Author: Fred Ritchin
Publisher: W. W. Norton and Company
Review by Conrad J. Obregon
Photographers certainly know how to simplify their subjects and how to put a frame around a portion of the world so that nothing impinges on their image. However, perhaps because they look at the world through a viewfinder, they sometimes seem to miss not only the larger world around them but the place of their photography in that larger world.
Fred Ritchin, who teaches photography at N.Y.U., believes that the method of capturing images changes the world and that the world changes the method of capturing images. In a some-times rambling essay, the author looks at various aspects of photography, with an emphasis on the changes wrought by the digital world. On the one hand he decries the easy malleability of the digital image, and on the other sees opportunity for greater understanding through the digital photograph. He explores possible uses of digital media in the future in ways that reminded me of the world of Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel “Snow Crash”. (The Wall Street Journal recommended reading “Snow Crash” for a view of the future; better hurry up before that book is overtaken by events.)
Ritchin complains about the uses of digital media as a means of invading privacy and at the same time suggests that its use can aid humanitarian causes. Although he sees the possibility of either, or both, great benefits and great costs, he does not suggest what photographers can do to direct digital media toward the benefits. Furthermore, after exploring many bold possibilities, he seems to come down for the use of photography on the internet in sites that give the viewer options in how to examine the pictures presented by hidden captions or links of portions of pictures to other sites or similar techniques. It seems a simple direction for a book that aims at lofty goals for digital photography.
Ritchin is primarily concerned about the world of documentary photography and ignores the role of the digital in art photography, although I suppose that his interest in websites that present the viewer with options to follow could be bent to artful use as well as documentary.
While a well turned phrase is always appreciated, often the author’s prose turns purple, or takes a flight of fancy, as when he suggests engaging an image of his long-dead grandmother in conversation.
The book is interesting and makes some valid points, but on the whole, it looks like the author had collected notes over the years and decided that no thought could remain unuttered. It will be hard for photographers, viewers and students of media to develop a useful picture of the role of photography in the future from this book.