February 18, 2013
William Mitchell in his "The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-photographic Era" argued that the physical difference between photographic and digital technology leads to the difference in the logical status of film-based and digital images and also to the difference in their cultural perception.
Mitchell claimed that there is a core difference in that digital images can be reproduced ad infinitum without loss of quality whereas traditional ones cannot. Mitchell also claims that there is a huge difference in the amount of information encoded with a digital image, in comparison to a traditional one. Mitchell’s third distinction is that the digital photograph is manipulable in ways in which the traditional photograph is not – it can be edited, altered, reworked and so on.
From these differences between a photograph and a digital image, Mitchell then deduced differences in how the two are culturally perceived. Because of the difficulty involved in manipulating them, photographs were comfortably regarded as causally generated truthful reports about things in the real world. Digital images, being inherently (and so easily) mutable, call into question our ontological distinctions between the imaginary and the real or between photographs and drawings. Furthermore, in a digital image, the essential relationship between signifier and signified is one of uncertainty.
What Michell does is to identify the pictorial tradition of realism with the essence of photographic technology and the tradition of montage and collage with the essence of digital imaging.
Thus, the photographic work of Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, nineteenth and twentieth century realist painting, century realist painting, and the painting of the Italian Renaissance become the essence of photography; while Robinson's and Reijlander's photo composites, constructivist montage, contemporary advertising imagery (based on constructivist design), and Dutch seventeenth century painting (with its montage-like emphasis on details over the coherent whole) become the essence of digital imaging.
As Lev Manovich in his essay The Paradoxes of Digital Photography in Photography After Photography: Memory and Representation in the Digital Age observes:
what Mitchell takes to be the essence of photographic and digital imaging technology are two traditions of visual culture. Both existed before photography, and both span different visual technologies and mediums. Just as its counterpart, the realistic tradition extends beyond photography per se and at the same time accounts for just one of many photographic practices.