An often-cited but just as often ignored principle of science is that when conducting an investigation, a null result—in which the experimental treatment brings about no change—is just as meaningful as a positive or negative result. Thus, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to say that The Digital Eye, Sylvia Wolf’s new book on digital photography in the fine-art tradition, is the critical equivalent of a null result.
In her brief text, Wolf convincingly argues that the advent of digital photography does not constitute a qualitative break in the tradition of photography as art. “Historical precedent,” Wolf aptly notes, “exists for many of the characteristics we think of as central to digital photographic practice: from enhancing a photograph to making composite images, from disseminating widely to engaging in interactivity.” The idea that a photograph should be a pure representation of the “real world” has always been a chimera, particularly in the art world; photographers who also regard themselves as artists have (as Wolf, again accurately, observes) always been at the forefront of manipulation and trickery in the medium—whether tinkering with the exposure of prints, creating collages, or building elaborately “false” set pieces to capture on film.
So substantively, there’s not much here for readers to chew on. Visually, however, the book is a pip. Nicely designed by Mark Melnick for publisher Prestel and sized for the lap rather than the coffee table, The Digital Eye constitutes a fine overview of the art of photographers working at the contemporary edge of what digital technology allows. Preponderant in Wolf’s selection are pieces that are manipulated relatively subtly, creating effects that are convincingly—and often eerily—real, commenting on the photographers’ subjects as well as on perception itself. In Wendy McMurdo’s cover image Helen, Backstage, Merlin Theatre (The Glance), a small girl looks skeptically at a version of herself standing a few feet away. In sizzlingly theatrical images by Margi Geerlinks and Dieter Huber, respectively, a woman wipes the wrinkles of age away with a powder puff and the tongues of embracing lovers connect seamlessly.
I can’t fault The Digital Eye for being the book it is rather than the book I’d like it to be, but it strikes me that the digital revolution has wrought more sigificant change for casual shutterbugs than for artists creating museum pieces. After decades of being a deliberate, physical, and not inexpensive activity, in the 21st century photography for the ordinary person has become an omnipresent act of instantanous communication. The pic you grap with your phone and instantly upload to Facebook is a “photograph,” just like the Kodaks people took in the 1920s, the 1960s, and the 1990s were—but the process of capturing and sharing a moment has become so much faster and so much cheaper that whatever similarities remain are more interesting than the differences. A book looking at the amateur’s Digital Eye rather than the professional’s might be more engaging than the volume at hand. If nothing else, it would probably have a lot more dirty pictures in it.