December 17, 2007--Newsweek's worth reading only when Peter Plagens is in it, and that's not often. The sweep of his knowledge and his breezy tone, his clarity and resolutions make him distinctive. About that breezy tone: Matthew Collings gets credit for creating a style that gave art criticism somewhere to go beyond the dry bog of the academic, but Plagens was there first, writing serious things with a light touch.
That's why his most recent foray - "Is Photography Dead?" (article appeared in Newsweek, week of Dec. 9, 2007) - bewildered me. Is photography dead? Of course not.
Plagens is upset that photography has abandoned its commitment to the truth ("lost its soul") in order to revel in Photoshop fantasies. What commitment? Truth in art has always been a fluid concept, and Photoshop is a tool, not a weakness. By opening a wider crack in the factual, photography has moved to the center of contemporary art practice, instead of where it was 30 years ago, at the margins, brilliant only in the work of a few great photo documentarians and dead-ended for those following somebody like Ansel Adams, for instance.
What's threatened in digital photography isn't art. It's the personal record of family life. Until recently, people took rolls of film to be developed at the drug store. They got back packets of pictures, which they mounted in albums or left in piles in shoe boxes. These images existed. Digital photography produces the illusion of existence. Fewer people bother with the hard copy, and it's the hard copy that matters.
Decades ago, Susan Sontag wrote that the unphotographed child suffered from a form of child abuse. As digital images fade from the family computer screen, the record they were supposed to provide disappears with them. Only the tech savvy will avoid this fate, and how many people does that include?