Academic journal article Bucknell Review

Doing What Comes Generatively: Three Eras of Representation

Academic journal article Bucknell Review

Doing What Comes Generatively: Three Eras of Representation

Article excerpt

Scenes photographed in a straightforward way are presumed to have contained the people/objects depicted. Unless obviously montaged or otherwise manipulated, the photographic attraction resides in a visceral sense that the image mirrors palpable realities.

--Fred Ritchin, In Our Own Image

[Using digital technologies for manipulating photography] is like limited nuclear war. There ain't none.

--Robert Gicka, former Director of Photography, The National Geographic

From this day on, painting is dead.

--Paul Delaroche, on first seeing daguerreotypes in 1840

SOMEHOW, between the two of them, the agency's art director and the client's director of marketing had cooked up a concept for the next brochure cover: the client's cruise ship gliding past the mouth of Venice's Grand Canal, a view framed on either side by the old familiar vista of palazzos and gondolas. So we flew to Venice and, the day before the ship sailed, had a photographic dress rehearsal on the Pont dell' Accademia, four of us toting about seventy pounds of cameras, tripods, and bags of film: we had ninety seconds to capture the perfect shot for our next brochure cover of the cruise ship perfectly centered at the end of the Grand Canal. We spent an hour nudging tripods and cameras around to ensure the right coverage, to hit all the perfect angles, then timed how long it takes to fire from all five cameras simultaneously the instant the ship glided into position. On the afternoon of the shoot, the sky cleared, the sun turning the canals a mossy agate--and we discovered a smoke-belching dredger had taken up residence in the exact center of the Grand Canal, a rusted mast of steel riding on a scarred barge towering nearly the height of our cruise ship. The photographer, of course, nearly had an infarction, his tripods and bags sagging off his shoulders. "Relax," the art director told him calmly. "When we get back to London, we'll hire a Paintbox and just touch the dredger out."

At the BBC's White City studios, the director of a television drama shooting on a sound stage sends for a graphic designer who uses one of the Beeb's many Quantel Harry video-retouching systems. The drama is set in Monument Valley, but the sound stage has only a clutch of papier-mache buttes and a floor of imitation sagebrush and local sand. Using the Harry system and a library of clips and JPEG files, the designer is able to create a series of panoramic vistas worthy of a John Ford western: buttes, canyons, desert, and apparently endless skies.

"I just wanted you to check something," the director says, drawing her onto the set and pointing to a ladder lying alongside one of the buttes, while the actors shuffle around impatiently under the lights. "Should I get one of the crew to move that? Is it going to mess everything up?" And he seems vaguely put out when she begins laughing loudly.

Behold what happens when the reproductive meets the generative. In the Paintbox suite, the art director clones the pattern of light and shadow playing on the canal surface around the dredge, then paints its shadows and hues over the barge and derrick, masking them both completely. Sitting down before her Harry system, the BBC designer begins building an entire western landscape from a library of high resolution images of Monument Valley and the Painted Desert, blending them in with the papier-mache buttes and actors--the ladder, as she knows, is the very least of it.

The great danger of our age, some skeptics would have us believe, is that technology changes, but our habits of perception do not. The photo finishes that decide the outcome of horse races, the video replays and Abscam tapes that arrest movement and attest to guilt and help us assist fair play and nail perps alike, the dictabelt recordings that forced a president from office--all these are samples of representation, pure and simple. For the past 150 years, we had reproductive technologies that enabled us to snare an instant, preserve it, and capture reality, artifacts that could stand up in court, before congressional hearings. …

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