Pictures and Pixels
The work.

The work presented in this conceptual photography series reflects the photographer’s attempt to demonstrate the multiple lives of a photographic image today. Software readouts can document the technical basis behind what we see, optical and digital. Social media captures the life of the image as a conversation. A website offers an image in isolation, displayed separately for those who know its address or think to search for it. A viewer can download, but most web-based images are of low resolution and so in print do not display the detail we value in photography. A fine arts marketing site offers a high-resolution image for sale as artifact. But the artifact is not signed or dated, so lacks authenticity beyond its appearance on paper. Finally, the creator or gallery offers a high-resolution artifact, signed and numbered from a limited edition.

In the case of these prints, the person who acquires the tangible product also is invited to respond digitally or even graphically by writing directly on the print. Thus the meaning of the image is shaped as created, as presented digitally, and as defined by its eventual owner, making each print both widely accessible and yet unique.

The conversation.

For a century and a half the photographic image began on a physical object. An image was attached to glass, metal, gelatin or paper. Then it was distributed with a sense of detachment between creator and consumer. The intention behind the image invited a visual dialogue with a viewer, but the photographer seldom had the opportunity for direct interaction over time. The conversation had to be imagined, in both the creator’s intention and the viewers’ responses.

Digital photography proposed to sweep away the interactive limits as it did with the physical objects. Today an artifact made chemically on a substrate is no longer required, nor common. People seldom actually turn their images into physical objects. Instead they project a digital array onto a small screen of a smartphone or computer. We can interact with that image repeatedly, over time. We can comment on Facebook, or Tweet, or text, or upload one of our own images in reply.

Yet the power of an artifact, the tangible photograph, still seems worth considering. Can we combine the conversation of digital imaging with the detachment of photographic artifact? Perhaps by distributing images both digitally and chemically the creator may offer viewers an opportunity to take a more active role in in the visual conversation.

This does require an artist used to producing a physical object to take a risk. He or she surrenders some control. When an image is offered on social media its meaning becomes established by the viewers. They can transmit that image by sharing or copying. Despite attempts to control ownership, the creator soon realizes it is almost impossible to both invite conversation with viewers and yet maintain complete control over a digital file.

The artifact.

It seems ironic, then, that digital photography seems to have served to enhance the attractiveness of the one thing a creator can control—the hard copy. Photojournalists of the past had little respect for the print itself. The print was simply a medium for distribution. Boxes of marked-up prints distributed by the world’s most famous photojournalism agency, Magnum, in the past had little intrinsic value, despite their creation by some of the century’s greatest photographers. The image mattered, not the piece of paper, often discarded after publication.

Today that is changing. Digital may be ubiquitous, but it also seems ephemeral, merely a string of 0s and 1s in machine code. Surviving prints representing the work of accomplished creators using the medium of photography are beginning to gain respect—and monetary value. We may be able to interact with a digital image. But we have no physical evidence that its creator has had any personal hand in crafting that image. In the print, we do. The mark of the creator can be guaranteed in the same way it is for original engravings or lithographs, with a signature. And the nature of photographic printing, either in the darkroom or through high-quality inkjet-based processes that we today call giclée, suggests that the number of actual prints available will be limited. A photographer can warrantee those limits by numbering each print to set the edition, as artists have done for most of the last century.

But which format is more conversant? The mediated digital image can enhance the visual conversation between creator and viewer. That may improve a dialogue that in the world of modern art has sometimes led the public to feel they are trying to make sense of some sort of alien encounter. On the other hand, the print can guarantee authenticity and stability over time. The creator may prefer to speak visually through the print itself, and sometimes that’s all he wants to say. And sometimes the viewer may not seek conversation, but will be happy with personal reflection.

—Ross F. Collins


Ross F. Collins Ross F. Collins is a professor of communication at North Dakota State University, Fargo.


View current work in larger format:

Pictures and pixels thumbnails


View current work as a slide show:

Slide show of prints.

View recent work: National Geographic YourShot: Search Ross F. Collins, People

Photographic vita artist search Ross F. Collins

Twitter: @rossfcollins


More photos.

Signed and numbered prints are available at the North Dakota State University Memorial Union Gallery, or directly from the photographer.


Milkweeds Snowflakes