Digital Technology and the Imagination

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In my talk at the Berkeley City Club on February 24, 2011, I considered digital photography as an alternative art form: a way to discover meaning in life and to communicate this meaning to others. I dwelt on five major forms of meaning:

1-Analytic: concentration on visual details that form part of a larger whole.

2-Graphic: the capture of vivid experience at a single moment in time.

3-Elemental: expressing the completeness and distinction of an object or a living thing,

4-Narrative: implying that the subject is involved in a story,

5-Allusive: conveying a sense of the symbolic that radiates out to other topics.

Two or more of these forms of meaning can overlap in a single photograph. The photo above is graphic, in the sense that the bird is captured in action rather than deliberately posed. It is also narrative, because it implies that the bird has grabbed somebody else's rice and is about to escape with it. In the photo below, the towhee caught at sunset is both graphic and allusive: the setting sun has caught it in action and turned it into a kind of gilded statue "upon a golden bough."

The grapes below are elemental, because the photo attempts to carry their distinct fullness, sweetness and freshness:

But these banister posts at the John Galen Howard House in Berkeley convey analytic meaning:

in that they are "subordinate" architectural details which nonetheless hold beauty of their own. Finally, this landscape/seascape taken on Maui is a typical example of the allusive style, because the meaning it implies is more meditative than descriptive:

Of course, it’s one thing to discuss these modes of meaning, and quite another thing to embody them in a work of photographic art. I would address this challenge as follows:

First, look around you for images in direct experience that impress you – particularly those that inspire your love. If necessary, arrange the image yourself, for example by placing a cluster of fresh grapes on a table in the sunlight.

Then capture the image in a photograph or series of photographs, making sure to use the natural light and shadow in the most dramatic way possible.

Connect your camera (or its storage card) to your computer and view your photos in detail, using a free program (Picasa or iphoto). Use the tools available in this program to make your photo more meaningful and effective. If you are not satisfied with the results, grab your camera and take another photo or set of photos, using different settings or angles. Again, test and improve your results in the computer.

As you continue this process of experience, trial and correction, you’re likely to see some improved results. Visual experience – the life of mind and eye – will become more exciting. Psychologically, you will be opening up a new dialogue with the visible world: a dialogue between yourself, your photo equipment and your physical environment. If you proceed in this dialogue stubbornly and passionately, your sense of visible life will begin to change. You will think in images, and your products will become like visual dreams.

Copyright Robert Grudin 2011