Words and Photography (Mark Kurlansky)

In September 1862, photographer Mathew Brady opened an exhibit in New York of work by his assistants Alexander Gardner and James E. Gibson entitled The Dead of Antietam. Photography was new and few had ever seen such images of war.

Mark Kurlansky, The Big Oyster

Alexander Gardner

Yes, photography was new in 1862. And, by then, photography was also slow. The low-sensitivity emulsions were still in command: there were no action scenes, no shooting, no bombing, and no soldiers falling after being shot. The images of war brought to New York by Gardner and Gibson were pictures of desolation, post-battle photos of corpses, crippled men and misty ambiance. There were still a few steps ahead in the path towards plastic-based negatives and Leica cameras.

That’s why I keep saying that, if we stick our analysis to the production of images, we’ll probably realize that the digital age is not bringing any revolution. It’s just another step in the process. And not a very important one, since, unlike the evolution of 19th century emulsions and films, switching between silver and bits is not having relevant effects on image making. I mean, you can still increase more your creative tools if adding a technical camera to your 35mm kit, than changing from analogical to a digital reflex camera. Digital is just a matter of speed, but not photographic speed; it only affects the rate of distribution, selection, error correction. And that’s why, for many photographers, the digital is not that exciting (except for archival and handling purposes, maybe).

However, if we limit digital photography to a digital environment (i.e., no prints, just files and screens and software), then we may perceive a big revolution coming by, in the way we conceive and think about photography. In fact, we may be in witnessing, in nowadays, the amputation of the cognitive extension that analogical photography gave us (mankind). Later, I’ll try to explain this point of view, which, I admit, is pretty radical and polemical.

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