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When a Picture is Worth 1,000,000 Words- Stephen Mayes September 28, 2015

Posted by Geoffrey Hiller in Essays, Writing about Photography.
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Portland Oregon 2015,  Geoffrey Hiller

When a Picture is Worth 1,000,000 Words
by Stephen Mayes

It’s time to stop talking about photography. It’s not that photography is dead as many have claimed, but it’s gone. Just as there’s a time to stop talking about girls and boys and to talk instead about women and men so it is with photography; something has changed so radically that we need to talk about it differently, think of it differently and use it differently. Failure to recognize the huge changes underway is to risk isolating ourselves in an historical backwater of communication, using an interesting but quaint visual language removed from the cultural mainstream.

The moment of photography’s “puberty” was around the time when the technology moved from analog to digital although it wasn’t until the arrival of the Internet enabled Smartphone that we really noticed a different behavior and adolescence truly set in. It was surprising but it all seemed somewhat natural and although we experienced a few tantrums along the way with arguments about promiscuity, manipulation and some inexplicable new behaviors, the photographic community largely accommodated the changes with some adjustments in workflow. But these visible changes were merely the advance indicators of deeper transformations and it was only a matter of time before people’s imagination reached beyond the constraints of two dimensions to explore previously unimagined possibilities. And so it is that we find ourselves in a world where the digital image is almost infinitely flexible, a vessel for immeasurable volumes of information, operating in multiple dimensions and integrated into apps and technologies with purposes yet to be imagined.

The big change came with the adoption of digital capture, which quietly but definitively severed the optical connection with reality, that physical relationship between the object photographed and the image that differentiated lens-made imagery and defined our understanding of photography for 160 years. The digital sensor replaced to optical record of light with a computational process that substitutes a calculated reconstruction using only one third of the available photons. That’s right, two thirds of the digital image is interpolated by the processor in the conversion from RAW to JPG or TIF. It’s reality but not as we know it. For obvious commercial reasons camera manufacturers are careful to reconstruct the digital image in a form that mimics the familiar old photograph and consumers barely noticed a difference in the resulting image, but there are very few limitations on how the RAW data could be handled and reality could be reconstructed in any number of ways. For as long as there’s an approximate consensus on what reality should look like we retain a fingernail grip on the belief in the image as an objective record. But forces beyond photography and traditional publishing are already onto this new data resource, and culture will move with it whether photographers choose to follow or not. As David Campbell has pointed out in his report on image integrity for the World Press Photo, this requires a profound reassessment of words like “manipulation” that assume the existence of a virginal image file that hasn’t already been touched by computational process. Veteran digital commentator Kevin Connor says, “The definition of computational photography is still evolving, but I like to think of it as a shift from using a camera as a picture-making device to using it as a data-collecting device”. (more…)

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