The Future of Photography

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After Photography
By Fred Ritchin
Norton; 199 pages

The Gist:
The days of darkrooms and negatives are mostly behind us, according to Ritchin's exploration of how digital technologies are changing the landscape of news photography. Even if film photography lives on in the fine art world, its limitations make it significantly less interesting than the possibilities offered by digital technology. Ritchin is no digital virgin. The pioneering director of the Web site PixelPress, he was teaching the New York Times how to present photography on the Internet as early as 1994. He views digital photography as a natural evolution of the form, paralleling the evolution of science itself, using cloning and DNA manipulation as examples of how, "Cause and effect, even life and death, flicker nostalgically in the rearview mirror that is now the twentieth century."

Highlight Reel:
1. On the idea of rising influence of photo editing via computer software: "[F]or the first time I saw a photographer as no more than a paid researcher looking for images for someone else to re-present...In the days of film one would have had to be physically on site to be able to micromanage the photographer; the photographer's autonomy was somewhat more impervious...Increasingly, much of the photographic process will occur after the shutter is released. The photograph becomes the initial research, an image draft, as vulnerable to modification as it has always been to recontextualization."

2. On the future of photography online: "[A] new photographic template for the digital environment could be devised in which information is hidden in all the four corners of the image so that those interested could make it visible by placing the cursor over each corner to create a roll-over...Unlike an analog photograph where the viewer is told never to touch its center for fear of smudges, the reader is invited into the interior of the digital image..."

3. On how digital and cellular phone cameras break down limits on who can get images out into the world: "[A]mateurs increasingly cover the news more effectively than professionals, as was the case in the London bombing of 2005, the racist rant by actor Michael Richards, or the return of the American war dead in caskets. They also frequently make the news, such as soldiers' photographs made in the Abu Ghraib prison or the videos of captive either pleading for their lives or being murdered that are expressly made by insurgents to foment terror...It may be time for professionals to pay more attention to how amateurs envision the world."

4. On the everyday uses of digital photography in the future: "The increasing cyborgization of people in which cell phones, iPods, and laptops reach near-appendage state will see photography extended into an all-day strategy, including images that are made according to involuntary stimuli such as brain waves and blood pressure. The camera will also be circulating within our bodies and stationed in our homes, acting proactively to warn us of and possibly attempt to correct any problems (disease, fire, an accident), even on the molecular level."

The Lowdown:
The phenomenon Ritchin explains — the democratization and manipulation of photography via digital cameras and computers — is compelling. It's true that flat photographs in newspapers and magazines used to be the tools with which we viewed the world around us. As each day passes, our view gets richer and more sophisticated thanks to digital technologies. Ritchin, a photography professor at New York University, does not see digitization as demonization; he does not think that the risks of photographic deception made possible by computers outweigh the infinite possibilities new technologies open up. His message is modern. After Photography, however, is not written in the accessible language of most new media — fast-paced, direct and easy to understand. Written in academic-sounding prose, it's best suited for the university classroom. Maybe this is no surprise — Ritchin is, after all, a professor. But for someone so enamored of the idea that amateurs can beam photographs and their accompanying stories out into the world without the impediment of gatekeepers, it's a little disappointing that Ritchin's tome is clearly aimed at a small audience of professionals.

The Verdict: Skim

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