The Intelligent Machine: The Camera in the 21st Century

Digital and computational photography, represented by the latest technological advances in image creation and processing, signifies a shift in how technology influences our visual culture. As we move from slower and more costly manual analog processes to faster and cheaper automated digital ones, there arises the danger of allowing technology to determine how reality is captured and constructed. In a very real sense, technology has become an agent of informational control.

As Machines Get Smarter, We Get Dumber

While photographic technology advances, human intervention — in the form of understanding the fundamental workings of light, exposure, or composition — tends to decrease. In other words, we know less about how a picture is made today than we did a decade ago. As digital photography, computer graphics, image processing, and computer vision merge, people become less reliant on the mechanics of technique and more dependent on the calculus of technology.

Rarely do we think of the camera as an extension of technological control over how information is created and shared, but that is what it has become. Digital photography, for many, releases the photographer from taking responsibility for much of the creative, intellectual, and technical work. Image stabilizers, auto-focusing servomechanisms, matrix metering, image review and replay, and an array of programmable exposure modes engender a feeling of infallibility in photography.

The intelligent machine subordinates the intelligent observer by seeking optimization, efficiency and control over visual information and culture. Digital photography, as Neil Postman might describe it, is a technology in disguise. We hardly notice the subtle shift toward total technological control over image capture — and how this inevitably shapes our perception of reality.

Digital Photography and Loss of Authenticity

The accelerated intensity of computational technologies in producing photographs is outpacing our capacity for seeing and believing. We can now produce images that correct focal distortions in the camera, stitch together divergent and incongruent elements in a frame, and transcend time and space through computational adjustments.

What is being called into question today is not the technology. Rather, it is the authenticity and value of the images made with these new technologies.

This observation is not new to the field of photography, which has always suffered from the perception of being an interloper in the antecedent practices of art, painting and drawing. Despite all the benefits of digital photographic technologies, authenticity remains photography’s weakness.

In 1936, Walter Benjamin observed:

The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.

Perhaps the concept of authenticity in a digital age has become outmoded by a generation of young photographers not familiar with how automation changes how we experience the process of photography. While we may not completely surrender ourselves to the computational aspects of photographic technology, there is a tendency toward obsequiousness that prevents us from thinking through essential relationships, such as light and vision.

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