It's a little-known fact about Seattle that one of the pioneers of digital art photography, Paul Berger, lives here. Since the mid-1980s, he's been teaching digital imaging—and imagining—at the University of Washington, influencing many of the most celebrated art photographers to come out of the city: Isaac Layman, Todd Simeone, Martina Lopez. You might also say that Berger invented the internet, or at least your Google homepage. (Take that, Gore.) Berger called it Seattle Subtext.
Seattle Subtext was printed as a black-and-white magazine in 1984. But it was an entirely personalized magazine. It aggregated images and texts: photographic stills from videos of ABC News and other footage paired with screen captures of words on Berger's computer monitor (at that time, his TV screen). He was digitally manipulating electronic imagery, even though his printing technique still involved scissors and glass. Because he didn't have an actual computer monitor but instead had outfitted his TV screen to serve, he'd have to toggle between computer-on-TV, video-on-TV, and TV-on-TV while working, in a process that takes him 20 nostalgia-inflected minutes just to narrate. "I like complexity," Berger says.
His father was a ceramic tile setter and his mother was a seamstress; they both brought home scraps from their fields. Paul became an artist who builds single images from multiple parts—another of his series is images tiled in a warp-and-weft structure. His brother, too, is a sculptor.
"I'm not interested in the concept or question of truth, and I never have been," he says, dismissing the usual, tired conversation about digital photography so that it doesn't begin.
What Berger's interested in is the total discontinuousness of life.
"It's more that this is how life works: You're getting information from all over the place, all the time. You're constantly juxtaposing millions of things and someone says something and boom!—I wish I hadn't thought of that old Buick I had, but... This is everyday life for a sentient being."
Several of Berger's photographs—including the front and back cover of Seattle Subtext—are in the Henry Art Gallery exhibition The Digital Eye: Photographic Art in the Electronic Age. The show was organized by Henry director Sylvia Wolf. (Last week, the Henry announced a staff reorganization that saw the dismissal of longtime chief curator Liz Brown; the museum will no longer employ a chief curator but rather a combined head of art and education under Wolf's direction. A national search is under way.)
Wolf is a photography scholar, and this show is a version of her recent book of the same name, just using images she could borrow from local collections or pull out of the museum's own storage. Given those conditions, she's put together a hell of a show, but one that strains against its own scattershot-ness. It's neither quite a sweeping survey nor a focused argument about digital photography, and partly it's like the summer show of 19th-century landscapes at SAM, which are also drawn out of local hiding places.
Still, there are a lot of important and interesting pictures here—by Jon Haddock, Herbert Bayer, Cindy Sherman, Anselm Kiefer, Jeff Wall, Jason Salavon, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Joan Fontcuberta; the list goes on—and the show comes off better than the book. The book is rudimentary and lacking in imagination and poetry: In tone, it feels almost like a textbook. The show, by contrast, has some striking moments, places where the architecture of the galleries is made to frame pictures by, say, Vik Muniz or Andreas Gursky, so that you conjoin them mentally. (It's fun to juxtapose Muniz's photograph of a drawing of dust—based on a photograph from an old minimalist sculpture show—with Gursky's huge image of a Madonna concert, the crowd multiplied to the point of absurdity.)
The Digital Eye makes the case that the techniques we associate with digital photography—altering, discontinuousness, etc.—have been with photography since the beginning. Wolf hung a lovely 1856 Gustave Le Gray in the first gallery of the exhibition in order to demonstrate that Le Gray shot the picture and then exposed its halves separately onto the same paper. Given the chemistry of the time, that was the only way to get the details from both land and sky to show up. There's a small, detectable break at the horizon.
The break—that's the distinction Wolf, and Berger, make between analog, or "analogous," photography and digital. The idea is that if there's an inherent difference, it's at the molecular level, that however small the pixels get, they're still there, and they're still separate. But so are the crystals in the silver halide used in a traditional photograph, one commenter noted on Slog, the Stranger blog. What debates like these prove is that there are many ways to think about photography, and probably new ones being invented now, by artists like Berger. If there's any underlying idea The Digital Eye pushes, it comes about because when you're in the galleries, you'll probably find yourself asking whether there's anything meaningful at all about the term "digital," since these pictures come at you from all angles and lead you in all directions, politically, artistically, and philosophically. The next question is what's important: So what are the new categories we can blow up and shoot down? These explosions are already happening, we just have to see them.