Meditations on chemical and digital photographic processes
In non-digital photography—the “capture” of images through exposure—a moment in time is sublimated into a successive process of chemical mediations. These translations are obscured in the resulting photographic image except to the skilled who can recognize certain chemical techniques for enhancement or manipulation. The deception of the photographic image lies in the obfuscation of technique—texture is an illusion resulting from light playing off surfaces or through objects. In painting, the technique, because it always produces a certain texture, becomes integral to the perception of the work and its content. Perhaps it is because painting must transcend or reconcile with its deception, and that it is not simply an image, that distinguishes it from photographic image making—the subject or referent is simulated through the illusion of light created through the application of paint on a surface, where in photography it is a photo-chemical impression upon physical material, a literal play of light upon surfaces. The digital images from the DCP Series complicate this issue of texture and technique. They exhibit a richness in detail, where the technique of manipulating the electronics of the camera asserts itself as simulated texture within the image, not in such a way as to reclaim that domain of texture occupied by painting but to draw attention to the fact that it—the digital image itself—is almost pure simulation, that there are many imperceptible layers of mediation involved in the production of the digital image which remove it from its referent.
The referent in the DCP Series images is the process of digital photography revealed through intervening with the physical hardware during image capture. Here the illusion of texture arises from the play of data through algorithms; light, and therefore exposure, is amputated from the digital photographic process. Where the mediations separating the real from the simulated within non-digital photography involve photo-chemical transformations of materials via exposure and development, the mediations involved in the creation of the digital images in the DCP Series involve complicated algorithms which are made visible through the intervention of wires intersecting processes by connecting points on the circuit boards which were never intended to meet. Though the specifics of the tools and methods involved in both practices are radically different, because digital photography evolved from non-digital photography, there exists not only an overlap but a discontinuity between the two. By scrutinizing work produced at the limits of each practice, and attempting to locate the essence of one within the other, the possibility of creating new forms arises.
Locating the analog of the physical process of manipulating the circuits of digital cameras in the photographic process poses an interesting set of problems. That the image of film based photography exists in a physical domain and the image of the digital era exists as a data set corresponding to the charges stored in vast arrays of microscopic capacitors already complicates any attempt to unite the domains of digital and photo-chemical image making. The translation of light to a data set makes the digital camera an all in one image making machine; you don’t need to have a photo lab to produce images. Data acquisition and storage; data read back and software interpretation of data; and output to the monitor replace the processes of exposing and developing film and then exposing and developing photographic paper. Algorithms and silicon replace film, paper and chemical baths.
Parallels to the process of intervening in the electronics of the camera can be found in chemically processing unexposed film. Created completely in the darkroom through the application of different chemicals directly on the film emulsion, the resulting images circumvent the need to expose film to light. This raises the question of whether a photographic image requires the exposure of film at all, or whether its development takes precedence in the creation of photographic images.
Man Ray’s photograms alter our perception of the processes that define photography by discarding not only film, but the lens and the camera altogether. By inserting physical objects between light and photographic paper to create images, the mechanism of the camera—the voyeur’s perspective onto the world—is circumvented. In the digital domain, instead of adding objects to photographic paper, the addition of objects to the circuitry—alligator clips and wires—circumvents the cameras inherent image capturing capabilities. However, because the process of modifying the cameras used in the DCP Series overrides the process of exposure, the Rayogram still falls short as a suitable analogy with which to locate the resultant digital images within the context of traditional photography.
Is it still possible to have a photograph without any of the mediums being exposed to light?
If images produced by developing unexposed, but chemically manipulated positive film or photographic paper (chemigram) can still fall under the umbrella of photography, then we have shifted the emphasis of photography from the subject, light, and exposure, to the chemical process of development which may not even involve light (except in the mediation of the electromagnetic forces responsible for chemical reactions). To develop a single frame of unexposed (positive) film and/or an unexposed sheet of photographic paper would exemplify this process. The question is now: where can we locate the notion of development within the practice of digital photography?
Inside the prepared digital camera, the element typically exposed to light in the production of an image, the CCD, is bypassed and the electronics responsible for interpreting its signals and writing them to a digital storage medium are manipulated to produce the image. The process of data acquisition, processing and storage is akin to exposing film to light, and developing its negative. When the data is read back, it is interpreted by decompression algorithms and presented on a screen. With this software, the data set that describes the image can be manipulated using any number of mathematical operations. This whole process of generating data and interpreting it as an image could of course be emulated within software, but the result would involve neither the mechanisms of exposure nor development in any traditional sense and thus the result could not be considered photographic. Digital images produced within the camera occupy this interstitial zone between photography and algorithmically generated imagery, because the tools involved are designed to focus light, expose a surface and record the resulting data. Perhaps by circumventing the process of exposure, the images produced by these prepared cameras cannot be considered photographic in any traditional sense.
It is still tempting to identify the process of creating these images with photography. The shutter release is still involved; however, the act of initiating an exposure is abstracted, initiating a Rube Goldbergesque chain of pre-programmed instructions, where photons generate electrical signals which are quantized and stored as data points. After the intervening processes employed in the production of the DCP Series, the digital camera thinks it’s taking an exposure but the paths from the CCD to the recording device have been severely compromised. By bypassing the CCD electronics, we intercept the digital processes of “development”—analog to digital conversion, compression algorithms, etc.— and dump our redirected electrons onto what would in film photography been the exposed and developed negative: the flash memory card. It’s like taking a picture with the shutter mechanism disabled and afterwards bathing the film in a cocktail of different chemicals; you trigger the mechanics of an exposure but what happens in the treatment of the “film” is what we’re concerned with. You could almost discard the camera altogether, except that in the digital camera the translation of the image from CCD to storage medium—what would otherwise be from film to developed negative and then to photograph paper etc.—is dependent upon the system of components and short-circuits that have no algorithmic equivalent, they escape the type of emulation that would allow us to forget about the physical object altogether.
No doubt, this whole process is, in the end, digital, but perhaps there is hope that it is actually a possibility to contextualize it within the domain of photography and not simply relegate it to the domain of digital image production. It may be that by preparing poloroid cameras so that the film is physically damaged while it is being pulled through the mechanisms, we find the closest parallels to these images in the DCP Series.
As a final note, this whole exercise of attempting locating this work within the tradition of photography is necessary because it is not based in emulation. The act of using a digital camera locates the resulting image within the practice of photography. The question then is if altering the electronics of the camera is a photographic process, does it have a precedent from previous photographic traditions and if so in which specific stage of the whole process can we find the closest similarities? Of course, I’m also interested in how this obscures the definition of photography—whether digital or film-based—and also whether there are other practices that have touched upon this problem of “what is photography?”. So that the traditionalists may understand the images and the process in terms of what they already know, we can refer back to those artists who are chemically manipulating unexposed film and developing the results. Though the analogy is not a perfect match, the form of photography discovered and exploited in the production of the DCP Series is the digital age’s answer to those artists.
Luis Nadeau, Encyclopedia of Printing, Photographic and Photomechanical Processes New Brunswick, NJ (Atelier Luis Nadeau), 1989, and the related website, photoconservation.com
Gordon Baldwin, Looking at Photographs: A Guide to Technical Terms Los Angeles and London (J. Paul Getty Museum in association with the British Museum Press), 1991