Picture Perfect

Digital technology blurs the real, the imagined and the meaning of photos as art

Like it or not, we're living a technological reality that has come alive with a kind of glittering seduction. Increasingly in everyday life, computers and art are converging: in the computer-generated technodazzle of network news logos; in the TV spot for Listerine's "Plaque Buster," which stars a computer-animated bottle of mouthwash swinging through the jungle, Tarzan-style; and in the hot new supermodel who graced the cover of Mirabella last year -- and turned out to be a digitally produced image created by art directors as "the face of America."

Yes, the computer is much quicker than the eye. In everything from action movies to family fare, shots we see aren't just captured on film but are "rendered" by megabucks of software run on high-tech computer workstations. Not surprisingly, today's photographic artists are stuck smack in the middle of a classic 20th-century dilemma: how to remain disassociated from corporate pressures while at the same time succeeding in an establishment that's dependent on corporate largesse.

The digital revolution sharpens the point of the problem, since the tools of digital culture -- rendering programs, photo and video applications -- are developed in the context of commercial art. An Adobe Photoshop ad splices together soothing sound bites to inform us that, "Reality is fine, except when it's limited by budget, backgrounds, lighting or even the occasional blemish. Enter the world of Photoshop and leave harsh reality at the door. If you can dream it, you can do it."

To be sure, with the help of computer programs such as Photoshop, anyone can create photorealistic images that then allow you to design realistic or surrealistic worlds. Anyone can get access to the technology and anyone can use it -- at least, anyone with money, experience and knowledge.

Digital technology makes it possible to create a complete world, and one that has the total appearance of reality. It lets you play God. As we become more sophisticated, the ability to subvert and counterfeit becomes equally sophisticated. The disparity between our personal reality and mediated reality becomes even greater. With digital technology, how does one know if an image is real or fabricated? What is beauty?

Of course, these are concerns that have been related to photography almost since its invention in 1839. Is a photograph a truthful representation of reality? How can photographs be manipulated to make them more or less true? How do art and technology come together in the marketplace?

These issues are given a new twist in "Metamorphoses: Photography in the Electronic Age" -- a traveling exhibition packaged by photo-book publisher Aperture -- now at the University of Houston's Blaffer Gallery. "Metamorphoses" examines how more than 15 leading artists create, alter, layer and enhance photographs using the latest technologies. The survey offers a vivid look at the present and potential future impact of these new technologies on photography. The selection depicts a medium in transition, pointing to the electronic crossroads where computers and photography, art and technology converge.

Digital art, of course, is the apotheosis of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. The very distinction between original and copy becomes meaningless in a digital world. But digital artists aren't the first renegades to try to crack the art-world oligarchy. Conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner, for example, commented on art as supercommodity when he pinned a note to a wall stating that his work "need not be built." Andy Warhol undermined the idea of originality by substituting mass-produced aesthetic for the artist's individual style.

Still, the art market co-opted such efforts, since the pieces could be sold as originals. But a work created through a computer leapfrogs over notions of originality, commerce and style. A digitized work consists only of information that can be molded into a picture. But if it's not object-oriented, what has it become ?

For the artists featured in "Metamorphoses," there's an attempt to deal not only with new technology, but with new reasons to make art. Pervasive throughout the show is a marked uncertainty about what the future may hold -- there's a sense that we're at the dawning of the age of something, but no firm grasp of what that something may be.

For some observers, photography depends on the notion that the photographer experienced the scene. Digital technology, however, easily breaks that link. Was the photographer actually there, or was the image totally conceived in a computer? As the emerging field of digital imaging changes the world we live in and the way we look at pictures, "Metamorphoses" asks us to rethink the role of photography in contemporary life. Accordingly, the Blaffer Gallery show presents the boundary between photography, painting, sculpture and video as increasingly porous, leaving the photographic residing everywhere in general, but nowhere in particular.

Curiously, much of the work in "Metamorphoses" involves the potent ambiguity of technological progress, best described by Marshall McLuhan: that we drive into the future with our eyes firmly planted on the rear-view mirror. That ambivalence is suggested by MANUAL's (the Houston collaborative of Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom) 19th-century view of nature as both a spiritual and material resource. Their photorealistic Edens portray banal geometric shapes of wood floating in forests destroyed by logging. We witness the idea of landscape refracted through the lens of a projected memory.

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