The surprising use of new imaging technologies in artists’ hands

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Vanishing Point, 2016, Eva Stenram

Critic and art historian Lucy Soutter reflects on the implications of new imaging technologies for contemporary photography.

The ubiquity of mobile phone cameras and the rise of the internet have created a global glut of dematerialised digital images. Much contemporary art can be seen as a reaction to this phenomenon, in particular highly wrought pictures that ask to be looked at more slowly, projects that reflect self-consciously on their digital means of production and works in which digital imagery is combined with handwork or pushed into three dimensions. New digital tools make it possible to create any image, still or moving, that can be imagined. The terms computer-generated imagery, virtual reality and augmented reality may evoke futuristic scenes, and indeed these technologies are widely used in gaming and commercial cinema to create spectacular, otherworldly effects. In the hands of contemporary photographic artists, however, digital tools may be used in surprisingly subtle, contemplative ways. Reflecting on new imaging technologies and their implications for human experience, their work is as likely to look to the past as the future for inspiration.

The current decade has seen a boom in what writers Daniel Rubenstein and Andy Fisher refer to as the ‘digital-born image’, where realistic pictures that may look like photographs have been entirely constructed through digital means. As hardware becomes more affordable, and processing power rises exponentially, the tools of computer-generated imagery offer artists increasing freedom to produce still and moving images unimaginable to a previous generation.

(Perception of a three­ dimensional composition), Precession of the Feminine, from the series Nicephora, 2016, Alinka Echeverría

Simulation IX

(Perception of a three­ dimensional composition), Precession of the Feminine, from the series Nicephora, 2016, Alinka Echeverría

In stark contrast to the realism of photographic projects that use software for photogrammetry, architectural visualisation, gaming and/or VR to create a believable visual field with the realism of traditional photography, many artists persist in using low-tech digital means, sometimes using very basic Photoshop tools for folding, mirroring, tiling or stretching images. Eva Stenram works with found imagery and low-tech digital extrapolations to explore scopophilia, our desire to consume seductive visual imagery. For the project Vanishing Point she worked with an archive of found slides, in this case a softcore pornographic picture that plays on the way that the pleasure of looking lies as much in what is hidden as what is shown. The enlarged image is exhibited alongside a length of printed silk, digitally cloned from the pattern of the revealing shirt to underline a push and pull between concealment and display. In all her work, Stenram uses basic digital tools to open chinks through which we can glimpse the subliminal drives that underlie images in both art and vernacular culture.

Initially, digitalisation seemed to promise a dematerialisation. We were promised a “paperless” world in which we would no longer need business papers, books or photographic prints. As the mountains of paper pile up in our recycling bins and landfills, we now know this to have been a fiction. On the one hand, artists’ careers are increasingly dependent on the circulation of jpegs, and their work can go “viral” leading to overnight success (as in the case of Amalia Ulman’s Instagram project Excellences and Perfections). At the same time, artists – most surprisingly photographers – are making work that claims material space in the gallery more assertively than ever. Theorist Boris Groys has argued that in fact, artwork that emerges from the digital sphere demands manifestation in the gallery to find its completed form and meet its audience. The gallery remains a fruitful public sphere for work to be seen and discussed.

2017, Patrick Hough

Still from And If In A Thousand Years

2017, Patrick Hough

While basic digital animation tools are now within the reach of most computer owners, the time, skills and rendering power to produce high end works in CGI, VR or AR remain out of reach for most emerging artists. Many who have come to the attention of galleries and audience have been the recipients of rare prizes or commissions, like the Jerwood / FVU award which provides £20,000 for an artist to realise a project (previous winners include Ed Atkins, Lawrence Lek and Patrick Hough). It remains to be seen whether such works will find a place in the market that will allow them to spread more widely.

When digital imaging technology was new, it threw up a range of challenges and questions for photography. Digitally heightened and altered images were accompanied by a burst of anxious writing about what digital photography would do to our trust in images. Now that it is so pervasive, digital photography no longer seems such a threat to our understanding of reality. On the contrary, by making active use of new means of production, digital photographic art gives us valuable tools to consider our place within a digital world. Futuristic technologies provide artists with new ways to look at the past as well as the present, with a persistent backward gaze that has been present in photography since its invention.

Dr Lucy Soutter is an artist, critic and art historian whose work focuses on questions of value and meaning in contemporary art and photography. She writes for publications including 1000 Words, Source, Unseen and Aperture and is the author of Why Art Photography? Lucy is currently exploring further research into “expanded photography”, contemporary photography’s overlap with other art forms and activities. She has taught at The London College of Communication, Sotheby’s Institute and the Royal College of Art and is the Course Leader of the Photography Arts MA at the University of Westminster.

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