Digital Ethos: Transformations in Contemporary Photography Aesthetics subsequent to Computational Art

Digital photography allows artists to think in a more daring and free way. This freedom influences the content, visual aesthetics of artworks in contemporary photography, which is influenced extensively by digital creativity. This paper will focus on the significance of digital technologies in changing aesthetics, planning, vision, fiction, realization of photography and avant-garde photography forms nourished by digital culture.




Photography is one of the creative fields at which technological advances influence artistic expression the most. The ease of manipulation brought by software and extra features available in cameras made artists using photography reconsider their visions, themes, narration, syntax and ways of sharing their artwork. Sharing sites like Flickr, which expedite encounters of various individuals from different cultures, help in changing the perception of the much vital notion of time and enable artists to get faster feedback, revelation, exposure and layering of information to be conveyed.

While some photographers, who are deeply obsessed with analog processes, deny digital technology; it is quite obvious that artists, who are aware of the complexity and particular advantages that this technology brings, indeed end up with a novel aesthetics of photography. In addition to the regular montage and collage methods remaining from the old analog days, digital imaging techniques allow artists to work with notions like augmented perception, chronophotography, surrealism, pictorialism, superimposition, simplification, creation of new worlds, appropriation...

Augmented perception

“Without perception there is no art. A work of art is an organized array of sensory stimuli if, therefore, the senses are not stimulated, then the true work of art does not exist for the observer.” (Wise 19) Though there are studies on exceeding human sensory capabilities, our visual perception still takes ‘what the eyes see’ as the basis of apprehension. In this case, artists who intend to go beyond what one can see with the naked eye, take advantage of software. These digital means enable artists to assemble and convey information in a holistic manner that is otherwise not possible to record in a single photographical documentation act. The resulting totality leads to a particular aesthetic form which turns out to be the synthesis of individual forms, in other words a ‘sui generis’ situation. One can interpret this as a cubist approach.

If we consider the present digital platforms we use, various tools of social media on the other hand; “literacy, TV, computer games, the Internet–all play a role in shaping how we think. Technology is never innocent–we develop it and use it, and in turn it shapes us. […] Technology allows one to have experiences far beyond what are supported by the normal human physiology. Sternberg and Preiss examine the implications of technology on cognition. When technology is broadly conceptualized as 'the building of artifacts or procedures-tools-to help people accomplish their goals,’ then the influence of technology on human development is as old as humanity. […] At the very least, it is becoming increasingly obvious that technology is altering mental functions (Sternberg & Preiss, 2005).” (Gackenbach 346)

This alteration takes us to the notion of cyberception which is, after Roy Ascott, “the emergent human faculty of technologically augmented cognition and perception.” Cyberception carries the potential of laying a firm basis for the development of higher states of consciousness, i.e. augmented perception. This is why the congruence between computational and human behavior appeals to the artist and helps in augmenting his/her intuitive gift to generate aesthetic form. Andreas Gursky, one of the leading photographers of the much respected Düsseldorf photography school of Bernd & Hilla Becher, Chris Jordan of USA and French photographer Jean-François Rauzier take advantage of digital imaging and post-processing in order to take his work to a level that cannot be realized otherwise.

Pictorialist tendencies

There is a never-ending relationship between photography and painting. When photography was invented, it took painting’s function of recording history and was more trusted as a documentary tool since it witnessed experiences more realistically than paintings, which are actually constructs from scratch. Later photography proved its independence and stopped being seen as pure evidence. This is when it found the opportunity to act like painting and be taken as an apparatus of fiction. This new relationship gave birth to ‘pictorial’ photos that emulated optical qualities of paintings, which in turn paved the path to hyper-realistic paintings that are easily mistaken for photos.

If we look at the early stages of this relationship; “by the last quarter of the 19th century, photographers around the world had supplied ample proof of the camera's unique ability to record people and places. At the same time, there were others who were taking pictures for a different purpose. Convinced that the camera could be used to go beyond simply recording what was in front of the lens, these photographers, both amateur and professional, were determined to produce images of artistic merit. [...] Their aim was to convince art critics, other photographers, and the general public that photography should be regarded as a legitimate form of art. [...] At the time, people regarded the world's great paintings as the highest form of visual art. It was only natural that artistic photographers began by trying to produce the same kinds of images as those created by the greatest artists. They chose the same types of themes, settings, and compositions. Like painters, they emphasized the contrasts between dark and light tones (called chiaroscuro). [...] Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of this early artistic movement was the way in which many photographers manipulated their images.” (Sandler 57) Henry Peach Robinson’s book ‘Pictorial Effect in Photography,’ published in 1869; referred to this movement, influenced by the ‘photography-as-art’ approach, as pictorialism.

The intimate connection between painting and photography is still so strong that many contemporary photographers like Helena Blomqvist (Swedish), Désirée Dolron, Jasper de Beijer (Dutch), Christian Noirfalise (Belgian), Yao Lu, Lu Jun (Chinese), Nazif Topçuoğlu (Turkish), Alessandro Bavari (Italian) are taking advantage of the digital imaging technologies in order to create photos that resemble paintings. “Peter Bunnell, in his work titled ‘A Photographic Vision: Pictorial Photography 1889-1923’ (1980), associates the antiphotographic art photography known as ‘pictorialism’ with a reaction against ‘the dehumanizing effects of science and applied technology.’ Pictorialism, he adds, placed ‘its greatest emphasis on the individuality of the artist as witnessed in the work of art and idiosyncrasies of its production.’ ” (Sternberger 37)

Palimpsest-like superimposition: layering transparencies

A palimpsest (Greek “palin,” again; “psëstos,” scraped) is a re-used papyrus or parchment manuscript in which the original text has been washed or scraped off and a new one substituted. The modern version of this archaic surface of knowledge which allows accumulation of information is the Photoshop canvas, where you can completely cover a layer behind yet still make some details emerge from beneath. This possibility of layering various data from different sources one on plane is a more complex form of the good old analog collaging & montaging methods and enables artists to reach a richer expression through superimposed pluralities.

German artists Elger Esser, Kay Kaul and Michael Najjar, Turkish artists Murat Durusoy and Zeynep Kayan are among numerous photographers who benefit from superimposition, in which various images become interwoven into a reassembled complex fictive entity as a collage that brings memories and places together in one plane.

Inclusion of time as a narrative tool

Period(s) included in single photographs are usually and naturally much shorter than periods documented in video works. Yet, when it comes to combining photos taken at different times on one photographical surface, it becomes possible to see remnants of longer periods of time. Performing time lapse photography and compositing images as a durational pattern of many traces left by different moments, lead to the positive notion of timelessness (lack of time dependence) due to the plural presences of time at once. Substance becomes multi-layered and hierarchy disappears: All elements are relatively equal parts to the whole.

An accumulated photographical rendering of one place with various lights, movements, figures, facets, objects and subjects coming from discrete slices of time, allows a richer visual definition of the particular milieu that can be a more faithful description of the observer’s personal experiences. The resulting images after such accumulations are usually visual experiences impossible to the naked eye.

Ahmet Elhan of Turkey, Pablo Zuleta Zahr of Chile and Thomas Weinberger of Germany are some artists who manipulate the perception of time by incorporating distinct phases of moments purposefully selected from the chronological continuum.

Simplification as an elucidation tool

Even though the presence of the traces from different times can help artists to improve their expression, it is also possible to take a completely opposite direction and take information out from a single layer of time. This subtractive approach limits duration to an even smaller fraction of time, to the degree it does not exist. The lack of detail is not meant to hide information from the audience, but rather to enlighten artistic expression and make viewers focus on a particular content more easily. Following Mies van Der Rohe’s famous quote; “[sometimes] less is more...”

Above mentioned simplification can be obtained by erasing the signs of specificity and turning it into anonymity, potentially pointing to the banality of our homogenized environments. An alternative way is to remove the traces of typical presence in order to create a disturbing sense of absence where existence and attendance are normally expected. These exclusions of native details from recorded reality that may lead to floating components that are isolated from their contexts, challenges our view of the reliability of photography and our concept of the space represented by it. Jesper Rasmussen (Danish), Josef Schulz (German), Matt Siber (American) are artists who use simplification in order to clarify what they want to convey through their photographs.

The anti-real: Surrealism in photography

Photography for some, is reflection of reality. Yet, the illusion of a single reality, is criticized by W. Flusser: “The [observer] trusts [technical images] as he trusts his own eyes. If he criticizes them at all, he does so not as a critique of image, but as a critique of vision; his critique is not concerned with their production, but with the world ‘as seen through’ them. Such a lack of critical attitude towards technical images is dangerous in a situation where these images are about to displace texts. [It] is dangerous because the ‘objectivity’ of the technical image is a delusion. They are, in truth, images, and as such, they are symbolical...” (Flusser 2000) Some artists take this critical attitude to an extreme to defy Reality and create a new synthetic reality.

Quoting the Wikipedia definition, “surrealist works feature the element of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions. [...] Surrealism would advocate the idea that ordinary and depictive expressions are vital and important, but that the sense of their arrangement must be open to the full range of imagination. [...] Freud's work with free association, dream analysis and the hidden unconscious was of the utmost importance to the Surrealists in developing methods to liberate imagination.” Artists using digital techniques to take photography from realism to surrealism, aim to free people from false rationality, restrictive customs / structures and prejudice.

Ryuta Amae (Japanese), Michael Najjar, Loretta Lux (German), AES+F (Russian), Anthony Goicolea (American), Ruud van Empel (Dutch) are among artists who produce startling, otherworldly surreal images which involve composite elements culled from different settings, figures, cultures, individuals and combine them into new topographies, characters and scenarios.


The complex notion of appropriation is straightforwardly defined by Mikhail Bakhtin: “The word in language is half someone else's. It becomes one's own only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language, but rather exists in other people's mouths, in other people's contexts, serving other people's intentions: it is from there that one must take the word, and make it one's own.” (Bakhtin 1981:294)

Art is such a field that one can easily borrow an idea, artwork, approach and use it/them in his/her work, with the condition of quoting the reference in ideal conditions. Very famous works like “Las Meninas” by Diego Velázquez have been reinterpreted in the form of “hommage à …” by very famous artists like Pablo Picasso and Joel Peter Witkin. In photography, people like Thomas Ruff  buy the copyrights of old photos taken by another photographer and retouch them in Photoshop, color them partially and finally transform them into their own artworks. In a recent series called ‘JPEGs’ (2004-9) Ruff uses readymade JPEGs by exploiting the lossy compression of visual data into spoiled artifacts. Ruff blows low quality low-res files up in order to reveal how much information is lost already before images are served to people and become iconic in world history. These images, blurred due to extreme up-scaling, are somewhere between legibility - illegibility and point to the skepticism that people should adopt against images that are supposed to convey actualities of world news.

Conclusion: Creation of a new world

Mark Kingwell asserts that “photographs are not multiple depictions of some single reality, waiting out there to be cornered and cropped, and somehow regulating, even in the cornering and cropping, how / what the image means. Rather, photographs offer multiple meanings. The presented image is not a reflection, or even an interpretation, of singular reality. It is, instead, the creation of a world.” (Kingwell 2006)

Truth with the capital T is not taken as the departure point in this paper; on the contrary, personal delineations of temporary yet experienced smaller realities is suggested. Digital tools available for photography allow the artists in the field to think in a more daring and free way. This freedom influences the content and also the visual aesthetics of the recently created artworks in the universal practice of contemporary photography. Photography is probably one of the visual art platforms that is influenced the most by digital production and creativity. Fortunately, it seems it will continue to be so in the future and digital means will strengthen photography’s position in the art world as one of the most progressive expression platforms.

References and Notes: 

Sternberg, R. J., & Preiss, D. D. (Eds.) (2005). Intelligence and technology: The impact of tools on the nature and levels of human ability. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Kingwell, M., 2006. The Truth in Photographs: Edward Burtynsky's Revelations of Excess. Steidl, Germany

Flusser, V., 2000. Towards A Philosophy of Photography. Reaktion Books.

Jayne Gackenbach, ed., Psychology and the Internet: Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, and Transpersonal Implications, (Boston: Elsevier/Academic Press, 2007) 346.

James F. Wise.  Perception and the Visual Arts. Art Education, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Feb., 1970), p. 19. National Art Education Association.

Martin W. Sandler, Photography: An Illustrated History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) 57.

Paul Spencer Sternberger, The Legitimization of Photography as Art in America, 1880-1900 The Legitimization of Photography as Art in America, 1880-1900 (Albuquerque, NM: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 2001) xiv.

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. (1981): The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson & Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press.