A Note on Black Box

by Hannah Whitaker

Introducing our consideration of how photography is being reframed online.

Black Box, the twelfth issue of Triple Canopy, is supported in part by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, the Brown Foundation, Inc. of Houston, as well as the many individuals and in-kind contributors who have generously given their support.

in the early 1990s, gave rise to virtual-reality fantasy. According to the critic A. D. Coleman’s account of Montage ’93, a symposium on digital imaging, photography was soon to be experienced with the help of electronic appendages: helmets, goggles, gyroscopes. “We are entering the virtual age,” one speaker said. “Everything you know is about to be wrong, and much of it already is. This is the biggest thing since fire.” Photographs were to become three-dimensional and interactive, ending the tyranny of the fixed image. Three decades later, digital photographs have proved to be as 2-D as their analog counterparts. But the way we encounter images has indeed been revolutionized—not through gadgetry, but by the Internet, which has once again generated fevered speculation into the future of photography. The ease with which photographs can now be made and disseminated, the diminishing relevance of the printed page, and the dwindling supply of photographic film and paper all make it easy to imagine photography’s complete digitization.

The term photography is so slippery, so indeterminate, so inclusive, that it must always be clarified. But this issue of Triple Canopy doesn’t attempt to form a cogent assessment of the status of photography generally, or even of photography online; its scope is more narrow. Most of the photographs found online—snapshots, news photographs, commercially oriented images—were shot digitally and uploaded to the Internet without so much as a passing consideration of printing them in a physical form. Their material condition is not an issue. What we’re concerned with in Black Box is photographs whose materiality is at stake, for which an online presentation is disruptive, and therefore worth examining.

The artists contributing to this issue generally traffic in physical photographic prints. Most of them shoot on film. When their work appears online, it is usually in a compromised state, as JPEG stand-ins for physical prints. Such approximations of photographs are generally the domain of artists’ websites and photo blogs; in other words, they’re relegated to a promotional sphere. The premise for these artists’ involvement in the issue is simple: participating in a shared vision of dematerialized photography and, in doing so, creating works intended to be experienced online. Here the JPEG is no longer a stand-in, but an autonomous work or, at least, a vital component of one.

The first digital camera, built by Eastman Kodak engineer Steven Sasson, 1975. Sasson’s prototype weighed eight pounds, had a resolution of 0.01 megapixels, and recorded black-and-white images to a cassette tape.
Liberated from the mechanics of actual space, photographs flash and dissolve, are animated and stilled, merged and isolated, replicated and excerpted. Their vitality is contingent.

We’ve been referring to this issue as the “photography issue,” but the subject at hand is actually photographs rather than photography. Photographs viewed online suffer from a crushing sameness, without the particular pleasures provided by silver-gelatin, chromogenic, or ink-jet prints. As I’ve edited the issue, the question preoccupying me has been whether it’s possible to have what Michael Fried calls an “absorptive” experience with a photograph online, in which the image can obliterate one’s consciousness of viewing it. And though this condition isn’t related exclusively to form, it requires a certain minimum size and richness of detail—enough to monopolize one’s attention and reveal the photograph’s complexities in the moment of viewing. The challenge here is to charge the JPEG—among other low-grade image-file formats common to the Web—with this task.

What a digital space lacks, it makes up for in the potential for recombination. A tactic common to the projects in this issue is emphasizing relationships among images, whether those belonging to a discrete set authored by the photographer or to the vast cache of vernacular imagery readily accessible online. This is true of Boru O’Brien O’Connell and Simone Gilge’s variations on the slide-show format, Dan Torop’s textual interventions, and Daniel Gordon’s automated amalgamations of his own photographs and those found on the Web. “I wish that each picture…was not forced to be surrounded by just two others,” Geoff Dyer writes in The Ongoing Moment, his book on photography. “Ideally some sections would be adjacent to four or eight or even ten others,” and the book would “emulate the aleatory experience of dipping into a pile of photographs as far as is compatible with the constraints of binding.” Online, liberated from the mechanics of actual space, photographs flash and dissolve, are animated and stilled, merged and isolated, replicated and excerpted. Their vitality is contingent.

In addition to artist projects, this issue contains related texts by writers and photographers. Matthew Porter’s interviews show photographers balancing their interest in engaging with the medium as its form fluxes and their desire to maintain connections to more traditional practices. Christina Lange’s essay relates photographs of destruction to a visual idiom rooted in conceptual art. Michael Almereyda writes of looking quickly, if not too quickly, through William Eggleston’s digital photographic archive (from which we’re publishing previously unseen photos).

Photography is bound to technical innovation, and so has always been susceptible to proclamations of its reinvention (and to the attendant anxieties). The photographic print may be alive and well for now, but as monitors and mobile devices grow in sophistication and the techniques for compressing digital image files advance, the experience of photography on the Web will become more and more refined. Regardless, the present form of online photography has begun to emerge as a creative field unto itself, making the question of how to imbue an image on the Web with Fried’s absorptive capacity seem misguided. The crucial moment of viewing is harder to locate in a single instant, or even a single photograph. Maybe goggles would help.