According to the Oxford English Dictionary a photograph is “A picture or image obtained by photography; (originally) a picture made using a camera in which an image is focused on to sensitive material and then made visible and permanent by chemical treatment; (later also) a picture made by focusing an image and then storing it digitally.” Merriam-Webster defines photography as a “method of recording permanent images by the action of light projected by a lens in a camera onto a film or other light-sensitive material” and “…at the turn of the 21st century, photographers took advantage of digital capabilities by experimenting with enormous formats and new manipulative techniques. As technological advances improve photographic equipment, materials, and techniques, the scope of photography continues to expand enormously.”
Oxford and Webster define photography as encompassing both analog and digital, the act of capturing an image on a negative and producing it, as well as the act of capturing an image on a computerized card and storing it digitally, – potentially never tangible. In Webster’s case, the definition expands to include whatever future digital may hold – like creating images entirely on a computer, without a camera. But are photographs and digital images really the same? A photograph is the physical result of a sometimes labor intensive process that involves proper lighting, setting, and processing. A digital image involves – okay, yes lighting and setting matter – essentially a click with no physical result.
This is not to say that one is better than the other. Each requires a different set of skills and often times a photographer is also a creator if digital images, and vice versa.
But, are digital images discrete and unique? Do digital images exist with no clear owner, or one who is not easy to identify? Can digital images be protected by copyright law? Ultimately, should digital images be treated as the equivalent of photographs?
Andy Grundberg is quoted in Mara Kurtz’s Postphotography as saying,
“It has become impossible to tell whether an image was produced by a traditional camera or a digital camera. It is also impossible to distinguish between images that are manipulated electronically and those manipulated by more traditional means. It has even become impossible to detect what has been manipulated and what is (or might claim to be) genuine. The ultimate point of pictures like these may be that it doesn’t matter. Within our image-drenched society, the old standards of reality no longer apply, which raises the question what can we believe?”
Digital imaging is here to stay, let’s get that straight. And it has evolved over time into an art form all its own. So then, perhaps it is unique. Then again, digital imaging is arguably a new form of collage, an art form that has been around for centuries. “…The earliest examples of paper collage are the work of twelfth-century Japanese calligraphers, who prepared surfaces for their poems by gluing bits of paper and fabric to create a background for brushstrokes.”
What does make digital imaging unique is that it requires technology that was not around for all those centuries. New technology has allowed for new techniques – images can be created entirely on a computer. There does not ever need to be a hard copy, rather this image can exist solely in the digital world. Bert Monroy is an artist who creates images “entirely in Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop without the use of scans.” In Monroy’s case, proper lighting and setting aren’t so much an issue for taking a digital image, because he is creating his own images entirely online!
Then there’s the fact that groups like Reuters and The New York Times use digital images, including ones that have been altered. Referencing Fred Ritchin, Kurtz notes that “ the Associated Press distributed images to its 1,000 newspaper and magazine photo clients in digital form,” essentially changing the way images were circulated – allowing for more images to be shared at a quicker speed, and motivating other sources to do the same. That same method of sharing does not have to be isolated to news sources.
There is something exciting about this, like a community of people working together and building off of each other’s work. Digital images are like the internet’s graffiti – one image can get rebranded so many different ways by so many different people – each time becoming something new. Eventually it feels like you’re Alice falling through a rabbit hole of one image imagined in infinite ways. Once something is online in that public world of the internet, it can’t really be free from digital hands.
There is a sense of camaraderie, of “what’s mine is yours.” Seems like some obvious inspiration for Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s hitRecord social network, a community built with the agreement of sharing and no ownership, collaboration and shared inspiration. It all sounds so lovely. Maybe people fighting for proof of ownership should ease up.
Then again small artists are sometimes forced into combatting large corporations. Johnny Cupcakes, for example, accused Urban Outfitters of ripping off some of his t-shirt designs. Given Cupcakes’ experience, maybe some ownership protection in place is a good thing. And no, I will not ever argue in favor of corporations.
I guess ownership can be a really nice thing. Maybe ownership of digital images needs to be protected. But it needs a new twist. These aren’t images with a negative that can (help) prove ownership. Let’s rethink some copyright then, shall we? Maybe each original alteration truly means a new image, and therefore, new owner, new originality. After all, originality really only goes so far – a person can’t truly claim to be the owner or creator of images floating around in the digital world. Chris Combs states that “Realism is subjective. How, then, can it be judged by an objective ruler? How can one photographer’s capture of “reality” be more true, or more original, than another’s?”
If artist A* creates an image completely on their own, then it is theirs. Legally protected. If artist B* then takes the image, and uses it for a different piece – it becomes something new, and is legally protected as belonging to artists B. One could argue that discovering the original creator might not be easy, and maybe that is the case for things like internet memes, but there is always a source. Either the source steps forward with definitive proof that the image is theirs, or images like memes of business cat and the world’s most interesting man are considered public – open for any and all to use with the understanding that someone could create something new with these public images and have that legally protected.
And maybe we all just take a step back and enjoy all the fun that digital imaging allows – maybe we all own it. We all collaborate.
But are digital images the same as photographs? Are they equivalents? I think that really depends on the viewer. After all, you could be looking at a photograph and praising it for its beauty and creativity, only to learn it’s actually a digital image created entirely online. But then maybe your opinion changes because you’ve been duped and the artistry required in taking a photograph and developing a photograph is lost on that digital image. But maybe you also just really appreciate the artistry and it ultimately does not matter how it was made, just that it was made.
*This is my final for Mara Kurtz’s Post Photography class.