It has been said that the Eskimos have over 50 words for ‘snow’, giving them unparalleled efficiency and precision when communicating amongst themselves about this element that so permeates their lives. Lately I’ve been giving some thought to the phrase I use to describe what I do: Digital Imaging. The more I think about it, the more I realize how overly broad this term really is. A vocabulary around digital art has not even begun to develop. (Spoiler alert! In the world of lumpers and splitters, I’m about to become a wicked splitter.)
Consider the thousands of pictures of families and pets that dot the internet today on sites like Facebook and Instagram. These are not that different from the Polaroid pics and Kodak moments that have swelled family albums since the 1930s. They are all digital images, though, having been uploaded from digital cameras or digitized from paper images in desktop scanners. Made mainly for their narrative/documentary value, these images have aesthetic values only as an afterthought. Digital snapshots.
Photojournalism, distinct from family snapshots, seeks to document moments in time that have a broader significance to society. In the spirit of such masters as Jacob Riis and Gordon Parks, this category would include the genre known as sidewalk photography, and the innumerable Twitter feeds that have poured out of the Arab Spring. Like snapshots, these images are about their narrative content rather than aesthetic value, though the best of them, like the iconic flag-raising on Iwo Jima, excel at both. Digital photojournalism.
Some images are created with photo art foremost in mind. Many, still basically photographs, have been tweaked in photo altering programs like Lightroom that adjust such qualities as sharpness, contrast, hue, and color saturation to enhance the “photographicness” of the images without changing their basic nature. Most of these images are made for the purposes of commerce or fine art; the image maker’s intent is to make the pictures a cut or two above the simple snapshot. Digital art photography.
Next in the spectrum (for it is a spectrum, without sharp boundaries) are images whose essential nature is altered in programs such as Photoshop or GIMP, in order to support the narrative or affective content of the pictures. In a digital photograph or scanned image, colors may be altered beyond what the viewer perceives as normal. Textures may be added, or simulated brushstrokes, even full-blown painting emulation (sometimes with a nod toward imitating a specific artist’s style.) Compositional elements may be cut out, pasted in, painted over, or distorted, sometimes in ways that depict scenes or objects that do not, nor ever could, exist. The aesthetic decisions that underpin these images are made almost always in the interest of art, and the artist’s vision eventually pervades and defines the work. Most of what I do falls in this category–images that aren’t exactly photos any more. Digital Imaging art.
Sometimes digital images are created directly by the artist, with no intervening digital photographs, on pen tablets or touch screens using digital brushes like the ones provided by Photoshop or in dedicated painting programs like Art Rage or Corel Painter. Some are built with vector tools in programs like Illustrator or CorelDraw. Such images are not in any sense photographic. They emerge from the aesthetic and motor skills of the artist, exactly as drawings and paintings on traditional media do. British artist David Hockney had become a master of this form. I occasionally work in this area as well. Digital painting.
A small number of programs exist which can actually create paintings de novo within the computer without human input in real time. Examples are Harold Cohen’s AARON and Simon Colton’s The Painting Fool. Most of these consist of a set of drawing and painting rules input by a human, with a heuristic component requiring a period of “training”, supervised by a human, to develop libraries of techniques and objects it can later apply to its own compositions, much as human art students or apprentices do. Such programs raise interesting questions about the very natures of creativity and art appreciation, but they remain curiosities. So far none has produced anything close to the kind of masterpiece of which even cavemen were capable. Computer simulated art.
Finally, digital images can be generated almost entirely by the computer. Equations that use cartesian, fractal, or some other geometry to define the positions of points in 2-dimensional space (or multidimensional space, for that matter) can produce striking images. Such equations use variables to change the pattern as it develops through multiple iterations of the program, as well as affecting other properties of the pattern, such as brightness, color and point size, to produce brilliant flowing patterns. The Mandelbrot set is among the best known of these algorithms, which can produce eye-catching but rather mechanical-appearing and ultimately boring images. Pure computer imaging.
So there you go. A whirlwind tour, that cannot hope to be exhaustive, of the world of digital imaging, from the comfortable banality of the family album to the exotic otherworldliness of the Mandelbrot set, with an infinite spectrum of possibilities between them, and toeholds for artists all along the way. So far virtually no language exists to sort it all out. What is a poor blogger to do? I think I’ll go back to my Photoshop.