Thursday, July 2, 2009

Book: Fred Ritchin, After Photography

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2009 by W.W. Norton & Company (here). 200 pages, with 50 color images/illustrations. (Cover shot at right, via

Comments/Context: Peering into the crystal ball and trying to predict the future has always been a dangerous game, dominated by wild failures and gross misconceptions. And yet, we still have a seemingly insatiable desire to hear what the future will be like, and so a subculture of future predictors of all kinds has grown into a small cottage industry, serving every conceivable facet of our lives, from the weather to political elections.

Fred Ritchin has been around the world of documentary photography for a long time. He was a picture editor of The New York Times Magazine from 1978-82, founding director of the Photojournalism and Documentary Photography Program at the ICP, and is now an Associate Professor of Photography and Communications at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and the director of PixelPress. So it with some degree of credibility that he wades into the future prediction discussion, focusing his thoughts and opinions on journalistic photography and its future, given the rise of digital technology.

This book is not so much a reasoned analysis or systematic argument as it is a wandering set of ideas and anecdotes that are tied together by some overarching themes and extrapolations. As a result, it has an almost conversational feel, as if you were talking with him in his office or hearing him lecture. The unstructured momentum of the book is therefore often interrupted by flowery language or unexpected dives into tangential subjects (9/11, the war in Iraq, and climate change all make repeated appearances) which makes the following of his line of thought a bit tricky.

While the title of the book suggests a kind of light switch end to photography as we know it, the text actually outlines a number of more evolutionary forces that are currently at work in the field, and then combines these trends into a larger world view of the medium and its future, perhaps recast as "new media" (once again). While I won't delve into each and every idea (and there are many), here are a few of the ones that I thought were most plausible and instructive:
  • The democratization of image making: with the advent of the camera phone and the ubiquity of digital cameras, the idea of the amateur, citizen journalist becomes more possible; everything, everywhere will now be documented by someone, perhaps not as artfully or thoughtfully as by a professional photojournalist, but covered nonetheless.
  • The impact of manipulation and staging: our perception of truth and reality will be further tested by the encroachment of modifications/alterations to existing images, as well as by staged works and carefully orchestrated photo opportunities which are passed off as "decisive moments". In both cases, our trust of the imagery is eroded and our skepticism is increased, and a growing sense of uncertainty around what is actual emerges. And yet, given the democratization of image making, maybe these falsehoods (large and small) will be exposed by bystanders, who will bring the truth forward and burst the bubbles; total media control is not as easy as it once was and under reported stories now have a better chance of finding an audience.
  • The computer as the environment for viewing: if we extrapolate out quite a few years, it seems reasonable to assume that most of our "viewing" will be done on screens, rather than with printed photographs of one kind or another. If we take that as given, then it follows that the entire experience of seeing images will be different, and that certain types of images will be more successful than others given the constraints of this viewing method. The power of the underlying hardware and software to do amazing things will of course be used to enhance the encounter, leading to the next point...
  • The hypertexted narrative: Rather than follow the one way, linear narrative of the traditional photo essay, images will now be linked in scores of ways, allowing a viewer to traverse a nonlinear path, using keywords, or links, or shuffled playlists to tell the story. New approaches to interactivity will allow for more two way dialogue and conversations.

There are of course many more paths to explore in this book, many more ideas and prognostications to consider. But the overall conclusion Ritchin puts forth is that the future digital world is an ambiguous one (he uses the metaphor of quantum mechanics repeatedly), where things may not be what they seem and the old authoritative view of photography has been thrown out the window. But rather than wallow in the destruction of the old ways, Ritchin is decidedly optimistic in his view of the future of the medium, seeing exciting new possibilities for how documentary images will continue to help us to understand the world around us and to connect us to each other.

Collector's POV: While this essay is primarily focused on the impact the digital revolution will have on photojournalism, it raises some interesting questions for collectors of fine art photography as well. If we take Ritchin's future world as given, then fine art photography will increasingly move away from the hand held, object quality print, and toward the world of video art, with its different mediums, displays, and technological conservation issues. If the image is really a hyperlinked "book" of intertwined pictures viewable only on a computer, what will the collector actually "buy"? A digital file? The hardware and software that runs it? A certificate of authenticity? Reproduction rights or a key to the DRM? If the world indeed evolves in the manner Ritchin predicts, the challenges that video art collectors have been dealing with for decades now will suddenly become our problems as well. Or more likely what will happen is our collecting community will divide: those that are interested in the old, hold in your hand prints (even if they are mural sized), and those that have embraced the new.

Transit Hub:
  • Book site/blog: (here)
  • Pixel Press (here)

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