"Let us question the critics"
by Pedro Meyer
For me, one of the interesting developments over these past few years has been the chasm between what the practitioners of digital photography experience and what their critics write about. I place myself on the side of the practitioners.
The critics many times look at the work and say that digital photography looks the same as what has been done up to now, or they will equate all of it with "cut and paste" of earlier periods in art. On both counts they are wrong.
Let me elaborate: First, about the sameness to previous work. If I understand correctly, their argument is that it "looks the same".... but then what are we talking about? looking the same to what? How can one say it looks the same, when one did not have a previous image to compare it with. So then one would have to imagine that the sameness is related to a generic understanding of what a photograph "looks like". The expectation being, if there is such a big change in the medium it should be reflected in "different looking " work. Not an unreasonable assumption, I guess. Yet one that doesn't reflect what is truly going on.
How would a critic understand that I made an image that before could not exist. For instance, compressing time which would only live in a linear way within traditional photography. I can take time, and play with it at will representing within one image, events and situations that only came together in my imagination and from there moved to the digital format. This enormous change would not necessarily be related to a different aesthetic - as is expected- but in the understanding and the representation of time. No big deal? I think it is.
We are entering into a period in our life, when the understanding of time, and it's non linearity is as fundamental to the way we live as any major concept that might have come our way within the world of art. We are finally in a position to go beyond that which was first suggested by cubism.
People are no longer so sure if what I photographed actually existed, or if I brought together two or more diverse moments in time. Maybe the image looks *straight* to use a very questionable adjective, but generally understood. So what does that picture then tell us about TIME ? Maybe the critics have not given much thought to this issue because they are looking in the wrong place. Conceptually the photographic image has already entered into a new world, while our critics are still looking at the old model of construction.
Then we have the usually very simplistic understanding that we are looking at a *cut and paste* process, albeit more sophisticated. Again here the problem resides in the lack of experience that the critics actually have in understanding the scope of what these tools can accomplish. Describing them as more sophisticated is like describing a car as a more sophisticated horse. Yes you can go in both from here to there. But then a car can do so many other things that a horse can't, otherwise how to explain that the car displaced the horse as a means of transportation.
The digital tools allow us to have control over what and how we can alter an image, that was unimaginable in the era of analog photography. One quick example that comes to mind: the layering of images and the corresponding controls of each layer. To try to replicate something like that with cut and paste, is simply naive. One could go down a long list of other examples, but that would be entering into a technical arena that would go beyond these few paragraphs. In the end it's not what the tools do that is actually so important, it's what is produced with them that counts.
In that respect, I would venture to say that the critics are not necessarily wrong when they state that there is no great abundance of interesting digital work in 1997. There isn't, but not for the reasons they suggest, that it isn't different enough to what has already been done before. Also, no great abundance, does not imply there isn't very good work out there already. After less than a decade in which digital image making has come into it's own, it would be astounding if there were other results than the ones we - the artistic community- have today.
How long did it take for the critics to understand photography in the first place, so now how long will it take for them to understand digital photography? We have to remember that critics have a pulpit from which they can make themselves heard, even though they might be quite wrong about their assumptions. Critics are usually not very modest in recognizing that even they have to undergo an intense period of retraining about that which they are writing about. Let's face it, these are very trying times and nothing can be left unquestioned, neither the pictures nor the critics.
Images from the essay -The Oil Worker in México Pedro Meyer 1987/97.