INTERVIEW Fred Ritchin - The Best and Worst of Times (200

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  • INTERVIEW: Fred Ritchin The Best and Worst of Times (2008)

    Portrait of Antonia, 2007. @ Loretta Lux

    The Best of Times and the Worst of Times - A Conversation between Media Expert Fred Ritchin and RongJiang

    The interview took place at International Center of Photography in New York, December 5, 2008.Originally published in the April Issue of the Chinese Photography magazine

    Rong Jiang: In your new book After Photography, one of your arguments is that digital photographyis not an evolution, but a revolution. Why is digital photography not just another stage in the evolution ofphotography, but a revolution?

    Fred Ritchin: Its what is called a paradigm shift. Its a shift of model. Even though digital photographylooks like traditional photography, such as use of camera, and electronic sensor which is like film, itsactually a very different way of thinking about the world, the media, and communication. And the resultsare very different. What have been concealed so far are the differences, in part because digital photographyhasnt yet become itself. So for the moment, we are confusing ourselves by thinking that its just a moreefficient variety of photography when in fact its a very different medium.

    RJ: Yes, as you have stated, digital photography has begun to move into another medium, or moreprecisely into an interactive, networked multimedia, which distances itself from conventionalphotography. What are the major differences between digital photography and conventionalphotography?

    FR: Like all analog media, conventional photography is a continuous medium. It has continuous tones. Itsbased largely on Newtonian physics. Its logical. Digital photography is discontinuous. Its pixels are discreteelements. You can change any pixel one at a time if you want. You cant do that in film. In that sense, itcan be rearranged. Its like a mosaic of possibilities. And because it exists in its virtual state, it can be easilynetworked over distances. The data of a digital photo can be output as music if you wish. Thats notpossible to do with a paper photograph. So there are many differences which in some cases may be trivial.But as time goes on, people will see how extraordinarily different it can be.

    Conventional photography resembles painting more and more, because it is more of a fixed and permanentmedium. It has a more singular view of the world. But digital photography is more like a quantum orcubist medium so that you could see from multiple perspectives. So in a sense it exists in parallel universes.Its not only one person with one camera looking at one scene any more.

    RJ: So conventional photography has a more singular view while digital photography has moreperspectives.

    FR: Thats right. The conventional photography has a more singular view so that you know this is a

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  • FR: Thats right. The conventional photography has a more singular view so that you know this is aCartier-Bresson photo of a certain place at a certain time. But as for digital photography, take a softwarelike Microsoft Live Labs photosynth, for example, you could find thousands of images taken at the sameplace over decades and make a three-dimensional model of it. And thats very different from a singularvision. So in a digital and virtual state, its possible to see what was like a decade ago. Its even possible tophotograph the future. So it allows one to play with time, space, perspectives and authorship. Its a muchmore playful medium.

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    RJ: One of the names youve given to this new medium is hyper-photography. How do you define thisterm hyper-photography?

    FR: We have hyper-text, which is a non-linear narrative. Thats a narrative which includes not just thebeginning, the middle and the end (there may be no ending), but there are multiple pathways one can take.So hyper-photography begins to acknowledge that there is not a single truth of a situation. For example if Iphotograph you right now in one image, people would say thats him as if there is a single truth. But weknow thats not true, because we know you are much more complex than that. If I take many photos ofyou from all kinds of perspectives and from different times, people would ask which one is him. Then wewould know that they are all you and they are not you, because there are many possibilities of you. So itslike Quantum Physics which posits many probabilities as opposed to simply what is.

    RJ: As you know, German philosopher Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age ofMechanical Reproduction argued that by making many reproductions, it substitutes a plurality of copiesfor a unique existence, diminishing the aura of the original. So the aura of conventional photographyis created by the original negative which cannot be reproduced without losing some details of the originalimage. Whereas, the digital copy of a digital photo is indistinguishable so that original loses its meaning.Do you think digital would reduce the aura or enhance it?

    FR: I think what digital photography does is to increase the aura of life, but not privilege the singularityof a space. The sense is that you can be a part of life that is happening all around you in different ways youdont even suspect. So it opens up a possibility of both confronting and imagining the visible universe andthe invisible universe, even potential universes. To me, it makes life more complex, exciting and dynamic.Therefore, in terms of a singular object, digital photography doesnt give a sacred sense of singularity, but itgives a sense of multiplicity, in which there is also aura.

    Benjamins argument is that its the reproduction, in a mechanical world, of thousands of pictures fromone image that diminishes the aura. But here in the digital world, what we are doing is to have thousandsof different pictures, conceivably, of one space and one time or of multiple spaces and multiple times. Tome, when I think of digital imaging, I think of so many possibilities that I see, in every space and everytime, richness that I have never seen in a mechanical photography.

    In a sense, conventional photography would say that this is the way it was. But digital photography saysthis is the way it might have been. And thats a big difference.

    RJ: Is it because that the world has developed to such a complex state that conventional photography is nolonger sufficient to depict it? Or is it the invention of personal computer, the Internet, and digitaltechnology that have brought about digital photography which you also name as Photography 2.0?

    FR: Its dialectical. Often unconsciously we know that our technology is not sufficient. We invent newtechnology, which gives us new ideas and enables us to articulate what it was that we have been thinkingabout the world. One way to think of digital photography or a digital medium is that maybe now we canvisualize stuff we knew was true, but we didnt have the tools to show it before. Now that we have thetools, it helps us to advance. Thats what is so exciting about it. People think it is marketing or simplytechnology that are important. But technological innovation reflects our consciousness.

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    INTERVIEW: Fred Ritchin - "The Best and Worst of Times" (2008) - Since 2008, AMERICAN SUBURB X | Art, Photography and Culture that matters. 15/11/2013

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    RJ: You think that Photography 2.0 is an offspring of Web 2.0. Both of them can create a virtualcommunity in which viewers are not just the passive receivers of information, but also providers of inputsto the original text or to the meanings of a photo. In this way, the conventional role of a photographer asstory-teller would be reduced or not?

    FR: Yes and no. Roland Barthes had the idea of active reader. So in deconstructionist theory, any text weread, we become the collaborator. We are the co-author. Whether that is acknowledged or not, it happens.So Web 2.0 acknowledges the fact that we are not just readers, but also the co-authors of meanings,because we add or edit texts like in Wikipedia. So instead of an encyclopedia telling us what the world is,with Wikipedia, we help to build the encyclopedia.

    The question is in all fields, where is the singular author? To me, there is still authority. Sometimes, it isconstructed differently. In journalism, it used to be the professional reporter. Nowadays, if there is anearthquake, it may well be someone who has survived the earthquake. If he has a blog, he is theauthoritative voice at that point.

    So the question could be asked in many ways in arts. What does it mean when we all do arts together? Westill have singular artists who do art as well. It doesnt preclude the fact for a singular artist to makeimportant contributions; even if we have thousands or millions of artists, there is still pretty of room for adistinguished artist. But we do have new pathways and new possibilities: you can go to You Tube and seemillions of authors. Or you can go to the cinema and see one author. You still have a choice. One ischeaper and the other is more expensive. One is a certain kind of community. One is a different kind ofcommunity. But we have room for all those authors.

    RJ: This is the dilemma we ar