Digital Photography and the Shifting Edifice for Visual Experience


A lecture given at the Taller de Pedro Pablo Oliva, Pinar del Rio, Cuba 6/09/02

Conrad Gleber

From the earliest days of desktop computing to the present, digital technology has afforded a constant and ubiquitous shift in the visual dialog between artists and their audience. This paper explores the affordances and constraints of new media technology. It shifts our view from the tension between culture and objects and looks instead at the expanding role of agency and purpose in culture. The views of Lev Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist and Kenneth Burke, an American literary critic help to frame the discussion of the cultural consequences of new digital art.

"So, what makes a good digital artwork? First of all it has to match the color of the upholstery in the reception area. If it don’t match, change it." -FATIMA LASAY


The point of this paper is to suggest that we look at digital processes and how to use them to create works that could not have been seen using previous photographic technology. It’s about understanding how to imagine the potential for new images. But the discussion is not intended to make a list of possible methods and techniques that would exploit the full spectrum of the digital medium. Efforts to understand how to use new media that contribute to imagining the untried requires us to consider what photography means to our cultural process. A simple deduction would hold that if photography impacts cultural development and digital technology has expanded photographic processes then it follows that culture is shifting under the influence of new digital imaging methods. This may explain what is happening. The more important question remains how does it influence cultural interaction? How do we mediate the constantly changing technology with cultural goals in mind? With cultural agency at the nexus of critical evaluation, it’s the question every artist working with digital art must consider when using new media. How else can we tell if the color should match the upholstery… or decide which to change— the print or the fabric.


To look at the impact of digital technology on the practice of making and viewing photographs requires a look at the history of photography—its emergence, its impact on society and its continuing evolution as a means for cultural interaction. Also, it will be helpful to describe the cultural context that circumscribes the shifting influence of digital methods. It is culture, the values and practices of a social network, which help resolve the goals of diffusing technological change. And depending on the community they may be opposing goals.

For example Apple computer used the dominance of the closed computer culture in 1984 to announce to the world that the Macintosh would break the monopoly on information technology. (see movie)

The dialectic between digital imaging technology and social development highlights another important point to consider. A critical review of digital means and resulting mediums could be seen as supporting a deterministic point of view that assumes technology drives history. It is an easy argument since the results of using digital tools highlight new and novel ways to experience artists’ ideas. But the motivation for cultural interaction with technology is based on innate learning impulses and the mediation between new and emerging technology and the established means of making art.

So as much as it may appear that technology is part of a causal relationship that results in structural changes, I feel that it is motives, a desire to fulfill societal needs, at cultural scale, which lead to technological development and elaboration through use. And it is especially the case when artists develop experiences that bring to audiences ideas that reify and diffuse change in the cultural zeitgeist. Such work illustrates potential, defines new purposes and suggests alternate perspectives and motives.

But given the broad representation of work that characterizes digital art why narrow the discussion to photography? Photography provided the first mechanical technology to expand through common visual experience the recursive relationship of artists and audience. By this I mean that photographs influenced the way we humans saw each other as in common and similar. Daguerreotypes were being made around the world within one year of the publication of the process. The sheer scale and pace of the spread of photography meant that the world’s population could potentially see itself in a mirror and it was the same self regardless of culture. Such beliefs were no longer a matter of faith but empirical observation supported by pictures.

I consider the diffusion of photography at cultural scale a good place to investigate relationships between artists and audience. It offers insight into ways that visual experience will see a shift in beliefs and an appropriation of new values and practices.

Besides the history of photography and the social context of the invention, we can establish the motive for using digital processes by defining a method of analysis for three distinct influences on practice—technology, art and culture. They can be seen as the how, what and why of artistic motive and each influences the other creating a recursive relationship that is systematic and ecological. Each item is affected by the same system that it is changing.

Although cultures are made of discreet entities with unique values, learning is the common purpose or motive of any culture. So to understand how to impact photography to make a genuine and new impact on the media will depend on the true motive of learning or intentional change. For this investigation culture is a process not a group of people or things. Culture is the appropriation of values and practices that are made real by the shared activity of using information provided in a learning context. Information is organized data. Consequently, if we want to consider the impact of a technology on a culture we must follow the interaction of processes. (see TimeLine prints from 7000BC to 2000AD)

In our case the indicators of the impact will be in what is produced—the art. And the IV International Digital Art Exhibit is an excellent place to review what has been done and to measure the impact.

  Photography history

Let’s consider some aspects of photo history and look for parallels in cultural need and development past and present. Photography in the late nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries filled a cultural need for establishing and reinforcing an objective reality that could be considered an accurate reflection of the world. The events leading up to the invention of photography began slowly and the search was punctuated by a constant need for exactitude that would deliver an unquestionable record of fact. Oliver Wendell Holmes called the medium a “mirror with a memory” and Edgar Allen Poe argued that under “the closest scrutiny [it] discloses only a more absolute truth” (Mitchell 1992). The attitude and belief in the medium’s resolution of reality was echoed and argued over throughout its modernist history.

Although photographic prints helped establish events as having occurred as recorded, the photograph was also becoming a subject for itself—very similar and simultaneous with developments in abstract painting. It was precisely the faithful and mechanical recording of reality that was appropriated by some modern artists to create works that represented higher levels of complexity. They made photography a meta-medium for presenting surreal sometimes constructed images that construed rather than sampled reality. Audiences experienced the artists imagined reality in the “real” venacular of photographic means.

Photographic technology filled the need as defined by its inventors. Visual artists innovated the use of the technology and postulated different ways that elaborated an integrated approach to making visual experience. Images created under these conditions were only possible because there was something called photographic truth.

Affordance & constraint in goals

Digital processes are in constant development and innovation. Development cannot sustain itself without some end point, a goal. For artists, goals are situated in cultural interaction.

Lev Vygotsky, the famous Russian cultural psychologist, initiated a cultural-historical approach to the origins of higher mental functions and consciousness. The key to his brilliance was that his ideas extended beyond psychology and led to a general theory of culture and its development. He is very clear that development or cultural change must reflect on what end points to have in mind. In his writing Vygotsky considered ideal end points for cultural development somewhere between “enlightened rationality” and a “harmony of imagination.” Whether we can subscribe to this view or prefer another, the critical thing is that goals must be in mind while culture develops new artists, mediums and activities (Wertsch, 1998).

The tension between the triad of artists, their methods and the viewers of the art implies that art is produced and provokes through an irreducible relationship of who and how. And although we can safely assume that there will be changes in how images will be produced we cannot predict the variety of results that may emerge from the interaction.

The affordances and constraits of new media describe the dialectic for complex and ambiguous development that art will take as artists engage new digital means. New media are usually seen as new facility or capability. They afford future development, and explain the evolving actions and transformation that artists and communities may experience.

But if artists find emerging information technology an engaging process for producing art, it will not be free. It is also important to look at the constraints that new means may have on perspective and capability. The literary critic, Kenneth Burke wrote about how language defines and opens our mind to new experience. It also focuses our perceptions, constricts and narrows our choices at understanding reality. He wrote that any medium presents a reflection of reality and acting within the medium represents a selection and therefore, deflects our understanding of reality. The medium constrains the artist and the viewer as it lies within the image (1966).

Therefore any analysis of the impact of digital technology must acknowledge that new work and the implicit transformation of culture must be seen as the mediated action of artists in society.

An example – Frank Gillette

Digital technology used to make visual images changes the perception of what the image represents. The meaning of images made through digital means radically transforms what we can assume about the content. Digital images are generated or manipulated by computers and their ability to construct an artificial reality undermines or abandons the authenticity of images to represent an actual event.

The meaning of these images slips from being an index of reality to a visual representation similar to painting. But far from taking away any special properties of authenticity due to methods of control, the image can represent a more intimate view of artistic conception.