What is improvisation, and what does it have to do with digital media?

The characteristics of digital media are usually considered in relation to pre-digital media: digital photography is faster than chemical-based photography, digital video is cheaper than film production, computer manipulation of images is more sophisticated than hand-retouching techniques.

It may be, however, that this misses the point (and therefore the potential) of digital media entirely. A bicycle, after all, is not really a machine for faster walking, nor is a telephone really a machine for more-distant talking. The real resonance and capability inherent in new technologies is generally only discovered after the initial “revolution” caused by these technologies begins to fade. The automobile allowed people to drive fast ­ but its real effect on our culture is seen in the reshaping of our cities and the re-ordering of our society.

When digital media comes to full fruition ­ when digital photography is just “photography,” for example ­ we may begin to understand that it lends itself to other strategies than those that were primary at its beginnings. Art production in our culture is currently dominated by a “compositional” strategy: pre-visualize something, create it, consider it, refine it into perfection. The speed, strength and depth that digital media seems to offer, however, may free artists to develop other methods to address ideas and issues that “composition” cannot.

If one thinks of the model of the jazz player ­ continually building skills, trying new and experimental ideas each night and then reworking these the very next night -- vs. the classical piano student, perfecting valuable but known material, one can see that there may be room for alternative approaches, and that these may prove central to what digital media can grow to be.

- ted.fisher : 9.28.02

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Depth and Distance: Problems in Improvisation

I *think* that digital media lends itself to improvisation; I am not sure.

That is, my impression after a long while of watching people create with tools such as digital cameras, computers and software is that the medium favors working in an improvisational mode. I find this very interesting: in a sense, the speed offered by digital technology seems to allow for such quick experimentation that the process begins to feel like sketching.

The obvious comparison, of course, is to Jazz. Skills developed through constant work are applied to a direct and immediate problem -- where to take the song next, what to play right now. This brings up an obvious issue, though: while we have heard stories of musical geniuses who improvise incredibly well, the majority of improvisation is repetitious and often shallow. Think of the solos exchanged by bar bands all over the world, the noodlings of beginning guitar players, the distracted humming of people walking along the street.

A comparison of improvisation (characterized, one hopes, by the unexpected, the fresh, the new) and composition (allowing for a refinement of ideas, time to consider and reconsider, and the realization of technical perfection) reveals inherent weakness in an improvised approach: if we assume that artists are imperfect, it seems likely that improvisation will be flawed or at least limited.

Still, I can't help but think of digital work as built for speed. Also, where any sensible person would conclude that it might be wise to improvise in an effort to shake loose new and wild ideas, and then follow this with disciplined reworking and a process of perfecting, I falter at the idea of advocating this approach. My guess is that with all risk eliminated, with the stakes reduced to nothing, improvisation becomes pointless.

Where exactly is the line between improvisation and composition?

I believe it resides wherever work is done in unknown territory. The slower, perfect work of composition allows for testing, proving, determining. The process of improvising demands a state of not being sure.

It also requires that the artist be present. Composition is done at a distance from the audience. The risk of being right in front of the viewer (whether one is playing a solo of showing a work created just this week) is a part of improvisation.

I consider the works in "Depth Charge: Digital Anaglyphs from the Digital Studio" to be improvisational in nature.

Each image in this show is a pairing of a Keystone Mast photograph, taken with a stereographic camera decades ago, and a new image generally made with a digital camera and Adobe Photoshop. (Digital scans were also used by some of the artists.)

Both images are shown in "anaglyphic" format -- meaning that if seen with inexpensive "three-D" glasses (with a red left lens and a blue right lens) they give the illusion of a three-dimensional image. In this form, images seem to possess depth, revealing a foreground, middleground and background.

The process of putting the show together was one of inviting artists to react to photographs found in the Keystone Mast Collection. Keeping to our digital approach, we emailed 25 artists small images from the collection, sorted to have some plausible connection to the artist's work or approach.

The artists in the show are those who responded to the challenge, learning our technique for creating digital anaglyphs, then using this method to create an image. In a sense all the artists involved are exploring new ground, though using a technique that has its roots in the nineteenth century.

Do works made in this way -- a "play" in response to a challenge -- have "depth" in the sense we attach to layered, multifaceted, worked-and-reworked pieces made like that other nineteenth-century form, the novel? I'm not sure; my guess is that it may be outside of the nature of photography, especially digital photography, to go by that measure. Instead, in this sort of improvised work a viewer might see in a different way, for just a second, and that may turn out to be of equal value. I have three hopes for this show:

1. That the juxtaposition of these new and old works will allow viewers to consider three-dimensional imagery as a photographic medium rather than as a gimmick.

2. That the set of old and new photographs, taken as a whole, will point to possible reconsiderations of the material in the Keystone Mast Collection.

3. That the process, which takes the artists out of their standard way of working, will allow for photographs, improvisational in character, that will hold some interest, pleasure and value for those who view the show.

Ted Fisher Curator of Digital Media 9.30.01

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Full Circle

Techniques for making panoramic photographs have been in use since about 1850. Is the digital panorama process simply an update to these methods?

No. There is inherent in the new process a significant break with the traditional approach: a digital panorama is innately a construction, whether what it depicts matches our perception of the "real" scene before the lens or not. While making a digital panorama, the illusion that is at the heart of photography--that reality is somehow magically drawn into a camera and then poured back out onto a piece of paper--becomes to the imagemaker an obvious white lie.

That is, in the process of making a digital panorama, our "willing suspension of disbelief" becomes quite clear. Where historical practices relating to panoramic images (such as the assembly of multiple photographic prints or the use of a special rotating camera) might still leave the illusion intact, the digital panorama-maker cannot hide from an awareness of the process of assembling and simulating an image.

What is the consequence of this fact? If the creator of the digital panorama knows that each source image can be manipulated digitally, or replaced with another image, and that just as simply the full panorama can be changed with seemingly no restrictions, then the entire simulated 360-degree view depicted in the image must be viewed as a constructed space.

Suddenly, the panorama-maker's role shifts from photographer to installation artist.

(Of course, we know our eyes and brains do this sort of space-construction all day long. We're just not very comfortable with that fact, and we can ignore it easily enough. The process used to make digital panoramas lays out each source image before us and shows us directly where the computer "stitching" takes place. This is more difficult to ignore.)

In a sense, simulation is not entirely alien to the older panoramic process. Many historical panoramas show the same person at the left and right edges of the image: by running behind the camera after being photographed, a quick jokester might reinsert his body before the camera again and appear twice in the pan.

There is a difference in character here, however: where our imagined jokester appears twice in an image recorded in about 60 seconds, there is no reason why a digital creator could not insert her own image multiple times using self portraits taken ten years apart. This could be followed by a process of placing these portraits into a space never actually visited. She might then change her own features subtly, perhaps change her clothing, the objects surrounding her, the reactions of onlookers, and so on.

In effect the digital panorama "space" becomes an empty cube, open with possibilities. The computer and camera serve as tools to fill this imagined venue. Anything within imagination is possible.

There is of course irony in this, as most digital panoramas seem "superreal," offering a perspective beyond that of normal human vision. Part of their appeal is the idea of seeing a 360-degree view all at once, an impossibility for human eyes. The irony derives from our expectation that a panorama should depict reality. (This is quite similar to the pre-conceptions viewers brought when seeing the earliest photographs.)

This prejudice trips us up and keeps us from what should be an easy understanding of visual virtual space. From the standpoint of aesthetics, virtual space and real space have no significant difference. Whatever an artist might communicate in one is possible in some form in the other.

In returning "full circle" to the early photographic practice of panorama-making, we can see a key aspect of the digital revolution.

Photographers placing daguerreotypes side-by-side to create the illusion of a view of a long mountainscape sought to re-present the real scene that lay before their camera. Photographers setting a Cirkut camera to rotate and record its circular trip sought the ultrareality of the 360-degree view. The artist's role in making a digital panorama, however, is no longer simply that of scene-recorder (although that sort of thing is easily done). Instead, the initial photographs are likely to be considered as source material, the artist free to produce any imagined digital manipulation (or not).

From this position of infinite possibility, the artist is left in the role of making aesthetic choices as to what will exist in this space. To contemporary eyes, it no longer matters whether any of that depicted is "real." (The digital photograph is generally assumed to be manipulated in any case.) The artist using the digital panorama is a space designer, creating a new place for us to look around, explore and consider.

Ted Fisher ( ted.fisher@ucr.edu ) 6.30.01

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Confessions of a MetaVoyeur
Ted Fisher

I. Looking

If a voyeur desires to see a specific sight (for example, a naked person), and a photographer desires to record a specific sight (say, a nude in an artful arrangement) then the world is in balance: a voyeur is someone motivated by desires that we may or may not sympathize with, and a photographer is motivated by pure, aesthetic reasons. All is clear.

Of course, things become more complicated. A photographer might make photographs that, despite innocent intent, excite the voyeur. Or a voyeur might only be excited by tableaux that are aesthetically arranged, with concerns identical to what a photographer might be interested in.

Still, most people tend to feel we can sort photographs of unclothed persons into two piles. The first stack consists of artistic photographs, like those associated with Pictorialism, high art, or figure studies, generally taken by someone with an expressed interest in art. The second stack consists of images which appeal to one's "prurient interests," made for "men's magazines" or (even worse) the internet.

Of course, we get into some conceptual difficulty with this sorting system when a museum decides to show the work of someone like Robert Mapplethorpe -- so clearly an artist, so clearly (in the eyes of the U.S. Congress) prurient. Or even when considering the work of Lucien Clergue. Are his photographs an appreciation of Nature, Beauty, Form, or does he reduce women to torsos? Though his work has with the passage of time been exceeded in explicitness by perfume ads, it is now debated in light of the concerns of critical theory or feminism.

It may be that we begin to think the two concerns -- prurient desire and aestheticism -- overlap, that perhaps the essential nature of a photographic image requires the creation of desire in some form, at least the promotion of the desire-to-keep-looking. It may be that we see in both very "male" work (like that of Helmut Newton) and very "female" work (like that of Nan Goldin) a similar provocative nature. In both we may find some mechanism that creates within us a desire to see something the image promises to reveal. In both we may find that -- unlike generic pornography -- the revelation is never complete or simple, creating an ongoing desire for the photograph. On the other hand, we may also find that there is a common experience when looking at the work of the more explicit art photographers -- a sort of guilt, as if one has seen something forbidden, as if the excuse of aestheticism doesn't quite stretch far enough.

Of course, there are ways to sublimate even the work we consider only a means to deliver naked bodies. What if one photographs the photographer making the image? Is this now a documentary image, a commentary on the photographer / model relationship? Or is this now a fetish image for those who have grown to conflate the nude body with the nude photograph with the nude photography session?

In years past, of course, pornography and art and the images that fell between the two were all separated by presentation. Now, with the web, art sites learn presentation from the techniques of pornography sites, and the general need to "provoke" a web viewer to continue clicking drives a new sort of presentation, potentially more like tabloid television than the formal white walls of a gallery space. Without the context of the museum space, complete with white mattes and black frames, images are suddenly on more "equal footing" -- and it is left to the viewer to provide a contextual understanding.

Part of this lack of context comes from the development of the web. Downloading photographs on the web is a notoriously slow process, and there is a general feeling that the images presented had better be worthy of the effort involved. Some feel that pornography has driven the development of the internet as image-medium -- it was the first genre where people were interested enough to wait for large, clear images, then the first to experiment with webcams, conferencing cameras, and streaming video. Since the web also gives few signs of "place," viewers may also find themselves jumping from a news photograph to a landscape to an image of the nude. They may feel the photograph in front of them is clearly an "art nude," or they may feel they have to quickly click away, before someone sees them looking.

II. Not Looking

At the 1997 Nude Workshop, I carried around a digital camera with the intent of documenting the workshop photographers at their work. If a voyeur wants to see a naked body, and a photographer wants to record an arranged nude, I wanted to capture a photographer and a nude model immersed in the relationship of the photographic process.

That is, as a photographer would begin to work with a model, I would pick up the camera, try to frame artist and model together, and wait for a moment that showed some sort of action or that captured the strangeness of the process. As the photographer moved on, often the models would see me with a camera and turn to me, beginning to go through their poses. I know that when I put the camera down from my eye, I was perceived by some of them as being insulting -- their identity for the day was as subject (or maybe object, I suppose) and I had found no interest in them. Until I explained, several were left wondering what they had done wrong.

I talked to a few of the models. Most were strictly art models for drawing classes, but one described her experiences working "truck shows," where for a fee anyone could be a nude photographer for a day. In many ways this model was the most adventurous of the group, and when a photographer would run out of ideas she would try almost anything: she climbed in the fountain in front of the house; she folded herself into the fireplace. Her role, as she saw it, was to create an interesting photograph -- traditionally the role of the photographer but strangely transferred to her in the tense relationship between model and artist. "People get nervous," she told me. "They are afraid to ask."

So I was, for the day, a MetaVoyeur. I looked over people's shoulders as they pursued "nude photography," a genre which always threatens to collapse from exhaustion but seems on the other hand inevitable and constantly renewed. I saw a variety of approaches to the models: Lucien Clergue, certain of what he wants and directing gently; then a documentary photographer at times using a street photography approach, talking about the weather and snapping away; then a few tentative photographers unsure what would be acceptable and what would be interesting; and others pretending to be Lucien and attempting to duplicate his techniques.

Beyond that, I saw a few photographers whose technique somehow bothered me. I heard compliments that felt to me too similar to "pick-up" lines; and I saw direction that felt sophomoric, perhaps better suited to the truck shows that model had described to me. I found I had a strange "self-censorship" reflex -- while I find it easy to stand behind good art no matter how obviously it will offend, I felt that as a young male I could easily be judged to be in the enemy camp of sleazy pornography, and tried to distance myself from the sessions that seemed inspired by cheapness. I was afraid of being labeled a pure-and-simple voyeur, and I embraced any chance to prove otherwise.

After all, I was not strictly a participant -- I had come to the workshop to support the roles of the participants, to set up the digital camera for them, to facilitate and document the process. Since I had not come to wrestle with the direct challenge of making images of the nude, I found myself considering the problems around the problem.

For instance, of the images I collected (many of which can be seen in the behind-the-scenes section of this website along with images by other photographers) I found that many of the most banal moments (nude models standing and talking to a photographer, models dressing, artists and models at rest) seem the most lascivious in photographic intent. That is, while it is easy for us to view a posed model or a composed image as art, these casual moments often seem the most like we are sneaking a peak where we don't belong, or like we are taking advantage of the models to see a naked body. I wondered if posing worked to give a kind of consent, and if the unposed image lacked this consent.

I also wondered at what point the nude body would become boring. Could one see enough photographs of nudes that one was overwhelmed? After many images, would one become numb to the images one liked or tolerant of the images one disliked? Nudists claim that it is easy for them to stop noticing the nudity of those around them when it becomes transparent -- when it is everywhere like air around us. Does the part of the image's power come from its forbidden nature, and when it is permitted does it lose its excitement?

Since I was gathering images for a web display, I also found myself unsure on the question of taste, particularly as it relates to web exhibitions. Viewing images on the web tends to feel innately more voyeuristic than any other medium -- the web has been associated with pornography, the viewer is more "alone" than any other medium, and the viewer has more control and choice than in any other medium. So, would images from the workshop seem gratuitious? Would web display amplify the voyeuristic nature of these images, or would it leave the decision to the viewer -- you look, or you don't....

After considering all of these concerns, I suppose the question I cannot answer is the central question: where does the practice of nude photography fit in contemporary practice as we near the millenium?

Go to www.metaspy.com and see what people are searching for -- within a few moments someone will type in "nude photographs." Go to any Intermediate Photography class, and you'll find an interest in the nude as formal study, or as expressive tool, or as deconstructive body-narrative. Or listen to any debate on the merits of the web, and you'll hear negative comments about those who use the web to see nudes rather than to somehow create commerce.

In discussions of art, photography, or the web, imagery of the nude is always treated like an unadmitted secret. It feels the same as our treatment of the human body, and I expect that the nude more or less works in art imagery as a stand-in for our concept of the body. (This has probably been generally true from classical Greece through the Renaissance -- in retrospect we can easily interpret much about a culture from its handling of the nude human form.) It may be, then, that the future of the practice of nude photography is the same as its past: it will serve to mirror our ideas on the body, good and bad, and to reflect our desires, define our concept of the meaning of the body, reveal our politics, and show us who we think we are.

Whether or not we choose to look.

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