Why Digital Photography Never Happened

Bill Davis

Western Michigan University

School of Art

College of Fine Arts

1903 Western Michigan University

Kalamazoo, Michigan 49008-5213


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This essay profiles and clarifies the intents and functions of the photographic and digital image. While both have a past and a future, neither can take the place of the other. In essence a digital photograph is not a photograph. That is why digital photography never happened. Calling the photograph "digital" happened. If this seems too simple, then it needs to be. Cameras and computers give us images. One is photographic and the other is digital. Thus there are but two separate and distinct categories under which we now point and click: digital imagery and photographic imagery. One converts silver, one sprays ink, one lives longer, one fades faster, one gets wet, one stays dry, one acts actual, one acts virtual, one compresses light, one expands light, and most critically- they're made differently. Thus their dissimilar identities and structures naturally conflict. If their properties defy each other, why then is the photograph called digital? While the answer that question seeks is multi-faceted, there are ways to focus on the presence and co-existence of these two types of imagery.

                        The computer leads us to the digital image and the camera leads us to the photographic one. Each machine has a different intent. However, to understand intent we must first look at history. Which came first- the computer or the photograph? An answer to that question requires a review of the following criterial definitions: Computer- An (electronic) device that accepts, processes, stores, and outputs data at high speeds according to programmed instructions. Digit- A system that represents a number in any number system. It could be a system between 0-255 as it is with the popular RGB color scale or 0-100 as it is with the popular grayscale. Photograph- A picture or likeness recorded on a camera and reproduced on a photosensitive substrate. Digital Image- The binary discontinuous compression of a continuous image into an algorithmic map of quantifiable numbers.  

                        While the 150th anniversary of photography was celebrated in 1989, the 159th was celebrated for the computer. Although it may seem oblique, the popular computer model used today precedes the photographic one by 9 years. Charles Babbage introduced automated computation before Daguerre introduced photography. In that context, the photographic darkroom print may become more appreciable than the digital inkjet print. Perhaps this is due to the photography's greater demand for manual handcrafted labor. If something appreciates, then it grows in value. Many artists mistake their industry's technological growth for their own creative growth. Yet upgrades in technology often downgrade creativity and few artists use that technology responsibly.

Photographic and digital imagery both have futures. To what degree those futures prosper is solely up to the communities who use them. It is the challenge of this generation to protect, preserve, appreciate, and advance each one. Photography is being identified in ways that contradict its intent and history. This false identity should cause concern. In conjunction with the accompanying image projections and outline below, one should meditate on the nature and rich history of these oppositional identities. Digital artists work with the virtual and photographic artists work with the actual. These divergent practices affect the artist, their work, and their audience in ways that polarize the digital image from the photographic. Each process requires a different kind of attention. Digital images stimulate viewers to think virtually while photographic images stimulate them to think actually. Yet can actual be more trusted than virtual? In that answer may be the reasons for one's own approach to viewing these differing mediums. Neither process shadows nor echoes the other. "Digital" is not better than photography. "Digital" is different than photography. Acknowledgment of their differences and histories may guarantee their futures.

While two of the greatest pioneers in the early fields of computers and photography worked closely together, neither knew the other would leave us with such systemic use of their contributions. Sir John Herschel and Charles Babbage were close colleagues and personal friends whose collective work left us with the photographic and digital image making options used today. This makes their relationship as valid as their legacies and contributions, which are further identified in the accompanying multimedia presentation. Through their research one may better gauge their own responsibility in historicizing, defining, and creating future digital and/or photographic imagery. Theirs is a legacy worth advancement and preservation.