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Post-photographic Photofile

Mitchell Whitelaw

Lui Xiao Xian, My Other Lives Lui Xiao Xian, My Other Lives
image courtesy of the artist
Like many other analog media forms, photography has spent the past decade being digitised. The photochemical sensitivities of film and paper have been gradually edged out by the recording, manipulation and reproduction of images as arrays of numerical values: pixel-grids.

Editor Mike Leggett introduces Photofile’s August 2000 edition, “Tekhne,” with the declaration that “the pixel, the byte, the inkjet and the photographic are seamlessly integrated into contemporary practice.” That integration, and that practice, are the subjects of this edition. Leggett has assembled a mixture of essays, artists’ statements, images and reviews that give some sense of the range of contemporary digital photomedia in Australia.

Leggett’s introductory statement, “The Speed of Light,” sets the digital transformation of photography within a continuum of technical change; the image-making process is inseparable from a technological “evolution” spanning the glass lens and the computer monitor. “Tekhne,” Leggett reminds us, is the Greek root for “technology”, but originally meant “art.”

This etymological union doesn’t negate the tensions and torsions involved in photography’s latest evolutionary step, as Leggett hints. Les Walkling gives an artist’s perspective on the downside of digitisation in “The Desensitisation of Photography.” Walkling is refreshingly up-front, quoting a friend’s frustrated exclamation: “Digital imaging sucks.” It replaces the “honesty” and “inevitableness” of the photosensitive surface, and its corresponding capacity to “remember” its process, with a shifty, duplicitous array of data. The digital image doesn’t accumulate traces, Walkling argues, “its memory is one of loss”: transformations are absolute, erasing previous values—worse, successive transformations degrade the image data. “Digital imaging archives its own destructive tendencies.” Not only that, but the absorption of imaging into the computer workstation robs the artist of those kinaesthetic and sensory subtleties of the darkroom, replacing them with pre-fab tools and a low-resolution display.

While Walkling’s protests sound a bit like media-nostalgic griping (“if you don’t like the screen, use the darkroom!”) they are motivated by an artist’s desire for a better, more supple medium. Walkling points out that digital imaging needn’t be so bad; the now-defunct imaging software Live Picture solves many of these degenerative problems, and returns a more photographic sensitivity to the digital domain. In “Thinking Imaging Software”, Leggett takes up the story of Live Picture and its ubiquitous competitor, Adobe Photoshop, detailing the commercial and technical machinations below the consumer-surface, and giving an interesting case study in the way digital media practice is profoundly shaped by the discourses and processes of the software industry. Leggett once again argues that transformations in tools and processes have long been integral to the creative practice of photography, and suggests that artists’ involvement in imaging software might be reclaimed through a distributed, inclusive, open-source approach; doing a “Linux” on Photoshop.

These protests and speculations are a little slight; happily here they are mixed in with the work of some fine photomedia artists. The colour reproductions are excellent, and easily worth the cover price in themselves. The stills from Patricia Piccinini’s The Breathing Room are gorgeously grotesque—folds of intricately textured amorphous flesh, with blank glistening orifices. Murray McKeich’s images are just as fleshy; decaying chimeras with that characteristically metallic sheen. These two prominent locals are joined by Austrian artist Dieter Huber, who also uses the digital surface to invoke reshaped and fantastic bodies. Huber’s Klones are mutant plant forms: seed pods in loops, a cactus growing in an impossible torus. Also included are an enticing set of stills from video work by Perth collective Retarded Eye, images by Indigenous artists Rea and Brook Andrew, and a diverse gallery of local work from artists including Marty St James, mr snow, Lui Xiao Xian , Rebecca Cummins and Carolyn Brunet.

The texts around these images are generally less satisfying than the images themselves. Darren Tofts’ essay “Terrible Beauty” discusses the work of Murray McKeich alongside other notable exponents of dark, mutant viscerality: Hans Bellmer, Frederick Sommer, Francis Bacon and Pierre Molinier. These comparisons are all well made, but they leave no room for a discussion of what the contemporary significance of McKeich’s work might be; certainly, as Tofts says, it involves a “poetic, defamiliarised meditation on the culture of the cyborg”—but I’m sure there’s more to it. Ricky Cox attempts a survey of net-based photomedia—an enormous field-and the result is inevitably much broader than it is deep. Edwina Bartleme’s discussion of the work of Rea and Brook Andrew, “Multiple Realities: Digital Imaging & Contemporary Queer Art”, walks us through postcolonial identity-engineering in prose which lacks the wit and energy of the images.

There’s more focus to the 5 reviews that round out the volume—Teri Hoskin on Bill Seaman, Kathy Cleland on John Tonkin, Paul Thomas on Retarded Eye, Daniel Palmer on Suzanne Treister, and Anna Munster on Linda Dement. Meanwhile the artists’ writings drop some oblique and elegant hints about the potential rewards and agendas involved. Lui Xiao Xian offers a neat way of imagining his doctored Victorian-era stereographs, as 3D-images stretched through time—the “fourth dimension”—to create cultural and historical identity-parallax-errors. Marty St James’ text fragments reveal his digitally-smeared figures as virtual “performance/sculpture”—“art as a reformed feeling of existence/(captured and engineered between worlds).” Despite the reservations of artists like Walkling, digital imaging technologies have fostered an active creative culture; not photographic, but perhaps as Leggett suggests, “post-photographic.”

Photofile, “Tekhne”, edited by Mike Leggett, Australian Centre for Photography, August 2000,

Lui Xiao Xian, My Other Lives, Stills Gallery, Sydney, Feb 14 - March 10.

RealTime issue #41 Feb-March 2001 pg. 19

© Mitchell Whitelaw; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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