Into the Digital – Fred Ritchin

After Photography

Who is Fred Ritchin and what is his context?

Fred Ritchin is a prolific author and curator, focusing on digital media and the rapid changes occurring in photography.

The Author Fred Richen (Icp.org, 2019) .
  • Fred is “currently Dean Emeritus of the International Center of Photography (ICP) School, Previously Ritchin had founded the Documentary Photography and Visual Journalism Program at the ICP School and directed it from 1983–86. He was appointed Dean in 2014 and Dean Emeritus in 2017.
  • Professor of Photography and Imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts from 1991–2014.
  • Ritchin has been picture editor of the New York Times Magazine (1978–82)
  • and executive editor of Camera Arts magazine (1982–83)
  • In 1999 he co-founded and directed PixelPress (Icp.org, 2019) .”

“Ritchin has written and lectured internationally about the challenges and possibilities of the digital media revolution. He has published three books on the future of imaging: In Our Own Image: The Coming Revolution in Photography (Aperture, 1990); After Photography (W. W. Norton, 2008); and Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizen (Aperture, 2013). In 2016 he co-authored with Carole Naggar the Magnum Photobook: The Catalogue Raisonné (Icp.org, 2019) .”

My reflections

Initially, Susan wrote a critical analysis, “On photography”. Richen has taken it upon himself to discuss what happened “After Photography…”

“We have entered the digital age. And the digital age entered us.” (Ritchin, 2009 p9 )

Coming from the film era where the whole process was photographic. The film negative or slide positive was created using light to draw the image which in turn was replicated using light to draw an image on a paper medium or projection screen. In the digital era, things changed. “Photography in the digital environment involves the reconfiguration of the image into a mosaic of millions of changeable pixels, not a continuous tone imprint of visible reality. Rather than a quote from appearances, it serves as an initial recording, a preliminary script, which may precede a quick and easy reshuffling. The digital photographer-and all who come after her-potentially plays a postmodern visual disc jockey (Ritchin, 2009 p18) .”.

The traditional photographer like myself, have always felt a bit at odds with the impact of the digital age, the altered media, and the ubiquitous nature of digital photography within a social media and internet environment. I am still trying to get my head around it to find my place in this altered reality. In essence, the photographic process ends when the light is captured on the sensor and digitised into bits. Not only can the image be stored, but the digital data can be copied and distributed without loss and printed or displayed through digital means, simulating the photographic, rather than using the photographic process. “Digital photography has been configured as a seamless, more efficient repetition of the past, easier to sell to the apprehensive consumer even as it is celebrated as part of the ‘digital revolution’ (Ritchin, 2009 p15)

Ritchin elaborates: “Digital involves coded signifiers, data that can be easily played with, abstracted from their source; analogue emanates from wind and wood and trees, the world of the palpable. Digital is based on an architecture of infinitely repeatable abstractions in which the original and its copy are the same; analogue ages and rots, diminishing over generations, changing its sound, its look, its smell. In the analogue world, the photograph of the photograph is always one generation removed, fuzzier, not the same; the digital copy of the digital photograph is indistinguishable so that “original” loses its meaning (Ritchin, 2009 p 17).” in Digital photography the photons are measured and converted from analogue to digital. This digital information is stored in RAW file unique to that device that cannot be viewed and needs to be interpreted using the software either in the camera or on a computer. In the workflow, the original information can be manipulated to emulate the development process and techniques or even go beyond and change the original in significant and truth altering ways. What you see is no longer what you get.

Ritchin takes the issues directly and moves Susan’s metaphor of Plato’s cave to a square universe which projects what the industry defines as “virtual’ and sometimes “augmented reality”. The virtual reality draws us into an unlimited world where social interaction allows you to present yourself as someone completely different, and create a world of your own. Alternatively, augmented reality seeks to show us our world with added “truths” not limited by the constraints as imposed by nature itself. It, in fact, dictates the new truth. As Ritchin asserts: ” It is a world where the human often feels at a disadvantage, where the machine is considered smart and the human sometimes stupid “ but ” The computer also promises a secular uberenvironment in which “reality is merely a convenient measure of complexity,” as Pixar’s Alvy Ray Smith once put it, to be simulated by computer graphics and ultimately transcended (Ritchin, 2009 p16).

“Painting was posited to have preceded, inspired, and then been threatened by photography in the nineteenth century-the handmade versus the mechanical. In the twenty-first century photography of the digital kind-wired, instantaneous, automatic, malleable, a component of a larger multimedia-may eventually turns out to have a more distant relationship with the film-and-chemicals variety that came before it (Ritchin, 2009 p19)”. This statement reminded me of the pictorial phase in photography. Digital manipulation relates closer to painting than that of the photographic process.

A benefit for digital artists and fine art photographers is usurping of the detectable darkroom trickery that was pursued by earlier practitioners which have been made fully pliable with software paint brushes vs airbrushing with chemicals, digital non-destructive layering vs physical layering negatives or physically cutting them, and digital colourisation techniques vs using filters, and a myriad of other options vs. using sometimes poisonous chemical processes. All analogue processes…

I must admit that the digital photography world has aided my photography practice in many ways. I no longer have to wait for the film to be developed to see my results. My darkroom costs and space have reduced and I can perform techniques that would have taken me years to perfect. I can self publish digitally at very low costs and reach a worldwide audience if I so desire.

And finally, returning to Sontag and her critical analysis in “on Photography” regarding the truth and reality perception that the photograph was seen in a sense a trace of reality and it could be used to testify as truth has been seriously altered forever. Fred briefly comments on it: “Where then is the “real” now? Increasingly we are looking at photographs of the map that refers to no territory: the pictures of pictures, the photo opportunities in which politicians and celebrities have their managers stage a scene as if it had actually happened, the photo illustrations that magazines adroitly set up to prove a point, the advertisements for products too glossy to exist, the media filters that reduce life to a shorthand of shock and voyeurism (Ritchin, 2009 p23). This poses a major problem to the practice of journalism, reportage and the documentary. It has been severely devalued the photograph. But, as far as these practices are concerned, the integrity of the photographic evidence needs to be managed and controlled by the photographer which is seriously challenged by editorial staff. This subject is covered in depth in Richen’s monograph “Bending the frame” which is waiting for me on my shelf.

Reference

Icp.org. (2019). fredritchin | International Center of Photography. [online] Available at: https://www.icp.org/users/fredritchin [Accessed 28 Nov. 2019].

Ritchin, F. (2009). After photography. New York: Norton, pp.9-24.

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