The Patina of Digitality

| May 27, 2015

Technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we do not experience it. –Rollo May

Speaking about the role of the artist in conservation, Ansel Adams proclaimed, “The curse of all art is the patina of sentimentality.” Perhaps a curious observation from one who devoted much of his life and work to promote conservation under a creed borrowed from Alfred Stieglitz, which is the “affirmation of life.” And the case can also be made that Adams put the “curse” to very effective use in advocating for the environment. Today, we face a similar curse of perception whose effect is somewhat less obvious: the prejudices and misconceptions associated with the use of digital technology.

Most photographic work today is both created and showcased electronically and in greater abundance than previously possible, raising new challenges for photographic artists. Among these are some obvious shortfalls of the digital medium, such as having limited control over the appearance of the work on monitors of varying sizes and qualities. In addition, the sheer number of images posted online inevitably means that viewers are rarely afforded (or motivated to take) the time to study the finer nuances of photographs, and generally peruse them for seconds at a time, lending advantage to images that are high in visual impact, to the detriment of more subtle or sophisticated works.

Some challenges in the digital age, however, are less obvious. In an experiment conducted a few years ago, subjects in their twenties (a generation having no inherent discomfort with digital technology) were shown a series of abstract images. Some were labeled as “gallery” images and some as “computer” images. According to the study’s authors, “statistical analysis revealed that the stimuli were rated as being significantly more aesthetically pleasing when labelled as ‘gallery’ than when labelled as ‘computer,’” indicating an innate bias toward placing higher value on traditional contexts for art.

Another advantage to traditional venues for art comes from the fact that the experience is multisensory and multidimensional, whereas the digital viewing experience generally is entirely visual, lacking the tactile sensations of a printed image; the scents of paper and ink; the sounds of turning pages or the hushed voices of visitors in museums or galleries. A study conducted in 2014 found that, “Memories for objects originally encountered in a multisensory context can be more robust than those for objects encountered in an exclusively visual or auditory context,” meaning that images encountered online may be less memorable than those studied as prints or in other material contexts.

Today we consider digital imaging mostly as a technological revolution, but more careful study may suggest that, despite greater ease and control offered by digital tools, the experience of viewing images may in fact be somewhat diminished when compared with traditional contexts for viewing art. It may be that the revolution will not truly be complete until a change in perception also occurs over time – a change in the way viewers intuitively assign value and importance to digital images and select those works worthy of committing to memory.

Old Timer

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau—a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (12)

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  1. Michael Goldstein says:

    Hi Guy,

    Would you mind posting the references of the articles you cite? I’m working on a syllabus for a psychology of photography course and those papers sound interesting and relevant.


  2. I often wonder how digital media will ultimately evolve. The optimist (and, to some extent the historian) in me thinks that humanity has an astonishing capacity for finding ways to make meaningful and lasting “art” of of almost any medium it decides to use. The pessimist (having read “The Shadows”) wonders if _this_ medium carries some intrinsic dangers that will reform our minds in ways that may make us unaware of what is lost.

    I lap up the flow of digital imagery, and in many ways this can be something positive. For example, I’m pretty certain that I would not have come to know your work or to have met you (and spent some days in the beautiful Utah backcountry together) if not for this digital world we now live in. On the other hand, the digital aspect of it (aside, perhaps, from reading and writing things like this) is not the most memorable or affecting thing — that would be sitting in your home with a few friends with a glass of wine and some prints, eating dinner around the campfire in the far reaches of GSENM.

    One thing that so often seems missing in the digital world — and you allude to this — is quiet.


  3. Guy Tal says:

    Thanks, Dan! And I agree. If you want a more educated (and disturbing) prognostication about where this trend may lead, I suggest the book The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist.

  4. Sure wish there was an edit button on this comment board! 😉

    The book is “The Shallows.” (Not “The Shadows!”) I’ll leave the other typos without comment, have another cup of coffee, and try to focus more!


  5. Dave Benson says:

    although if was written decades ago and in an age of the proliferation of TV and movie…. The Medium is the Message by Marshall McLuhan. The idea is that each “medium” will express the very same thing in a different way and was written in a time when radio, TV and newspapers brought us stories. I did a quick google search and found this page of quotes… it may also be helpful for your research Mike

  6. Mark says:

    I went to a Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo exhibit this past weekend. There were a lot of various works from these artists, some more memorable to be than others. It is still fresh in my mind, so who knows what pieces willl last in my memory. Their story though I will remember always. It was a more immersive experience covering their art and their lives. That type of experience is basically impossible viewing similar content on a phone, or perhaps even a large screen display.

    It is rare we have that type of exposure or spend that much time with any particular artist these days. And without that immersion, I do wonder if our visual sense is so inundated with a variety of content, our brains will gravitate towards the more arousing stimulus. Perhaps it is not much different than “extreme” TV.

  7. I think, and hope we are in a transitive stage. The technology being talked about has been around for an eye blink compared to “art” history. The lack of appreciation toward digital media, art, is only a small part of the larger story. I think “we” still collectivly believe that the computer, technology in all of it’s forms will make life easier. We all know that isn’t true.
    The ease that an image can be uploaded and appreciated when put it on facebook or ..(your favorite sm goes here) has changed what we like, but for how long? Good solid craftmenship, artisty, emotional impact will win out, boy do I hope it will win out.

  8. John Wall says:

    The thing that jumps out at me as I read the study is that the subjects in the fMRI showed a preference for the hand-made art over the computer-generated art. That’s assuming the subjects believed that the image from a gallery was painted, no generated electronically. I find myself struggling with that difference in my own photography. I really like shooting with a D800, and I really like being able to make focus-stacks, multi-image HDRs and panos, and all the usual PS adjustments we have available. But I also find myself yearning for the “simplicity” of shooting 4×5 — one sheet, one shot — and having a tangible transparency to show for it.

  9. Wade Thorson says:

    This study reinforces the need for photographers to print and show their work. Once the audience gets out of their easy chair, a connection can start to be made. The fickle digital viewer can become the engaged patron, and the right setting can be very conducive to bridging the gap.

  10. Chuck Hooker says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Guy.

    A friend of mine – a photographer who’s work I usually respect – won a local (Charleston) photography contest the other day. I looked at the piece and just about gagged. Highly processed and saturated, in your face. No subtleties or nuances… I was pretty taken aback. But I can’t condemn him, for I have been guilty of this too…

    I am a jack of all trades and master of none… and while I will continue to use my digital cameras, I am going back to film. I think maybe I’m looking for LESS dynamic range… more subtlety. We’ll see. The challenges to the film user are daunting these days. I don’t have access to a densitometer any more, so I can’t establish a true Zone I… so I have to wing it… Then there’s the question of which developer to use… and I don’t have an enlarger or darkroom anymore, so I’ll have to scan the negatives and use digital tools for post production. My hope is that using a view camera for capture will force me to go slow, and look harder for the nuances that make an image truly outstanding.

    I think it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, ” All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” I think it’s all about experimentation… Thanks for the reminder and teaching, Guy.


  11. It’s possible that Adams’ remark was really about pictorialism, which was pretty sentimental. To my eye, he wasn’t as far removed from those guys as he thought he was. Sure, he wasn’t doing gum bichromate, nor was he making composites, but his photos strike me as plenty sentimental. Perhaps not to the point of mawkishness, though?