After Photography by Fred Ritchin by Francesca Romeo

Weaving through philosophical analysis, photojournalism, propaganda, quantum physics, and cyber-culture, Fred Ritchin’s recently reprinted 2008 book After Photography charts an effective path through the multifarious aspects of digital photography.

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Weaving through philosophical analysis, photojournalism, propaganda, quantum physics, and cyber-culture, Fred Ritchin’s recently reprinted 2008 book After Photography charts an effective path through the multifarious aspects of digital photography, illuminating a new world of spectacle as it emerges. Now that visual literacy has become crucial, Ritchin examines the conflation of agendas and perspectives that are presented in a multimedia context. In an era in which we are all participants in a democracy of information, the inherent problem is that there is no consensus between photographer, subject or viewer, no conceptual framework in which the interests of all three parties overlap.

Ritchin explores analog photography not as an obsolete art, but as the precursor to the precarious interplay between reality and fiction that a rectangular, two-dimensional piece of paper can never resolve, even if it seems to promise to. The excitement brought about by digital technology is not that it offers a more objective depiction of reality, but as Ritchin asserts, it can broaden our perceptual capabilities, offering up a hyper-textual unfolding of events. Multimedia links can not only surpass the standard caption we have become accustomed to see accompanying a photo, but have created an evolving forum in which a viewer can comment, the exact time is recorded, the geographical coordinates are revealed, and multiple images can be synthesized into a coherent whole which claims to offer a greater understanding of the “truth,” a term of increasing malleability given the manipulative possibilities offered by technology.

It seems to me that oftentimes the beauty of photography rests in its ambiguous relationship to reality. This new hyper-photography allows us to deconstruct the minutiae of each pixel, but, at the same time further fragments our modes of communication into shards of commentary, which can potentially leave the viewer inundated with so much information that they walk away from their screen without having absorbed anything at all. And yet, the potential for a multi-layered understanding of images and the vehicles of their production maintains its allure. From the pedestrian who documents an act of police brutality with a cell phone, to a government agency snapping aerial views from reconnaissance planes, to the ad agency that airbrushes away imperfection in Photoshop, and even to the embedded photojournalist recording conflict only to upload it a second later, the viewer is bombarded with differing visual intents. The effective immediacy of digital imaging has resulted in an explosive expansion in which everyone is an artist, critic, witness and interpreter. Ritchin suggests that the responsibility of the viewer is that of “coauthor” in determining the result of political, commercial or social occurrences by using self-exploration and response as a means to further communal development.

Ritchin’s book is an investigation of the dynamism of this developing digital space and its aggregate messages. His point is that, if we are to have an intelligible media, it is imperative that we maintain the viewer’s interest. And, as the viewer becomes increasingly selective about what he chooses to view in the web of tangential connections that is the Internet, how does the artist or institution direct their audience towards the most salient points of any photographic inquiry? Ritchin details how techniques such such as fragmentation, pastiche, appropriation and alteration, which have their roots in modernism, are indicative of our digital age. He points out, however, that the rapidity of communicating these ideas and the instantaneous reconfiguration of history without an eye to longevity or authenticity make the prupose of these techniques very different. Our digital archives are designed to suit the needs of a fractional political or promotional moment rather than anything of empirical value. The viewer is in on this game and assumes that everything is manipulated, rendering a spectacle that will only become increasingly more difficult to define as technology evolves. Ritchin argues that the only way to clarify the gap between proximate realities (both mediated and experiential) is to understand history as a collapsing set of non-linear fragments and create new transparent measures to identify the voices and eyes behind it. His book is bold attempt to describe and make sense of our rapidly evolving means of experiencing not only photography, but by extension, the world writ large.

Fred Ritchin’s After Photography is available from W.W. Norton.

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