Specificity of media

Emma Bee Berstein’s essay for the The Chicago School of Media Theory discusses medium-specificity in terms of the materiality and form in which are is made (https://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/mediatheory/keywords/medium-specificity/). I’ve often thought of this in terms of physicality and form, for example the mark of an acrylic painter or the sounds of poetry. Photography has always been a chameleon in this respect because of its malleability and it being such a broad church. Berstein comments that it had difficult in establishing itself as an art form because it wasn’t treated by its proponents as a specific media but attempted to mimic painting for example. There are ‘artists working with photography’ who’s work is a hybrid of a traditional photograph and other mark-making. With digitisation the pixel has become the common media of digital art and photography and the blurring of boundaries stronger than in the past. With digitisation also comes the malleability of output – there is flexibility at the press of a few keys. This is the aspect I’m interested in for this post.

I’ve been wrestling with the form of an ebook for my body of work and while enjoyed experimenting with the possibilities it didn’t quite feel right – I couldn’t escape the idea of a paper photobook. Adding interactivity disrupted that quiet space that is a paper book, taking away the possibilities of interaction left a pale imitation of a photobook an its materiality. My tutor made an important observation as I ran through the ebook during our last meeting. She said, ‘I’m not quite sure what I’m looking at here; is it a book or a slide show’. We talked around this and I also commented that I was not enthusiastic about the ‘virtual degree’ shows I’d seen – they made it difficult to see the work and pretended to offer an experience akin to a gallery when in fact it was more like a virtual car show room on low budget tech. Perhaps an ephotobook is similar. My tutor suggested that a ‘film’ might be a better format. I’ve reflected a lot on this and agree – we understand the specificity of film and are not distracted by wondering what it is. One day, the same might be true of photo ebooks but that possibility needs a change in technology too.

All of this has encouraged me to think about specificity of other outputs for photography. I wrote about Instagram here but having worked a little with it, watched established photographers, galleries and publishers, I’ve changed by mind in some respects. I thought it was a good idea to maintain the original frame of the photograph, including it within a 1080×1080 or 1080×1350 pixel box if necessary. However, I now realise that the specificity of the output is a small mobile phone screen with limited pixel dimensions and format determined by the app. Unless the most is made of the 1:1 or 4:5 aspect’s space, viewing is not comfortable for many photographs. There is an incoherence with the specificity of the output.

I’ve deleted my Instagram feed (I don’t keep my photographic history there anyway so not a big deal) and will now only post 1:1 or 4:5 crops. I now think of media-specificity both in terms of input and output.