The word “photography” was created from the Greek roots φωτός (phōtos), genitive of φῶς (phōs), “light” and γραφή (graphé) “representation by means of lines” or “drawing”, together meaning “drawing with light”.
We no longer draw with light. We draw with pixels. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that – I stress this – but it’s a completely different thing. Photography, as defined by the word, existed from 1826 or 1827 when the picture above was made by Nicéphore Niépce, until sometime around the late 1990’s. Not a bad run, really. In the history of art, however, photography is the only medium to have been born, reach incredible importance and evaporate – all in just over 150 years. It’s actually the first medium ever to disappear (movies are next).
For that 160 year period making photographic images was constrained by light, physics and chemistry. The Politburo and Jerry Uelsmann notwithstanding, there were limits to what you could convincingly do with a photographic image. A photograph had an aura of objective truth because of those constraints. Of course, anyone who made photographs in a serious way, or thought about them much knew all along that all photographs were lies. But because a photograph was – no matter how editorially slanted – precipitated by an actual event of light and physics, somewhere, somewhen, there was a universally accepted sense that it revealed something of objective reality. That was how we looked at them. That was what they meant.
This is no longer the case. That connection between ‘objective reality’ and a photograph is irretrievably broken. This is not to say that there aren’t individual photographers whose integrity is beyond question, it’s simply to point out that no longer can anyone presume to prove anything with a picture. It’s gone.
David Hockney wrote in Secret Knowledge “Computer manipulation means that it’s no longer possible to believe that a photograph represents a specific object in a specific place at a specific time – to believe that it is objective and ‘true’. The special position, even legal position, that photography once had is gone.”
My students used to get very upset with me when I talked to them about this. Photography is not dead, they insisted. Just look at these great photographs by this guy on Deviant Art! When I replied yes, they are great images but they are not drawn with light and they have no connection to objective reality the students remained sullen and resentful.
But it’s true. It’s a different medium now. It’s great. It has fantastic possibilities. I use Photoshop nearly every day. But the days of Brady, Watkins, Bourke-White, Evans and Frank are gone forever. I am, honestly, surprised there isn’t a ‘Robert Frank’ filter in Instagram, or have I just missed it? And it doesn’t even matter if you go back to shooting film – the unconscious connection to the physical world and real time cannot be restored. Shooting film is just another strategy now, and a slightly pretentious and niche one at that.
I don’t know what this new medium should be called, but ‘drawing with light’ is clearly a misnomer.