There can be little argument with the fact that we are now swamped with photo books, that we have more access to photographs hanging on an exhibition wall than ever before, or that we can now buy photographic prints from photographers more directly, quicker and easier than we could have imagined in the pre-digital age. And yet despite all of these options available to us to engage with the photographic image as a printed artefact our principle engagement with photography today is as a ‘back-lit’ image on an LED screen.
Let’s take a step back. The creation of stained glass in England dates from the 7th century, and by the 12th century it had become a sophisticated art form. The glass had previously had details of faces, hands and drapery painted and fired on to it in black or brown paint, but by the year 1300, yellow stain had been discovered, that had the ability to turn white glass yellow or blue glass green, all useful in the highlighting of hair, haloes and crowns.
Stained glass creation continued to flourish in England until the Reformation of the Church in the 1540s when changes in religious outlook undermined the need for such sacred art.
Although coloured glass continued to be made through the 17th and 18th centuries, the craft declined and skills were lost. Only in the 19th century was there a serious attempt to rediscover the techniques of the medieval glazier. Today almost all parish churches and cathedrals contain Victorian stained glass.
The purpose of stained glass windows in a church was to enhance the beauty of their setting and to inform the viewer through narrative or symbolism. To provoke fear and awe. They were created to provoke a sense of wonder amongst the congregation, to provide hyper-real stories in hyper-real colour. Back lit by God’s light shining through and falling upon the gathered masses. They were to be inspirational, aspirational, educational, spiritual and informative. But the life they represented was not real; it illustrated and represented an unachievable existence, however hard you prayed or believed.
Today we are experiencing photography as a ‘digital back-lit stained glass window’. On our smartphones, laptops, computers, tablets, television screens, on digital billboards and our camera screens. Via online platforms, apps and programmes. A hyper-real world of intensified colours, unrealistic contrast and algorithmically improved people and places. The LED screen is now our photographic paper.
To consume images in such a way is just as unrealistic an experience of the truth as that undertaken by the church goers of the past. It is why so many photographers who only experience the photographic image on a screen are disappointed by the same image when printed on paper. Colours are not as vibrant and contrast defined when printed, just as the unlit stained glass window lacks the impact it was created to impart.
A successful print takes care and skill to make, and relies upon a different understanding of the photographic process from creation to dissemination. But it also requires a different understanding of what photography is, what its relationship with what we see is and its role as a reliable recorder of fact. The printed image must also been see as what it is, a representation of what is seen based upon a CMYK or monochromatic printing process. An expectation that it will match a digital back-lit image is unrealistic.
Interestingly in a recent conversation with a photographer, he outlined to me how he was investigating the reality of creating an exhibition of his work on large back- lit LED screens rather than as printed artefacts.
This makes sense to me. To create and exhibit work utilising a process and form of exhibition which fulfils the expectation of an image that many have who engage with photography only on an LED screen. But of course it does not take much of a leap of understanding to see such an exhibition as one of ‘digital-stained-glass’ windows. Just as the faithful would visit a place of worship to see and admire the brightly coloured narratives so would the exhibition visitor.
We are now in a world where photography’s principle engagement platform is the back-lit screen. Images are rarely printed and it is not unusual for smartphones to contain between 20,000 to 50,000 images created by people who would never describe themselves as photographers. Photography has in essence become a broader church and one where the the narrative icons of the past may have changed in context and content but not in their power to inform and inspire thanks to a sense of a ‘better’ world, however true or false that promise maybe.
© Grant Scott 2019
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.