Our Art and Images on the Web: An Uneasy Conundrum, Part Two

How does putting your images on the web change the way people see them? Here is Peter J. Blackburn’s take on this.

Writer and photography / Peter J. Blackburn

Where there's art, can cameras and cell phones be far behind? Do they really serve as competent recorders of
Where there’s art, can cameras and cell phones be far behind? Do they really serve as competent recorders and transmitters of “our work?”

Several weeks ago, aired over a national radio network, I heard a most tantalizing, mouthwatering description of Paul Cézanne’s paintings now on display in Philadelphia. The commentator choose his words most carefully to describe color, texture, depth, luminance, and form in a manner calculated to persuade listeners both near and far to make the trip to Philly. Come and see the exquisite work of Paul Cézanne!

Well, it worked. Quick, someone buy me a plane ticket—I want to go! Please!

But then the broadcast piece abruptly concluded with the usual, almost automatic, tagline: “See his work on the web at www.visitphilly.com.”

Huh? Did my ears hear correctly?

Oh, I heard it, all right. I hear it all the time. To most listeners those words sound familiar and seem innocuous. To me, those words are truly menacing. That little phrase, when repeated over and over, encourages a dumbing down, so to speak, of how we perceive art on the web.

See his work on the web…”

Okay. Before I venture any further let me enjoy a sip of coffee and take a few moments to regain some calm and composure.

After listening to the radio report, my initial thoughts returned to Mr. Cézanne himself. Would he embrace how the web treats the reproduction of his work? What would he think of his paintings being reduced to a screen shot devoid of all the celebrated surface qualities, depth, and luminance so wonderfully described? Would he approve of electronically transmitted light reconfiguring his color palette and obliterating his texture?  And how would he react to seeing it all minimized, miniaturized, and minusculed (sic) into the size of an iPhone? Would he call that “his work?”

How is it that the announcer, a media professional, does not realize almost none of those mouthwatering merits can be fully revealed through replicated images on a website?

When did we acquire this habit of referring to art reproductions on the web as “our work?”

The web seems to have an uncanny ability to perform chicanery right under our noses, even making a mockery of what we as artists celebrate and hold dear. Are we as artists not passionately engaged with such fundamental virtues as texture, color and hue (as constructed by the artist on canvas or paper, not distorted through electronic transmission, web browser settings, and monitor limitations), nuance, and tonality?  But those qualities and more are swept away like dust in the wind as “our work” is laid to rest six feet under the web.

What I find most irritating about all of this are the uncaring attitudes many artists hold to any discussion of the concern at hand. Shockingly, others appear clueless as to how digital reproductions can literally strip many forms of art of their visually aesthetic qualities.

Que sera sera, I suppose.

Speaking of virtue, scale, which perhaps ranks among the most ready indicator of virtuosity, is mercilessly yanked off its hinges as huge works of art are compressed to small flat screen monitors and, more egregiously, the teeny tiny cell phone.  That’s right, the 50 yard mural, the 50 inch mosaic, and the 50 millimeter sketch when transformed to a screen all assume the same size posture, each confined to identical space, thereby donning equal significance. And it’s all performed as imperceptibly as a magician’s hat trick.

Why are we so willing to sacrifice the fruit of our labor, including the fragrance and sparkle of our art on the altar of the almighty, omniscient World Wide Web—you know, the place we all esteem practically perfect in every way.

So this brings me to an equally disturbing, almost psychotic, condition which I coin the “cycle of lunacy.” If only I had a dime for every time I read or heard of artists shooting subjects with their teeny tiny cell phones, then scurrying back to their studios to spend hours creating large, exquisite prints from those phone images using precious metals on expensive papers by means of top dollar equipment only to photograph those finished prints with their ubiquitous cell phones for loading onto the web for viewing once again on their teeny tiny cell phones!

But wait, there’s more!

We now have art organizations, clubs, and academic venues (which will remain nameless) who offer art contests online. Just upload your images for judges to see, evaluate, and for which valuable prizes will be awarded. Some even have People’s Choice awards where you, yes, you, can vote for your favorite art piece just by looking at the work on your monitor and, yes, even your teeny tiny cell phone!

Oh, how the web makes it all so easy for us to lose a healthy respect for the original physical object. As the simplicity of replicating, uploading, and posting becomes ever more convenient, our regard for the effort which went into creating those pieces of art tend to diminish. As image after image after endless image effortlessly swipes along in our ceaseless cell phone browsing, so also is brushed away every morsel of appreciation, and dare I say, dignity. It all becomes so cheap.

The issue is very personal to me. I value the handmade, the one of a kind, the tangible piece of art as seen from reflected light which allows nooks, crannies, nuance, grain, textures, and sparkle to radiate like no screen can duplicate.  It is the omission of those qualities which cause me to hold with painful disdain every, and I mean every piece of “my own work” which is replicated throughout the web. It’s why you will not discover a single personal website belonging to me anywhere on the net.

An uneasy conundrum, indeed.

You see, I am not just interested in properly rendering color balance and density when posting my work (a fool’s errand, as addressed in my previous blog). Those may be the well intentioned goals of other artists as they post facsimiles of their own work. But if color balance and density constitutes the sum total of “our work” on the web, then there’s no point to the time, expense, and dedication we pour into the creation of the physical piece of art. Forget precious metals. Forget beautiful paper texture. Forget lovely pigments and the handmade artifacts contained within our prints. Forget it all if the ultimate purpose and destination is the web. Why bother?

So then, what about scale?

And what about texture?

And what about nuance and the magical qualities which are only captured and revealed via reflected light?

It’s for those reasons and more that the web will always fall short as an adequate venue for “my work.” My work lives here in the room where I am writing this blog. It resides in galleries, in the homes of patrons, on the walls of offices, restaurants, and living rooms. It exists only in touchable, tangible space, not in a digital house of mirrors.

My art is an all or nothing proposition for me. If all of the inherent qualities of my prints cannot be completely replicated on the web, those images simply cannot be called “my work.”

To see my work is to come and see it—with your eyes and feet. There is no substitute.

But take heart, my friend! In the next and final piece of this blog series I wish to end on a positive note by relating how I think the web can and does help us as artists. Alternativephotography.com and other sites play important and valid roles. It is undeniably true that I have artifacts of work on the web. I’ll tell you why and tie up a few loose ends, too, in a few weeks.  See you then.

Your comments are welcome.

Peter J. Blackburn, MA, has been working in gum and casein bichromate printing for over thirty years. He is represented by Afterimage Gallery, Dallas, Texas. You can also see Peter J. Blackburn’s gallery or read more articles he has written.

6 thoughts on “Our Art and Images on the Web: An Uneasy Conundrum, Part Two”

  1. The only camera club in my area has a note on their “About” page that film no longer exists and that it would be outdated and irrelevant even if it was still around.

    All of the work by members presented for review and discussion has to be submitted as a jpeg file. Even before the time of the Plague, every image was reduced to a jpeg for projection. Not even a tiff file.

    That’s like listening to Maddy Pryor’s recordings as an mp3 file and concluding that she has an irritating and non-human chatter on every single high note or trill. It’s an artifact not found in the original.

  2. Well, some of us will never get to France, Italy or other places where these great, or even just good, works reside. For us, books, magazines, prints, and yes, even the web will have to suffice.
    That said, I understand fully what you are saying. Seeing a great painting on the web is like listening to a great orchestra on an iPod. Yah, you hear the music, but if you hear it ‘live’, there is no comparison.
    I have never entered competitions where you submit your work electronically. If I can’t show the judge the actual piece – well – I just won’t participate.

  3. Hi Victoria! Thank you for reading and for submitting your inquiry. Yes, I actually do use gallery cards. I just refer to them as such, a gallery card, not a “sample of my work.” They are provided as a token for motivation to come and see the actual work at the gallery. The wonderful characteristic of cards is that we can exercise more control as to how they are printed. What we see is what the patron will see. The cards are just tools to inform interested folks that I have images to see…in person! But, like the web, they have limitations and liabilities which also make me uncomfortable. I assume you, too, are working in alt. processes? All the best to you, Victoria!

  4. Abby! Great to hear from you on this forum and welcome! Yes, it is amazing how we all seem to have a tendency, a default mode, if you will, to take literally all that we see, without consciously realizing that the means by which we are seeing might be “distorting the facts.” So, Magnificent Mona turned out to be Mini Mona, eh? Well, I suppose if slide shows were still the norm, like they were back in the 70’s and 80’s (yes, I remember them well), I would be lamenting them, too. But, the web and all of our electronic devices seem to exacerbate this issue even more than before. I think our digital devices by virtue of their proliferation and immediacy, are far more pervasive than any slide projector we could drag out of a closet. You are spot on right, though. This issue is not by any means new to our digital age. Thanks, Abby!!

  5. Peter, have I ever told you the story of the first time I saw the Mona Lisa in person? Up until then I had only seen it on slides (and in art history books). But seeing it time and time again, projected slide, larger than life, on the pull down screen in the art room- I was SHOCKED to see that it was, well, small. Not to mention how projected slides misrepresent color! I guess the WWW and the iPhone aren’t the only culprits here!! 😉

  6. So do you also not do gallery cards? Because handing someone a card “of my work” has proven to be good for me-even though it’s a pitiful reproduction.

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