A lot has been said about photography, and journalism, in the digital age. We believe in, and are part of, an awful lot of it. But we also believe very deeply that photography, and photography journalism, is at its best in print.
This conviction is backed by a long heritage. We’ve been printing and publishing photographers’ work since 1854 – that’s more than 160 years. We’ve charted the monumental impact of photography, from salt prints to Instagram, through ink and paper.
It’s easy to get caught up in a sense of relentless change, in a fixation with speed and buzz and going viral. But maybe the photographers we feature deserve a little more; an element of permanence and tradition, a promise that we’ll do justice to their work.
So, for the April edition of BJP, which we entitled Driven to Abstraction, we took a camera to the BJP’s printing press.
We documented how long it took to create our magazine and how detailed the process was – even after the editorial team had finished up and gone home.
Driven to Abstraction, the 7834th issue issue of British Journal of Photography, is on sale now. For a better sense of what you might expect to find in the magazine, here’s our comment, written by Diane Smyth, deputy editor of BJP:
On the face of it, World Press Photo and the process-led artwork that follows this issue couldn’t be more different. The first prioritises documentation, recording and sometimes commenting on the world, it seems, while the other is bound up in arcane abstraction and philosophical questions about photography and its physical and conceptual limits. And yet there is a common concern that unites them – the long process of coming to terms with, and responding to, digital imaging.
World Press Photo is increasingly embroiled in questions of truth and authenticity, for example, so much so that it appointed academic David Campbell as secretary of its documentary and general competition jury, and commissioned him to research ‘current practices and accepted standards relating to the manipulation of still images in photojournalism and documentary photography’.
The resulting report, The Integrity of the Image, was published last November and this year it made good on its standards, checking images that had made it to the last round against the raw files and negatives, and banning those they felt took things too far – a pretty breathtaking 20 percent of the pictures. “We found a lot, and that was very disappointing,” World Press Photo’s managing director, Lars Boering, told B¬P (Behind the Scenes, pages 08-11). “It is about truth, about the basic ethics of journalism. These images should be genuine and real; we have to be able to trust the photographs they put in front of us.”
“We saw some real manipulation – a lot of photographers added or subtracted elements of the image,” says Michele McNally, director of photography at The New York Times and chair of this year’s jury. “It’s a remarkable thing to see. It was remarkable to see what things were, and what they became, what was removed.” McNally has also spoken about the issue in her own publication, in an article headlined Debating the Rules and Ethics of Digital Photojournalism, posted on 17 February on its Lens blog.
As the title implies, McNally believes this is a new problem, allied to the rise of digital imaging and processing, and despite the long tradition of darkroom enhancement. “Many of us have been thinking for a while about how we still refer to traditional darkroom techniques as providing suitable guidelines for what’s acceptable in digital image processing,” she states. “But as we learned last week, digital is not film, it is data – and it requires a new and clear set of rules.”
The new wave of process-driven photography, meanwhile, interrogates the status and construction of photographs, and has been interpreted by some as a response to the post-analogue age– whether the processes used are digital or analogue.
“This emphasis on process nowadays investigates how the medium can be pushed in order to discover new aesthetic aspects and effects, and digital is a process in its own right in this aspect,” says Olivier Richon, head of the photography MA programme at the Royal College of Art in London (Material World, pages 29-33). “So I would not necessarily make a distinction between the two.”
“To me, it feels like there was a knee-jerk reaction to the initial arrival of digital, in terms of, ‘If I’m a photographer and I can’t get the physicality of the craft that I want in digital, I’ll go back to analogue, tintype, wet collodion, bromide, or other antique processes,’” adds Loring Knoblauch, the man behind the photography blog Collector Daily.
“More recently, artists have gotten much more comfortable with the available digital tools, so they’ve started to extend the boundaries of digital craftsmanship, be that via collage, glitch, appropriation, or other chance events. So it’s not necessarily just the darkroom where process innovation is occurring, but more a broader way of thinking about making imagery.”
Both fields also speak of how digital culture has changed the economy of images – from the fact that so few photojournalists are now sent on assignment, because digital publishing has decimated the traditional press, to the move towards the art market, which has a commercial affinity for one-off, conceptually driven objects. What’s clear is that we are still digesting the ramifications of digital; exactly what’s happening, and how it will all pan out, is a question for future historians.