It’s pretty clear that the future of books is digital. But as more publishers and readers move to this new format of reading and looking, the more nostalgists yearn for the page itself. And the ever growing debate about the physical medium of reading is endlessly sucked into the same feedback loop, the most recent example of which is Jim Lewis writing at Slate’s Culturebox. Lewis, a novelist, ostensibly has no problem with the act of reading by e-book, arguing that content is content regardless of the medium (though Tim Carmody and Jonah Lehrer at Wired would disagree). His problem is with the act of looking. Since William Henry Fox Talbot invented the negative/positive process, photographs have been deeply wedded to the printed page. Lewis argues that’s where they belong, singularly unsuited for viewing on computers, Kindles or iPads.
I couldn’t disagree more with Lewis. His understanding of the medium of photography - how it’s viewed and engaged with - is not only limited, it's obtuse. Since Fox Talbot, photography has continually been in flux. Unlike the other plastic arts, it’s harder to pin down a definition of the photograph since its uses and appeal are so varied – high brow, low brow, documentary, scientific, artistic, etc. What has tied together this diverse medium is its reproducibility. Lewis denies even this, writing: “The negative, or perhaps the original print, is the actual artwork, but mostly what we see are reproduction and reprints.” Huh? So only the negative or the first print the photographer produces is valued as art? Are digital photographs inherently denied artistic status?
Photography is intrinsically about reproduction: It reproduces reality and it reproduces itself. Certainly Lewis’s misunderstanding of photography affects his overarching argument, which is ostensibly about the poor quality of reproduction in digital viewing (ie. on a screen). He actually has a point, albeit a limited one. He writes:
It matters even more for art. A decade or two ago, students learning about, say, Stephen Shore, would head to the library and find a book, or perhaps see some slides projected in a classroom. Now, they sit at a computer and call up some images, which is much worse; because what they're looking at is only a very rough approximation of what the photographer actually intended. The colors are wrong, the details are missing, the subtleties have vanished. In the absence of those qualities, one tends to focus on content—on what the picture is of or about— effectively rendering all photography a species of photojournalism.
Yes, reproduction changes a work – the orange tones Picasso’s Demoisellles d’Avignon are more vibrant in a photograph and Malevich’s squares look far more painterly in person than they do in photographs – and yes, it is a “rough approximation.” But, at least in terms of painting, the problem isn’t an e-text, it’s the photograph itself. Susan Sontag once called it “a slice…an effect.” But this is really the only valid point Lewis has to make, and anyone who has visited an art museum knows that.
More importantly, Lewis is privileging not only a particular kind of photograph, but also a particular kind of looking. Neither of these is monolithic. His examples give him away: Ansel Adams, Man Ray, William Eggleston, all of whom were photographers who reveled in the ability to create sleek, mechanically reproduced worlds (Eggleston is one of the earliest color photographers and Adams and Man Ray experimented with lighting and the technical limitations of the medium). They were also photographers who were very engaged with the substance of their work. Lewis dismisses “content” and “photojournalism” and in doing so disregards one of the most active forms of the photograph and a large portion of photography’s history (like, the whole nineteenth century). Looking at photography is not just about enjoying the lush qualities of the print – it’s an engagement with the real world photographically reproduced, and the technology which enables that interaction.
More importantly, Lewis’s assertion that “looking at photographs on electronic media will be at best misleading, and at worst miserable,” make me wonder whether he’s even aware of the invention of the digital photograph. Most photographers no longer capture images in the traditional way, which is meant for negative/positive reproduction. They choose images on a computer screen. So, when one views them on a computer screen, an iPad, or a Kindle, that mode of looking in more in tune with “what the photographer actually intended.” Indeed, one would see the photograph as the photographer herself saw it. Perhaps Lewis doesn’t know, but one of his great photo book champions, William Eggleston, now only works in digital.