Visual Arts

A look at understanding the differences in meaning between chemical and digital photography

Changes in technology can bring about changes in expression in the arts. The art historian and critic Ernst Gombrich felt that the two main forces in stylistic change were technological improvements and social rivalry. Think about how the advent of the electric guitar changed music. Would rock have existed without the electric guitar? Then remember how music changed again in the 80s with the popularization of the synthesizer. It is no secret that photography has been going through a massive change in technology during the past decade. But there is a difference. Digital technology has almost completely replaced the old chemical processes. Would this have happened if the final results weren’t so similar? And yet, two things might be very similar and still not be the same.

Chemical and digital – two ways of making photographic images. They both begin quite similarly with lenses, apertures, and shutters. The end products are also quite similar: some kind of dye or pigment on a surface, usually paper. Even though the similarities might be great, that doesn’t mean that we should not try to distinguish what these differences might be – and more importantly, what these differences might mean.


Rather than look at technical differences (which are pretty obvious), I think it is more interesting to look at the differences of meaning created by those technical differences. My aim is to try to tease apart some of the more subtle distinctions and point out some of the embedded ideas that affect the meanings within a photograph and that alter how we look at prints.

The one area I want to focus on that separates chemical from digital photography involves the concept of evidence.

When we talk about evidence, there is the implication that some residue is left by an object or event’s passage through time. It is what makes us believe that something really happened. Some trace is left, and that trace is a form of information. It is like the tracks left by an animal in the snow. And it is part of how we know that something is real or that some action took place.

The most immediately available form of evidence is the input from our own senses. That evidence then resides in our memory, which is notoriously unreliable. It is vulnerable not just to forgetting, but to changes, embellishment, confabulation, and outright fictionalizing. Eyewitness forms of evidence hinge upon memory rather than something truly tangible like a dented bumper, a shattered vase, or even a photograph. That is part of why we make a distinction between subjectivity and objectivity and why a congruence is sought between testimony and physical evidence. We use photographs as a physical object to both confirm and reinforce memory.

All art is in some sense evidence. The fact of someone having made it says something about the maker, its means, and time of creation, etc. This is the kind of information that experts, curators, and connoisseurs use when evaluating a work, both historically and as authentication. Even though a painting is evidence of the painter’s having made it, no one would make the mistake of assuming that the subject of a painting is necessarily evidence of the painter’s experience. We realize that a painting is an interpretation – perhaps even a highly faithful one, made over an extended period of time. Also, we recognize that the model that posed for an angel or god might (probably) have been made of more mortal flesh and blood. Indeed, we can often tell if the painter used a photograph as subject matter. But no one would accept the subject of a painting as evidence in the same way that you would accept the subject of a photograph.

Also, there are hierarchies in this process of evidence; it’s not just a black-and-white, truth-or-fiction object. The evidence can have lesser or greater information value. Dance is transitory; very little is left (except memory) after it has taken place. A printed program can attest to its occurrence, and a still photograph can document a small instance of it. But other technologies such as film and video can record the duration of the performance, thus creating a more complete form of evidence.

Chemistry as History
Traditional, chemical photography is always, to some degree, about evidence. (Which should not be confused with the related concept of truth. Since its beginning, photography has been used to create fictions.) In terms of visual depiction, chemical photography may be the ultimate evidence of the physical. Whenever you take a photograph you change the world. Light is reflected from something tangible onto the film and chemically, a small part of the world is altered; evidence is left. Photography may be unique in this.

Every photograph is, in some sense, a historical document. That is a large part of photography’s power. I personally believe that any photograph is made more interesting with the passage of time. That feature is combined with other artistic tools (such as concept, composition, framing, and subject) to generate works that have historical and metaphorical meaning.

We naturally place photographs into an historical context, and one glance will give us numerous clues as to when the image was created and, by extension, if the image was produced chemically. Think about all of the little clues that you process when you see a photographic portrait of someone from the 1880s. Everything from the clothes, hairstyle, and facial expression, to the color of the print, the material it is on, and the way film of that era recorded light values tells you something about the moment that image was made. Remarkably, we are even able to distinguish between authentic anachronisms (like Victorians in classical Roman costume) and unlikely anachronisms (such as dinosaurs and iPods in a Victorian image). This gives us insight into the values and intended meanings of the photographer – and perhaps uniquely so, about the subject too.

Oddly enough, we can find one of chemical photography’s unique features in a most unusual place: outside of the image. In most cases, the edge of the film and the edge of the image are not the same. This extra area forms a natural frame and is distinguished with frame numbers, manufacturer product information, and small notches. This can be seen in the distinctive marks of large format photography, the notches on the side of an image made by a Hassleblad, the sprocket holes and edge imprinting of 35mm film, and the rough edges of a filed-out negative carrier. This has been used by many photographers to give the idea that their work hasn’t been modified by cropping – that it is a truthful depiction of a moment in time. It can also give a work a feeling of immediacy. Examples of this can be found in many photographers’ work. In the portraiture of Richard Avedon, for example, he used the edges of the frame to let you know that he has included the entire image. Although it can be simulated digitally, there is no comparable mechanism in digital photography to show that the full captured image is being shown.

Also, some photographers have printed entire strips of 35mm film showing the sprocket holes and edge imprinting. This is a form of evidence that shows the sequence in which the images were made, with nothing being altered or excluded. Again, there is no comparable way with digital images to show that an unaltered sequence has been captured.

Digital as Memory
One of the reasons that digital technology has been so successful and complete in its replacement of traditional photography is that the two processes are very similar. This should come as no surprise, since one of the things that computers do very well is to simulate things. The first electronic computers were used to calculate artillery trajectories in World War II. They created a mathematical simulation of that process. Digital cameras simulate the photographic process. There is nothing innately photographic about computers. When the shutter is released on a digital camera, has anything tangibly and permanently changed? The information is saved in the memory of a chip that is used over and over again. In the strictest sense, there has been a small change, but not one of great permanence; after all, you do want to be able to use that camera card many times! So if digital images are potentially less about history and evidence, what else might they be about?


Dreams are an odd instance of human experience in that they have no existence outside of human memory. You can have a memory of a dream, and there is no tangible evidence. And yet, it may still be a powerful, involving experience. It may be no coincidence that the first decade of digital images contains a multitude of examples that seem closely allied with imagery created by the Surrealists. They were interested in products of the mind, especially the unconscious and the process of memory.

The term memory for how digital information is stored is a good metaphor, since we all know the ease of which digital images can be changed. If you remember, we earlier mentioned that one of the challenges of human memory is that it is prone to forgetting as well as to alteration and outright fictionalizing. In digital photography, that translates to deletion or the use of Photoshop. And that is seen as one of the prime strengths of digital photography.

Let’s look at an image by Levy and Sons that was made in the 1897 and is, in its own way, remarkable because of the magnitude of the disaster of the train going through the wall. We look at it to try to figure out the cause and effects of what we are seeing. We are trying to decipher what this is evidence of. (And recognize that it also has metaphorical meanings beyond its straight historical value) Because of the visual clues, we know that this had to happen in a time when it is not likely to have been faked. As anyone who has gone to the movies knows very well, digital special effects could create an image like this (and in motion, too!). But if you knew this was totally contrived with computers rather than an historical document, you would have to look at it differently. And that can have an impact on how you read the image. Whoever would have created this digitally would have had a completely different set of intentions for creating this image. It would have been taken from the realm of historical meanings into the realm of metaphorical meanings.
The tricks of digital have become all too familiar. That is why I believe that the most interesting artists using these tools are more concerned with creating meaning and metaphor than exploring the evidence of the real. Or, perhaps, the meaning has been liberated from the process of chemical photography. That is why some photographers who create manipulated or constructed images rely on evidence cues from the past, whether or not they employ digital processes. We will continue to see artists utilize vocabulary from chemical photography to bridge that gap. Examples can be found in the use of sepia tones, frame edges, physical damage such as scratches and grain – anything to give their work a feeling of being, in some form, physical evidence. But it is almost always with an eye to create meaning and metaphor, not evidence.

We’ve reached the point where the veracity of all photographs may be suspect. “The decisive moment,” to use Cartier-Bresson’s term, may now be a lie. It may be several moments combined into one that never happened. This is not to say that the truthfulness of digital images is automatically suspect, but the farther an image is from the mundane, the more suspect it is seen. And the greater the burden it has to work in the metaphorical realm.

Digital and chemical photography may indeed be interchangeable when working in a strict documentary sense, especially when no aspect challenges our credibility. But when an artist chooses to make alterations, there must be an increased concern for creating a richness and complexity in the ideas contained in the work – the kind we have learned to find in the best of chemical photography.




Categories: Visual Arts

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