Do Digital Photographs Exist?

Color photograph of an orange lily flower at night by Mark Whitney

Lily at Night
Digital Photograph
Mark Whitney 2015

Our lives are defined by images more than ever before. Collectively we produce billions of images a day – images taken of us, images created by us, even images of us created by us.

The barriers to creating images are down and the flood is on. No need for painters, or professional photographers, or even a traditional camera with a roll of film that we need to “use up” and send out for development – millions of us carry a device in our pockets that at a tap produce an image and then share that image with the world almost instantaneously.

I even read an article the other day about scientists creating images of our thoughts by reading our brain waves. Maybe someday we won’t even need the device in our pocket. Our every thought, every thing we imagine, every scene we view with our eyes can be recorded and shared directly from our brains. (Yikes! Where did I leave my tin foil hat?)

But, what are these images, these collections of ones and zeros? Are they photographs? Do they depict reality? They can be copied and manipulated and streamed here and there. They can be erased and ‘poof’ they are gone. They can merely be lost; swept away and buried in the deluge of trillions of other images.

Do they exists or do we just think they exist? If they do exist then what are they – photographs, loosely organized arrays of bits, merely thoughts?

I ran across this article, The Ontology of Photography: From Analogue To Digital, by Peter Benson posted on the Philosophy Now website that takes a look at what digital images files might be.

Benson’s take? Digital images are NOT photographs and are NOT reliable records of anything. What are they? Simulacra.

First let’s define a few terms. Not being a philosophy major I had to look up some of the big words that Benson uses in the article. These definitions are my own interpretations and may in fact be totally wrong. Use at your own risk.

Ontology: The study of being. What exists, what doesn’t exist and if it does exist, what kind of thing is it. Blame a guy named Parmenides for this kind of thinking.

Simulacrum: An image of something real or imagined that while giving the appearance of the thing, does not possess any of the substance or qualities of the thing represented.

Phenomenology: The study of the way we experience things based on their appearance. What a thing is if we analyze it scientifically may be different than how we experience it.

Benson describes the moment when he became aware of the great divide between analog and digital imagery while reading a magazine. He saw a ‘photograph’ of a new building along the Thames river that intrigued him. He thought he would go and see it in person and began trying to figure out where it was located based on the surroundings. However, upon further reading of the article he found out that it was merely a proposed building and was so far only an idea. In Benson’s words:

‘Artists’ impressions’ of architectural proposals have always been common, of course. But in the past they have usually taken the form of drawings or coloured sketches. However, no matter how closely I looked at this picture (and I was soon studying it through a magnifying glass), it remained indistinguishable from any other photograph in the magazine.

This, I think, is the crux of his argument, that digital images are not photographs. A photograph denotes that the thing in the image “has been”. Anyone looking at what they believe to be a photograph of a building will make the assumption that the building actually existed at the time of the recording. A digital image guarantees no such thing. Digital manipulation is too easy and too good (and only going to get easier and better in the future). We can no longer tell reality from non-reality. Digital images have lost what makes photographs, photographs – the link to the “has been”.

If I hold a photograph in my hand, I will believe that the thing in the picture is or was real. If you prove that the thing is only imaginary and has been manipulated into the scene, I no longer consider the photograph to be a photograph, but instead it is a fictional artwork – a simulacrum. If you tell me that the digital image has not been manipulated, what proof do I have? Especially if I see the image on something like Facebook and it came from half way around the world. I must assume that everything I see digitally is ‘fake’.

Rather than helping us to know our world for what it is, the incredible stream of digital images that we are bombarded with every day moves us more and more into an imaginary realm. We no longer know what the real world looks like. As Benson states:

Increasingly, we are surrounded, not by windows onto distant areas of reality with documentary validity, but by a shifting labyrinth of fictional views…

Far from giving us a clearer more correct view of our world through more abundant, more accessible, and more transparent information, the Internet has clouded our perceptions and left us more confused and uncertain than ever before through an ever increasing flood of illusions.

So what can be done about it? Benson points to two artists that have gone back to using analog processes for their photographs. One artist even went so far as to return to glass plates and the wet collodian process. These photographers restore the link between the photograph and the things in the scene by recovering the physical structures that are lost in the digital process. The physicality of their photographs transfer some small yet palpable properties of the original into the images.

What about my ‘photographs’? I used to use analog, but now I work digitally. Is the image at the top of this post a photograph or a simulacrum? I can tell you that this is an image of some lilies growing beside my garage. One night while the dog and I were ‘taking the air’ I was intrigued by the way the artificial light from the garage floods increased the contrast and saturation of the flowers and the shadows behind would provide me with a black background not normally associated with flower images. I used a digital camera without any filters on the lens in standard color mode and raw file format. I processed the files ‘gently’ – a little exposure adjustment, some spot cleaning, and some sharpening. I didn’t do any large scale cloning in or out of objects. The final product is largely like the original file and to my eye, very like the ‘real’ thing. If I had to, I could produce the raw image file.

So is the flower image above a photograph or a simulacrum? You make the call.



Abstract water photograph by Mark Whitney

Abstract Water
Mark Whitney

The water in this photograph flows from right to left. Specifically from the top right corner to the bottom left. Does it make a difference?

If I were placing this image in a layout, like the pages of a book for example, I would want to place it on the right hand page so that the water flows back into the center to keep the viewer’s eye in the book rather than leading it out. On a gallery wall I would want to place it to the right so that the water flows away from the corner towards the other prints.

People’s eyes naturally follow the flow of things in an image. Although a photograph is static, our minds use visual clues to perceive movement and follow it.

Now, suppose there are no other immediate factors like room corners or book creases – we look at the photo by itself. Does the direction of flow matter?

I’ve always been under the impression that people who read left to right prefer images that flow in that direction and vice-versa for right to left readers. So here in the U.S. people find left to right flow calming and natural, but right to left flow creates tension.

This is another one of those things that I seem to remember reading ‘somewhere’, but if pressed, I really couldn’t back it up with any solid evidence. I’ll have to do a little research.

Just for fun here is the same photo flipped. Do you prefer one over the other or is either one fine?

Abstract water photograph reversed by Mark Whitney

Abstract Water
Mark Whitney

Water Abstract

Abstract water photograph by Mark Whitney

Abstract Water
Mark Whitney
Photograph – 2015

“Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries—stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysical professor. Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.”

– Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Why Did I Take this Photograph?

Photograph of flying water by Mark Whitney

Mark Whitney

Why did I take this photograph?

I could have taken any number of others. I could have chosen a different perspective, a different shutter speed, a different aperture, different lighting… I could have passed by this place completely. Why this spot at this time in this way?

For many reasons – part conscious calculated decisions and part gut feeling.

One factor is happenstance. The “because it’s there” factor. I took this photo because I was walking along a stream in a gully on a sunny Spring afternoon and I stumbled across this cool waterfall. Its particular size and shape and lighting at the moment I saw it was a combination of an infinite number of environmental factors reaching back to Creation. I didn’t go out with the express purpose of photographing this particular waterfall. It was there and I took out my camera.

Another factor is planning, the opposite of happenstance. Although I didn’t plan to shoot this exact waterfall, I did plan to visit this area where I’ve been many times before and that I knew would afford me opportunities to to find water like this. I knew ahead of time, counted on it in fact, that the water would be running fast and jumping around with the exuberance of freshness. I knew ahead of time that the sun would be out bright and clear all day.

For me to plan my photo shoots much more than that is counter-productive. I don’t want to force myself to take photo ‘X’. I have a rough impression of something in my mind, something I may have had rolling around in my head for some time, and then I go out and see what I find. Sometimes it’s very close to what I was thinking about and sometimes things take a completely different turn. Once I’m out and about all bets are off.

Another reason I took it is because I like it. It’s an extension of my thoughts and feelings about the situation. It’s my attempt to capture, retain, and re-live the experience. The way the warm sun felt on my back after a brutally long, cold, dismal Winter. The careless abandon of the water rushing over the rocks. The cold spray on my face. The hissing and roaring sound completely filling my ears. The fact that my pants were wet and muddy from crawling around in the gully for hours. I want to take some part of that with me. A photograph can take a part of the world and yet leave it unchanged.

A partner to it being something for myself is the idea that it is something that I want to communicate to others. I created it in this way to convey things about the water. I’m trying to share the explosiveness, the clearness, the force of the water. You might not have been there physically with me, but in this way you can be. Different camera settings and different lighting might have smoothed the water too much and my jumping, splashing, crashing experience would turn into a quiet gentle flowing – not what the ‘real thing’ was like at all. I want you to see it and feel it like I did.

Is this photo an exact representation of the water? No, but it is an exact representation of the experience.

What does flowing water look like anyway? No one can say. It’s like light – sometimes a wave and sometimes a particle. Observation makes it what it is.

If you look at this photo and feel the sun and the spray and hear the sounds, perfect. If not, I’ll keep trying.


Photography and Personal Style Part Two

Digital photograph of water by Mark Whitney

Mark Whitney

“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

– Pablo Picasso

I started my last post with a quote from Pablo Picasso so I thought I’d do it again. It also strikes me as apropos in light of the recent auction sale of a Picasso painting, “Women of Algiers”, for a record breaking $179.3m. Whether you love his work or hate it, Picasso certainly had his own artistic style and his work is incredibly influential for many artists.

What has Picasso got to do with photography? It depends.

If you view photography as a technical “craft” that at best merely documents the scene in front of the camera, then not much. On the other hand, if you view photography as an art form on par with painting or sculpture that can express concepts and emotions that transcend documentation, then everything.

Just like Picasso’s works, although maybe not on so grand a scale, your personal style is the one and only factor that can change your photographs from redundant face value recordings of reality to unique works of art that can be created by you and only you. A robot can be taught to take verbatim photographs; your camera likely already has the ability to self focus, adjust to lighting conditions, and maybe even tell if the people in the frame are smiling or not. Only a human mind can take a photograph that is something more – something that can touch the viewer’s heart, mind, and imagination.

“If all your life means to you is water running over rocks, then photograph it, but I want to create something that would not have existed without me.”

– Minor White

Your personal style should be as unique as possible and its development will require, as we saw in my last post, the childlike capacity for ‘divergent thinking’. But here’s the tricky bit – nothing that humans ever do can be completely freed from the influence of past and present experience. A ‘new’ idea may be a great leap forward from current thought and seem to come out of the blue, but it really is a culmination of many many other (sometimes seemingly unrelated) ideas and inventions.

There was a TV series produced back in the 70s called Connections created by science historian James Burke. Being a science guy, I loved that show. Burke would start with some modern event like the invention of the movie projector and trace its source, idea by idea, back to improvements in the design of castle walls after the invention of the cannon. Burke posits that, as the Wikipedia article states, “..the entire gestalt of the modern world is the result of a web of interconnected events…”

When I was a graduate student in chemistry, our research goals were of course to discover new and better ways to produce desirable compounds possibly entirely new classes of compounds, but we didn’t just walk into the lab and blindly start mixing random chemicals together. We spent many hours in the library poring over walls full journal articles to understand what had been done before by other researchers. Had they done something similar? What were the results? Can we take their ideas, alter them, combine them with others, mix in our own experiments, and come out with something new? Can we see something that they missed?

Just like chemists or inventors, artists pluck relevant ideas from other artists past and present, but they don’t copy, they synthesize and distill and re-combine until they achieve something totally new.

So, we want our personal style to be as unique as possible (like Georgia O’Keeffe people will recognize our works without our needing to sign them) yet we know that anything we come up with will be a synthesis of our personal life experiences and the web of artistic influences that have gone before.

To do this we are going to need two things – divergent thinking so that we can view the same facts as others yet see things they have missed and we need a very broad set of ideas and experiences to which we can apply that creative thinking. The more nodes in our web of experience the more possible pathways we can travel, the more unique combinations we can make, and the more opportunities we will have to leap forward in new directions forming new nodes for those that come after us.

There’s an old saying, “If the only tool we have is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail”. If the only kind of photography we know about is the kind we see in photo magazines on the newsstand rack or on the typical photo website, then that is what our photographs will look like. If we don’t have a broad base of experience, a wide understanding of photographic genres, and a constant influx of diverse artistic influences, then we are doomed to create lifeless redundant photographs. I know, I’ve been there.

You say you want to advance the quality and creativity of your photography?

My first suggestion would be to head to the nearest art museum. I don’t care if they have any photography on display or not. It’s probably better if they don’t. We’re looking for new ideas here. The cubist art movement for which Picasso is so often remembered, influenced the photographs of Stieglitz. Haiku poetry influences the great Japanese photographer, Shomei Tomatsu. Abstract and Impressionist paintings have influenced my water photos.

Learn about other photographers too – from photography masters, not the ones in e-zines. Most likely the photographers we are the least familiar with are the past masters. I am always amazed at the number of photographers I talk to that have no inkling of the historic foundations of photography. Read a book once in a while. When I mention Paul Strand or Irving Penn or the FSA, people look at me like I have lobsters growing out of my ears. Don’t be those people.

“Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

– Pablo Picasso

My next suggestion is to experiment. Shoot and shoot and shoot some more. With the advent of digital photography there is no excuse for not taking a photograph. If you try something and it doesn’t work, throw it in the bit bucket and take a different one. To me this is one of the great things about digital. I don’t have to worry about running out of film or that the film I have in the camera is the wrong speed or it takes two weeks between the time I shoot and the time I can get the film developed. I’m free to tinker and explore and try new things. How else will we make discoveries unless we experiment.

To develop your own style, to begin to create unique photographs, do as it says in the beginning of The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, “Study ten thousand volumes and walk ten thousand miles”.


%d bloggers like this: