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Image Disembodiment?

By Bernard Languillier

We have been using cameras for a century to picture our world. Although the technical process has changed a lot in the past 10 years, photographers still pretty much do the same thing. We find an exciting subject, carry out some neuronal magic in a fraction of a second with more or less talent and store the resulting visual content on a medium. Film or digital, the idea appears to have remained the same.

Although the web has started to play an increasingly important role in photography, many of us still feel the need to somehow return our images to the physical world they originated from by printing them. Prints still have a wonderful ability to please our senses. Isn’t it great to watch the light play with the texture and colors of a photograph on a nice rag sheet? Prints are not just nice, they are the measure of all things in fine art photography, in a way its very essence. As we know it fine art photography can hardly be considered separately from fine art prints. Whether they are our own or were purchased from a photographer we like.

Blade runner – panorama from Mamiya ZD

Printing has progressed immensely in the past few years thanks to inkjet technology. What used to belong to the realm of pro labs is now common place in the digital labs of many advances amateurs. I got to like the slowness of my old Epson 4000, equating the progress of the sheet under the head to the development process in the dark room. Even if the underlying mechanism is different, we end up with something very comparable, colors or tones becoming one with the paper, turning into a physical embodiment that becomes the photograph itself. Inkjet printers are wonderful Digital/Analog converters.

Recent printers are faster, self-calibrate and can even more or less automatically produce profiles for the papers they are fed with. Papers also have better gamut and overall characteristics. As a result, photographs get printed much closer to the intend of the photographer now than they ever were in the past, or at least has it become possible to reach highly satisfactory results without a Ph.D. in color theory.

We love prints, yet they have severe limitations. Prints are reflective, meaning that they depend fundamentally on the intensity and quality of the light hitting them. Colors in printed photograph only existing thanks and through the light we, or our customer 2,000 kms away, decide to cast on them.

Prints are physical objects made of a very fragile material, likely to be scratched, likely to be damaged by water in liquid or vapor state. Prints can be bent, burn or cut. Prints can commit a slow suicide because of the acidity of the very paper they are made of, their colors can vanish under attacks from the air and/or the light. As the print goes so does the photograph it embodies.

Besides, prints are large objects that don’t move very well. They need to be framed, and then packed carefully, which adds bulk and increases the cost of transport.

What if this were about to become a thing of the past?

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Crystal Ball ON.

Photography as we have known it, and fine art photography in particular, has only just started a very profound transformation. The seemingly innocent move from film to digital sensors did trigger an irreversible chain of fundamental paradigm shifts that we are only starting to understand.

Shibuya Rain – panorama from Nikon D3

Out of those many foreseeable consequences, the one that I find most disturbing is the death of Paper.

That phenomenon is already affecting various media, some of them related to photography. I believe that it will extend soon into areas some of us might not have anticipated yet, offering exciting new possibilities but also raising new questions.

Let’s project ourselves a few years ahead in time.

Let’s imagine a world where most fine art image display is done using high contrast, very high resolution live screens. The content is a mix of still images, video and possibly also animated 3D representations. The way fine art content is purchased has also changed dramatically.

How could that happen? It will have to be the result of a combination of factors that will follow closely the evolution that saw film come in 10 years from a mainstream product into a narrow niche.

The main driving force enabling this move will be the progress of display technologies resulting from the amazing investments done by consumer electronic firms in order to improve the quality of TFT, Plasma, OLED and SED screens. New technologies are probably around the corner that will push the envelope further.

These screens will deliver levels of contrast and color gamut, quality and stability far beyond what could be achieved with reflective materials. The concept of archival will slowly be overwhelmed by the desire to show images in the best possible way. Those willing to sell fine art content will have no second thoughts on this. Printing will first be an option, and then not be proposed anymore by many content providers. Let’s call these display devices “fine art screens” (FAS).

Those buyers who will have selected fine art images from FAS will display them in their homes using similar FAS. They will be dynamically matched for colors depending on the ambiance of the watching environment.

Mostly gone the need to deal with conversion intends and narrow profile spaces. Photographers will be able to create their images in the very environment in which their customers will in the end view the photograph. Standards will be defined that specify how a virtual fine print should be created for ultimate viewing I various possible customers configurations.

These FAS will be connected wirelessly to images repositories, either local or accessing directly the site of a content providers. Images will be bought or rented individually or as a set from which the customer will be able to change easily the images on display. A super slide show going from Ansel Adams to Alain Briot without having to visit the attic to switch frames.

Beyond technology though, this evolution will only be possible because of a much deeper change in the way people relate with time, stability and dependence. This change has started to occur years ago but is quickly being integrated by more people in more situations. Whether it benefits or not the individuals vs. the major entities driving the change in our world is a question beyond the scope of this essay, but I see a clear trend in which people have been taught to accept various aspects of their lives to be less permanent than they were in the past. This will reduce the need for images that have to be here to stay, in other words reduce the need for archival quality in photograph embodiments.

Shinjuku craze – single frame from Mamiya ZD

Another key enabler will be changes in the way people deal with the concept of property. The paradigm of property started to vanish with software licenses in which owners became life long borrowers. The concept evolved with the notion of software as a service where the usage of software itself becomes the good being owned. The music industry has been showing the way here and sites like www.deezer.com are a clear embodiment of these concepts, although they are currently funded by publicity. Property becomes an instantaneous item that vanishes as time passes by. The collector’s urge to own images will also slowly recede and lose to the convenience of being able to switch easily between photographs or between high quality videos. Both for private and corporate owners.

What else is going to change?

What are the opportunities and areas of concern?

Overall, I see high quality fine art imaging reaching many more potential customers. Those amateurs willing to spend money on art but who didn’t really want to cope with the physical impact in terms of purchasing process of physical print, storage and display in ever smaller urban houses.

The ability to compare before buying could be a blessing or a curse. Will it not contribute to the standardization of style and approaches? How will different cultures define dominant forms of art? Are some new memes going to emerge that could revolutionize photography itself?

Online photography has been around in many different forms for years and very interesting ideas have already emerged from the collaboration and mutual inspiration between artists throughout. We have already seen that the authoring environment of the photographer sort of will become one with the viewing environment of the viewer. What if the viewer is another artist? What if authoring is possible on both or multiple ends? You have de facto created a wonderful virtual art creation platform that will go beyond photography. You have a virtual canvas spreading across continental divides. I expect new art movement to form across the globe through such virtual platforms and communities.

I believe that a virtual fine art market would further accelerate and multiply creative opportunities by letting remote players unleash forms of artistic collaboration we are only starting to imagine. It does for sure extend far beyond photography.

This being said, how will fine art customers perceive the value of a stream of bits compared to that of a physical fine art print? Will that not result in a potential erosion of prices that could leave artists even poorer than they currently are?

The trading and traceability of limited edition arts pieces will raise a few technological challenges. Concerns about piracy and legitimacy will surface and have to be addressed by photographers as a group. We will have trial photographs expiring after a few days of evaluation.

This along with the need to deal with more IT aspects as part of the fine art selling process will result in new business opportunities for federated online art dealership. This could threaten the survival of smaller producers. Will a few get visibility and survive while others cannot afford to invest in the tools and define a distribution network? The way shareware software is sold today provides interesting hints regarding suitable go to market approaches in such a context.

Fine art photography and graphic arts in general will for sure lose some of their physical appeal. The matching of a photograph with a carefully selected type of paper, this emotion resulting from the production of a physical object, and the opportunity to approach the image though its physical properties. Some of us will therefore keep printing just like some us still prefer to work with film. But my contention is that it will become a niche at best.

The days of prints are gone. Fine art screens have the upper end. The revolution is here.

There is room for photographer to lead this transformation and shape it in a way that technology becomes an enabler instead of being seen as a threat. A suitable framework should be defined to discuss and drive the future of fine art photography and interact with the various technological providers.

Fast forward – single frame from Nikon D3

That is of course until the next revolution comes where images will stop to have any physical representation at all. Streamed directly to our brains. By then the need for capturing devices will be mostly gone and all images will be virtually computed... Reality itself might then become a thing of the past…

Crystal Ball OFF.

Back to printing some images on my old Epson 4000.

August, 2008

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Bernard Languillier is a landscape photographer based in Tokyo, Japan.
Some of his work can be seen online at http://www.light-of-earths.com/

Filed Under:  
Essays   

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Concepts: Photography, Fine art, Printing, Fine art photography, Color, Art, Photojournalism, Space

Entities: Michael Reichmann, Epson, Ansel Adams

Tags: fine art, images, fine art photography, prints, fine art print, customers, fine art content, fine art screens, fine art images, Crystal Ball, old epson, physical object, printing, content providers, physical fine art, fine art imaging, fine art selling, virtual fine art, virtual fine print, photographer, high quality, art image display, wonderful virtual art, best possible way, paper, nice rag sheet, resolution live screens, online art dealership, new art movement, possible customers configurations, smaller urban houses, consumer electronic firms, narrow profile spaces, main driving force, life long borrowers, exciting new possibilities, way shareware software, various, high quality videos, various technological providers