Photography is an industrial art. The tools to make photographs are produced and improved according to market demands. For-profit firms develop and manufacture the hardware, software, and physical materials that photographers rely on to practice their craft, and so the medium itself is inherently tied to industry and, in the twenty-first century, the practices and patterns of globalized capitalism.
This is not new. Photography has been put toward commercial purposes since its inception, and money has typically provided a substantial impetus for the evolution of photographic technologies. So, image-makers of all kinds have a symbiotic relationship with the companies that design and sell their cameras, film, computers, enlargers, printers, etc., depending on the artist’s particular process. If I were a painter, I might buy my colors at an art supply store, but I would still technically be able to make paints myself if I did some research and acquired the appropriate materials. This is far more of a stretch as a photographer, though some do use custom equipment (John Chiara, for example, builds his own large pinhole cameras, but I think his process still depends on commercially available paper and chemicals). I assembled the PC that I use to process digital images, but I don’t understand how a motherboard works, nor do I have any idea as to what the code behind Photoshop’s Curves tool might look like. It’s the same in the darkroom, even though the process is more physical. I could formulate my own developer, but I still don’t have the technical knowledge or means to make film that would run through a modern camera, or build an enlarger lens.
Adobe is an especially interesting case here because their Photoshop software is synonymous with photography in the digital age. There are still some alternatives to Photoshop and Lightroom, like the open-source GIMP, Apple’s (soon to be unsupported) Aperture, and lesser known and less involved offerings, but none are so ubiquitous as Adobe’s industry standard. At the Met there were “Before Photoshop” and “After Photoshop,” simultaneous exhibitions about the history and current state of image manipulation. Even colloquially, people use the brand name, stating: “That looks Photoshopped.” Photography has always been manipulated, but before the advent of Photoshop it involved darkroom and camera tricks or brushwork and collage techniques. Now a vast amount of images are created, manipulated, or touched up using an intangible product designed and published by a single firm.
I sometimes wonder, “What are the implications of this near-monopoly for artists who have incorporated Photoshop into their practice?” But I do not have a coherent answer. I only think it is important for political artists or those who are interested in social justice to acknowledge that the circumstances in which our tools are produced links our process of making artwork to global issues involving, for example, labor, economics, and the environment.
Such artists are not the primary force driving innovation of the products that they use. I assume that most of Adobe’s revenue comes from commercial creatives and educational licenses, not individual artists. Our work not only depends on labor done by well-compensated engineers in comfortable Silicon Valley offices, but also on miners who collect the materials used in high-tech components and factory workers who put them together. This is also relevant to discussions of photography in more popular arenas–one set of laborers writes the code for Android, iOS, or Instagram, and other distant groups make the hardware under very different circumstances. The photographic medium should not be isolated from its industrial context.
I don’t want to to suggest that certain modes of making work should be abandoned for the sake of ethical purity, but to advocate awareness and critical thinking about art’s place in a bigger social picture. Part of the reason why photography today is so fascinating is that it offers artists exciting new means for engagement with our technologically advanced, media saturated postmodern society, exactly it is embedded in so many of the complex intersections that are shaping the present and future world. It is crucial that artists maintain a lucid perspective on the nature of the technologies that they use. In future posts I hope to begin to speak to how particular artists and writers understand and negotiate the multifaceted relationship between technology and art, particularly photography.