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Art suffers in photography’s digital evolution

I have always been keen to hang framed prints of my favourite photographs on the walls at home. As I don’t live in a castle and wall space is at a premium, I use a small painter’s easel to display a newly produced print before deciding if it will eventually be mounted and framed. A print of the classically shaped mountain Sgurr nan Gobhar currently sits on the easel. The last light of a November day rests on the summit and a backdrop of Skye’s higher Black Cuillin peaks drifts into darkness. The easel was bought on Skye, which is a pleasing connection, and it carries the taint of time, as it was originally a whisky barrel until someone with skilful hands found a new use for its darkened staves.

On the day the photograph was made in Glen Brittle there was a bruising wind to add to the drama. But at the last breath a split in the cloud let through the final light of the evening and the reward it brought helped to ease the footslog back to the van. After looking at the photograph on the easel and recalling such an exhilarating day, I begin reading Denis Dutton’s book “The Art Instinct” which was written while he was professor of the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

It is a perceptive book that sets out to prove that our need to make and appreciate art is a universal human instinct and that this impulse has played an important role in our evolutionary adaptation. Dutton maintains that because human art requires planning and an intellectual context, then it has become part of our evolutionary heritage. He is also adamant that to achieve art there needs in the first place to be the intention to make something that we will want to look at after it has been finished.

Thinking through what Dutton believes, I recognised the same strong instinct within myself. The direction my photography is heading encourages me to think of myself as becoming an artist as well as a photographer. Not every image made is printed and framed, and only a small number are eventually shown in an exhibition, but at the core there’s a demanding urge to create art, and each time I head out the intention is to make something that myself and hopefully other people will want to look at.

I’d be fooling myself if I thought this objective is achievable every time the camera leaves the bag, but that does not diminish what is a strongly felt impulse. As I read more of Dutton’s book I wonder if the urge I recognise in myself is something that corresponds with his view that a desire to make and appreciate art stems from an evolutionary process rather than something that is culturally learned.

Achieving art with a digital camera is as inherently challenging as it always has been with film, but few would argue that technically one of the initial appeals of using digital is the ease with which it is possible to record the photograph. The histogram largely removes worries about exposure and reassurance about sharpness comes readily from magnifying the image on the display screen.

Another strong attraction of digital’s comparative simplicity is that it can generate the space to achieve more artistically, but unfortunately not everyone utilises digital in this positive and creative way. I’ve noticed a growing trend among some digital landscape photographers to feel that the act of being outdoors while using their equipment is enough to satisfy them. Irrespective of the photographs they make, they have no interest in their creation once it has done its job.

This is a shame because leaving photographs languishing on a memory card or unprocessed and unseen on a hard disk means the person who went to the expense of buying the equipment is not achieving the full potential of their equipment. But more importantly they learn very little and are missing out on much of the chief pleasure and intrigue of photography. Fundamentally, they are not reaching or even approaching their own creative potential.

This missed opportunity is one of the main downsides in photography’s technical evolution and as a result we are now caught up in a thumbnail culture of loud colours and split-second attention. Quantity is substituting quality and instant gratification is replacing lingering contemplation.

In his book about the evolution of our appreciation of art, Dutton observes that in captivity chimpanzees are given the chance to daub vividly coloured paint on to paper. The chimps enjoy it, but he points out that many of the “works of art” they create have an aesthetic appeal to us only because their trainers remove the paper at the right point. Left to continue, the chimps keep on applying paint until there is nothing to see but a muddy blob.

“Human art not only requires calculation of effects, it also needs an intention to create something you’re going to want to look at after you’ve finished,” says Dutton. “Here, the contrast with chimpanzees is most telling: once they have been interrupted, or have ceased of their own accord to brush on paint, chimps show no interest in their productions, never returning to look at them again.”

Art suffers in photography’s digital evolution

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