Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Is enlarged, digital Walker Evans still an Evans?

Because of the control, manipulation and special effects it makes possible, digital photography raises all sorts of questions of photographic authenticity, often posed with reference to the news media. A new exhibit of digitally printed Walker Evans photographs (UBS Art Gallery, New York, through Nov. 17) asks the question with reference to art rather than journalism: Can a modern digital print of a photograph by the late Walker Evans, now greatly enlarged and printed in rich carbon pigment on a high-end inkjet printer, still be considered a Walker Evans? What about the delicate gradations and extended tonal range the original lacked, now made possible by modern digital technology? Michael Kimmelman ponders these questions in the New York Times.
A PHOTOGRAPHER snaps a picture. If it’s a camera with film, a negative is made; if it’s a digital camera, a file is produced. A printer, in a dark room using chemicals, or at a computer screen, can tinker with the image, crop it, enlarge it, make it lighter or darker, highlight one part or obscure another.

In other words, the image produced by the camera, whether it’s a negative or a digital file, is only the matrix for the work of art. It is not the work itself, although if the photographer is a journalist, any hanky-panky in the printing process comes at the potential cost of the picture’s integrity. Digital technology has not introduced manipulation into this universe; it has only multiplied the opportunities for mischief.

I dawdle over this familiar ground because the digitally produced prints of classic Walker Evans photographs, now at the UBS Art Gallery, are so seductive and luxurious — velvety, full of rich detail, poster-size in a few cases and generally cinematic — that they raise some basic issues about the nature of photography.
Brian Rose looks at the exhibit with a photographer's eye.
Once at the gallery, it didn't take me long to come to the conclusion that these prints were the best representation of Evans' work I had ever seen. In the past, I had never given much thought to the quality of his prints, but just accepted them for what they were--a mixed bag made at different times by different people--especially those prints made from negatives kept at the Library of Congress. Certain kinds of photographic imagery seem to me bound to the specific method of presentation. But Walker Evans was not a printing maven like Ansel Adams, nor one to elevate the objectness of fine printing. His work was about the image, a thing that exists in another dimension--connected, of course, to the print--but ultimately residing elsewhere: in the moment of exposure, in the mind's eye of the photographer, in the historical and cultural distance of the things and people photographed.
Rose's post includes photos of the gallery showing digital prints hanging alongside some of their original silver counterparts and illustrating their relative scale. He goes on to compare the new prints to the digital remastering of old recordings, allowing different aspects of the original to be appreciated.
The brochure accompanying the exhibit described the new prints as similar to old music played on modern instruments, and I think there is merit in that analogy. But I would liken it more to the remastering or remixing of recordings of music. It is possible to undermine the original by adding too much digital sheen, too much spatial definition, but it is also possible to enhance the appreciation of the performance by using technology previously unavailable. In the end, the remastered recording can stand side by side with the original, each offering different exeriences of the music. In the case of Walker Evans, the new prints are hung next to earlier prints made or supervised by Evans offering different interpretations of "the images."
I think it's a good analogy. Both film photography and older sound recordings are analog processes. Their conversion to digital sacrifices some qualities, but also gains others.

Additional links: Another review of an earlier version of the exhibit at Yale university, with reference to the technical aspects of Evans' working methods as well as the new prints. How Was This Photograph Taken? provides a short tutorial about the way Evans made his photographs, as well as an interactive feature that lets you test your knowledge.

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