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In the Digital Age, Just What is a ‘Photograph’?

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Free use image: Contributions to http://stubby-holders.wikispaces.com/ are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 License.

What constitutes a photograph? The answer to this question is inevitably going to vary depending on who you are and even how old you are, but recently defining the photograph has never been so seemingly difficult. Perhaps the photograph is going through a bit of an identity crisis.

In a recent article in the New York Times entitled, “The Next Big Picture: with Cameras Optional, New Direction in Photography,” the author highlights the exhibit “What Is a Photograph?” opening at the International Center for Photography, while also exploring the evolution of the tools at our disposal for creating photographs, as well as the evolution of the process. The “chemical era” in photography is seemingly rolling to an end as digital camera technology replaces the chemical process of light exposed to film, allowing photography to become a “shape-shifting” medium. But is the old chemical era truly dead? Some argue absolutely not.

Even though we live in the age of Photoshop and other new technologies where we never really know what is reality in photography and what is illusion, there are still some artists who adhere to the use of vintage cameras and antiquated techniques and accessories, focusing more on the practice of photography rather than the aesthetic of the print. Take the daguerreotype camera, in which an image is formed on a silver-coated copper plate using silver iodide and mercury, dating back to the late 1800s. At the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Jersey, a group of students recently opened the “Striking Resemblance: The Changing Art of Portraiture” exhibit with approximately 130 works from 80 artists, including both daguerreotypes and digital photographs. The group, whose goal is to “bring a fresh look to portraiture,” also aims to redefine not just the photograph, but the portrait. As the portrait becomes “increasingly more ambiguous with social media,” it is not simply a face in a frame anymore.

This exhibit experimenting with our view of the portrait is similar to the exhibit questioning what is a photograph, even though one tends to reach back while the other reaches forward. As the author of the article on portraiture points out, “With the advent of digital photography, and all kinds of ways to manipulate imagery, portraiture has become even more open-ended … I think that contemporary artists especially have felt freer to play with portraiture and think of it not as time-bound and tradition-bound.” So perhaps we still do not know what criteria are to be applied when defining a photograph, especially when digital technology has revolutionized how, where and how often photographs are viewed. Is it still photography to set up our camera tripod and snap away at a pleasing image or is it only photography to take an image and create something else? Can the captured image maintain equal footing with the constructed image? Only time will tell.

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About Alyssa Sellors

Alyssa Sellors was an English and Journalism educator for eight years and now works as a freelance writer and journalist. She is a regular contributor to a number of publications. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling, reading, and spending time with her husband, baby boy, and two chihuahuas.