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On the Other Hand: Perspectives
Bruce Price : DEATH TO PHOTOSHOP!!!!!

DEATH TO PHOTOSHOP!!!!!

By Bruce Price

Okay, okay, it's one of the world's great programs. Everybody says so. The problem is that too many people are taking photographs, messing with them in Photoshop and calling the results "digital art."

Enough. Let me presume to lay down the law in a completely new and lawless territory that I like to call the Digital Universe.

It's not enough if an image is taken with a digital camera or printed out on a digital printer. A billion things a day are. It's pointless to call the results "digital art." (But many art sites and art shows do.)

It's not enough if a photo is retouched or manipulated in Photoshop. Doing so is the norm now in photography. It's just silly to call the results "digital art." But almost the whole world does.

What is so wrong with calling photographs photographs? I say, if it was taken by a camera (there's a clue) and remains for the most part a representation of something in the real world that a camera was pointed at, then, what do you know, it's a photograph!

Here's my modest proposal: you must transform a photograph, using digital tools, into something substantially different from the original photograph before you can use the term "digital art."

Artists have been retouching and manipulating photographs for more than 100 years. Man Ray did dark room manipulations in the 1920s. Ansel Adams did supersharp photographs in the 1950s. Richard Avedon did those marvelous wildly colored pictures of the Beatles in the 1960s. All without benefit of digital. Isn't it a little pathetic to come along with a fancy new medium and create stuff that's not as fancy as what came before?

Digital does not need the past. Digital, I believe, is all about the future. It's about using wondrous new tools to make new kinds of art. But I have been to so-called "digital art shows" where almost all the work was photographs that could have been created 25 years ago. A major digital gallery gave first prize to highly realistic photographs that were just Ansel Adams redux (i.e., very precise). How retro can you get.

When I owned a design business in Manhattan, I had the honor of hiring one of the great retouch artists of all times, Sol Schnaer. He could take anything out of a picture, or put anything in — all with paint brush and airbrush. Photoshop makes this kind of magic much easier. But conceptually there's nothing new. All too often, people today are just doing a Sol Schnaer. Or they're doing a Richard Avedon or Man Ray or Ansel Adams.

And hey, if you can take a beautiful photograph, I suggest stopping right there! People don't get tired of what Mapplethorpe did. If you're a great photographer, you don't need Photoshop, not crucially, and you certainly don't need to call your beautiful photographs "digital art."

I say death to Photoshop because way too many people think Photoshop IS digital art. This is a myth and a destructive one at that. The public sees a few manipulated photos and thinks,"That's digital art?

Pulp Fiction, a digital painting by Bruce PricePulp Fiction, a digital painting by Bruce Price

What's new about that? What's so exciting?" Digital art, properly hailed as a vast new universe, becomes diminished and denigrated, finally becoming just a synonym for Photoshop's ability to alter photos. Early on, I had a contrarian hunch: if lots of people are running photographs through Photoshop, a lot of this work will end up looking redundant, so maybe I should avoid photographs altogether. Now (let me admit it) I enjoy saying, "No photographs or scanned materials are used in my work. I start with a blank screen..."

What exotic new territory does digital let us explore? I think this is the question, the goal, the mission, that should obsess digital artists. Why use watercolors to try to mimic oil paints. Why use photographs to try to imitate either one? Why use digital as merely an appendage to an older medium? I suggest that each medium is its own brave new world, and perfect in its way. Let it be what it can be!

In the case of digital, a new and distinctive vocabulary is emerging: gradients, precision, layers, transparency, 3D effects, extreme palettes, and a thousand filters and effects that have no parallel in traditional media. These powerful tools enable us to pursue, in a new way, the goal that art has been engaged with for the past century or so — the depiction of new realities and new visions. •

© Bruce Price 2005. All rights reserved.

Bruce Deitrick Price is an author, artist, poet, and education activist. More »

8/15/05