Looking and listening this week

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I try to get out to museums and galleries when the study load permits it and finally got to see Sue Ford at the NGV last week. The work itself was interesting as were some of the comments I overheard.

Ford was doing cutting edge experimental work with the available technology of the time. Without knowing that or understanding the context behind the work, some of the younger audience questioned what was so special about some of the composite images and made assumptions that they were done in Photoshop and not done very well.

This perspective is right and wrong; imaging software can produce better outcomes now than what could be accomplished in a darkroom in the latter half of last century. I can’t really put up an argument against that. My problem is that digital can devalue the work done by Man Ray, Sue Ford or other photographers who experimented with what film could do. There were no layers, history palette or undo back then. An analog composite took careful planning, patience and often numerous failures to achieve a good end result. It was hard to repeat consistently, so you made fewer final images and that made them rare and special. It’s hard to appreciate this unless you have spent hours in a darkroom trying to do this yourself.

Now it seems there’s an app for all that.

Digital has made experimental and composite images more accessible and yes, there are people pushing the boundaries of what current technology can achieve but do the outcomes have the same sense of rarity?

Possibly in 20 years I will attend a digital artist retrospective from the present and hear similar remarks. Perhaps my concern is more about the lack of audience perspective and understanding of the historical context of the work they are looking at.

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