The Changing Face of Photography
A letter to art show directors from a 30 year art
by Larry Berman (July 2002)
letter as a PDF file and print it out
We have all heard the question, "what is art". Many thoughtful, clever
and controversial answers have been given, but in the end each individual
has their own understanding. Art show directors have a special
responsibility in that their opinions of what is art and what is not
affects tens of thousands of people. Artists and the viewing public depend
on the vision and understanding of those who choose the jury and set the
rules that create the dynamic venue that we know of as art festivals.
I've been making a living as an artist/photographer for most of my
adult life, including 30 years of selling my photographs at art shows
throughout the country. I also write for two national photography
magazines, one of which is for digital photographers. This vantage point
has allowed me to see the scope and depth of changes that technology is
now bringing to the medium that I have spent my life working in.
Photography has always been technology driven with each new
breakthrough allowing artists to extend their vision. Whether working with
glass wet plates, poisonous mercury fumes or explosive black power flash
pans, photographers have a long history of taking cutting-edge technology
and using it to capture and communicate poignant moments that illuminate
and define our human condition and the beauty of the world around us.
Today, technology is advancing more rapidly than ever before and use of
traditional film and paper is on the decline. As new digital processes are
yielding higher quality images, far less environmental toxicity, and
expanded artistic possibilities, more and more professional photographers
are switching to digital. Traditional photo labs are replacing wet
chemical processes with digital systems and market trends show digital
cameras will soon be outselling film cameras across the board.
Photographers have been rapidly adopting new tools and techniques that
are, in some cases, not covered by art show definitions and standards.
Some applications specifically mention elements of a chemical photographic
processes (such as 'negatives') that are no longer a part of many creative
photographers’ methods. I understand the desire of shows in attempting to
define acceptable photography somewhat narrowly so as to insure the
inclusion of what they believe will be the highest quality work as well as
the full participation of the artist in the creative process. But I am
concerned that these narrow definitions will exclude, or encourage less
than forthright participation by, a growing number of extremely talented
A case in point is the requirement that photographers print their own
work. Since the perception is that so much creative work can be done in
the darkroom (and it clearly can by those who choose to do so), this rule
was accepted as a way to encourage work that was fully an expression of
the artist, not some faceless technician. But that requirement eliminated
the photographer who chose to shoot using slide film (for its many
attributes) and spent years learning to make that transparency his final
creative output, which the print had only to match. Now those darkrooms
are being rapidly replaced by the incredible creative power of digital
programs like Photoshop, and the actual output device, whether it is a
Lightjet or a Giclee printer, is primarily no longer a point of creative control.
Do not be fooled by those who claim such advances are making the art of
photography "too easy". I've been working with Photoshop almost daily for
more than three years and know that I've barely begun to utilize the full
creative power of this process. People who are somewhat fearful of
computers and the latest technology are often the most vocal about how
easy they think creating a fine digital print is. In fact, the learning
curve is greater, but that’s a choice we make in our ongoing evolution as
I'm currently shooting color infrared with a digital camera that has
true infrared sensitivity. I'm using combinations of visible light
blocking color filters and are achieving intense colors based on shadows
and light. This may fall outside a narrow interpretation of photography
but I am, in fact, creating images with light.
I first introduced this work at the
Gasparilla Art Festival this March.
During the course of the show I was approached by a committee member and
was asked how the work was created. Her first reaction was that I should
have applied under the digital category, but soon changed her mind after a
fuller discussion of my work methods. The fact that a computer program was
used as part of the process didn't make the work "digital art". She ended
up agreeing with my interpretations and definitions.
I later spoke with Connie Mettler, director of the
Arts Beats & Eats
show in Pontiac Michigan. This highly successful show includes language in
its application that requires the photographer to "print from the original
negative. After discussing my work process with both Connie and her
husband, photographer Norm Darwish, they agreed that the definitions of
photography should now include a digital file as an option of how the
"original negative" is defined.
In summary: There is a multitude of highly talented artists doing
cutting-edge creative work using digital tools. The art show market
shouldn't be blocked to them, or force them to apply under the umbrella of
"digital". I sincerely hope that the top shows (to whom lesser shows look
for guidance) will carefully re-examine their category definitions and
take into consideration the latest technological and creative tools being
used by today’s artists.