers that hunt for old Tri-X stock.  People will tell say that darkroom photography is dead.  Graduate students who work in film can expect to be shunned from programs that have fully embraced new media, unless they can offer up an interesting conceptual rationale for continuing in the tradition.  Just as many schools phased out heavy metal paints in the painting studios, department chairs will proudly declare their schools free of toxic developers and fixers.   The oversize digital printers will be simply amazing.  If it hasn’t happened already, a color 3d printer will appear, though few people will know what to use it for beyond a few experimental parlor tricks.


There are digital photographers that we should applaud, however.  Some photographers might opt to continue shooting with high resolution view cameras which still surpass most digital technology, but then process the negatives through a digital photoshop.  Most recent work by photographers like Andreas Gursky make use of this ability to seamlessly collage multiple exposures and takes of the same scene.  The actual prints of these photographs can reach the scale of what we think of as large paintings without compromising resolution.  In Gursky’s “The Rhine II,” digital manipulation is used to depopulate a semi-industrial, urban area around the Rhine into a minimalistic landscape.   Interestingly, this puts photography far away from the small, colorless prints of Ansel Adams or Alfred Stieglitz.  The ability to have comparatively unlimited control over the image and its manipulation really is an idea that has roots in painting more so than traditional photography.  These digital photographers have a training that comes from film photography and art history at large.  Their artistic process has only grown more complicated with new technologies rather than more simple.

Andreas Gursky, The Rhine II, c-print mounted on acrylic glass, 73 x 143 inches, 1999.

Of course, many digital photographers are not as interesting as Gursky and their work may really not be worth much comment.  Most of their work will be unsurprising similar, as the photographs will have more to do with the specific cameras and digital photoshopping process used than the individual photographers’ vision.  Only occasionally can we expect to see something new out of websites like Instagram.  It is very hard to find a truly horrible Instagram photo, but it is also very hard to find a truly great one.


One day, fate will also conspire against these digital photographers, too.  By then, many of them will have become quite skilled and far from absent-minded in their work.  A new technology will threaten to make what we think of as digital photography obsolete.  Then, they, too, will join the club of the traditional.  All good art becomes part of tradition eventually.  Technology changes what is possible but it can’t diminish art that works with limits.




The Brain Center at Whipples’s.  The Twilight Zone, screenplay by Rod Serling, May 15, 1964.