The other day I went to drop off a picture at a show venue. The staffer who received my image asked me, as of course he has to, what medium I used to create my image. I replied, as I nearly always do, that it was a “digital image.” I don’t like the term “digital photograph”, I explained, because after while my images stop being photographs, but they never stop being images, and they are thoroughly digital.
He was having none of that. “Was it ever a photograph?” “Well, yes, I developed it from a scan of an Ektachrome slide I took years ago.” “Well there you go, it’s a photograph.”
“You know,” I offered, “in a decade or so this conversation will be moot. Digital art will be recognized in a category of its own.”
The offense he took at this idea was palpable. His voice hardened. “This is a photograph!” he said, pointing at my image. His emphasis of the word dripped with contempt. “We have works here that the artists painted from scratch on an iPad. Now that’s real digital art!”
Now it was my turn to be offended. Was he saying my work was not real? Not art? Was his problem with the photography, or with the digital? Or both?
Traditional art venues like galleries and art associations have the most to lose when the conventional taxonomy of the art world begins to be shuffled, as it did when photography first appeared, and again a few decades later when Modern Art began to differentiate itself from the mainstream art of the Paris Salon.
Photography itself can be said to have been on born on August 19, 1839 when Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787–1851) made a presentation before a before a joint session of the Académie des Sciences and the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris on his revolutionary new process for preserving camera obscura images. The process dazzled the scientists, but as an art it was limited to studio portraits and still life photographs, because the equipment was so cumbersome and the insensitive emulsions of the time required such long exposures.
By 1860 the technology had improved to the point that Mathew Brady, a portrait photographer with studios in New York and Washington, was able to deploy a fleet of photographers with darkroom wagons to the battlefields of the Civil War to document the aftermath of combat. His portrait work was art. His war work signaled the dawn of photojournalism. The art and science of photography were both advancing, the one nourishing the other.
Not until the turn of the twentieth century did photography become sufficiently unfettered to allow visionaries like F. Holland Day and Alfred Stieglitz to promote fine art photography, distinct from documentary and commercial photography. The idea was that to produce fine art, the artist creates images that express his or her vision as an artist rather than illustrating an event or shilling a product.
Photography has remained the poor country cousin, though. Despite the evident artistic value of works by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston (Weston received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a grant for artists, in 1937), as late as the 1960s many galleries and museums considered it presumptuous to frame a photograph, displaying them instead in bare mats or pinned to corkboards. To some extent that unease with photography as a fine art persists today.
Modern art has fared better, perhaps because its media (mainly painting and sculpture) are more intuitively linked to the media of the Beaux Arts. It is hard to say when modern art began, but the ideas were clearly afoot in 1855, when Courbet finished L’Atelier du Peintre, in which he depicted himself with his back to the academic and the literary, painting a landscape while facing a crowd of contemporary characters from all walks of life. Refused by the Exposition Universelle of 1855, Courbet created his own little exhibition nearby, foreshadowing the Salon des Refusès of 1863, an event often regarded as the birth of modern art.
From the middle of the 19th century the world of Western art, mired in traditions dating back to the renaissance, had to face the simultaneous challenges of two rapidly evolving movements: photography and modern art. This process was still unsettled by the last half of the 20th century, when computers conquered the world.
To the art world’s anxieties over the challenges to its hoary traditions, add all of society’s ambivalence concerning the creative impulse as it relates to all things digital. For most of us what goes on inside that sleek box with its curious whirring, clicking sounds and flashing lights, is mostly mystery. Whatever it is though, it can’t be that most human of all things–art.
This idea is born of a misapprehension. Digital art is not created by computers any more than The Last Supper was created by brushes and plaster, or The Thinker was produced by a hammer and chisels. Art is created in the eye and soul of an artist, and made manifest using the tools available at the time. This has been so since Neanderthals decorated their caves with soot and colored mud, and it is no less true today. Only the tools have changed.
The word “nerd” did not start out as a term of endearment, and though the nerds themselves have embraced the term and brought to it a certain sort of respect, “nerdy” and “arty” are still opposite ends of a spectrum. Of all the assaults on the idea of Art since Daguerre and Courbet, digital art, with its odd marriage of art and technology, seems the most alien and unwelcome.
In my docent’s mind, at least, there appear to be some possible mitigators. If the process involved in creating the image included manual skills similar to those that painters use, it is closer to the spirit of Art. “Painted from scratch on an iPad,” he said. “Now that’s real digital art!”
The not so veiled implication is that techniques that do not use familiar gestures, such as simulating brushstrokes by hand, do not make real art. I agree with him that real art can be produced using simulated painting on a tablet or touchscreen. I have even tried to do so myself. I offer these two examples of my efforts.
I strenuously disagree that a digital image that is not produced this way cannot be real art. It is not the act, but the artist, that makes art. The proof is in the image, not in the technique that the artist used produced it.
Many artists in other media have an inaccurate idea, or no idea at all, about how a digital image is produced. In the case of a photograph that is converted into a digital image, the process can be even more complicated than simply “painting from scratch”. You are invited to press the workflow button at the top of this page to see how one relatively simple image was made, step by step.
It is not just a matter of applying an art filter to a digital photograph. Simply owning a computer with Photoshop loaded cannot make an artist of someone without the eye, esthetics, talent and commitment required to be one. The esthetic decisions made by the digital artist are very similar, if not identical, to those of the painter.
Light and shadow, fullness and void, composition and eye lines, color and texture must all be shepherded to a congruent solution in the final image before it is art. The resulting work needs to be judged on its own merits, not prejudged based on erroneous conceptions about the technique that produced it.