ABOVE: The San Diego County Fair Photo. Photo credit: Joe
Rooming Together: Digital Art and
Photography at the County
by Joe Nalven
October 15, 2007
©2007 Joe Nalven
We look at art in caves, churches, homes, museums,
galleries and even the
fair. Each space has its own rules for exhibiting images--perhaps they
are hidden away for magical
rituals, perhaps they are placed on the outside of a building to tell a
story, maybe they are housed
as a collection from a lost civilization or of famous artists. Quite
another approach is the county
fair--lively, y'all come, food, music, tattooing, and competitions for
best yodeler, best floral
arrangement and yes, best fine art and photography. From a popular
culture perspective, one
as good as another, just a different context. And just like museums and
art galleries, county fairs
can provide a range of art depending on the field of entries, the jurors,
and the reputation of the
Art at the County Fair
The interesting story is not the public relations statistic that would
tout a century-old County
Fair with over 1.2 million visitors in 2007. (The San Diego County Fair
took place June 8 - July 4,
2007, at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, which are located 20 miles north of downtown San
Diego.) Rather, what many artists and
fair-goers would find
interesting is: what art gets showcased and in what way, especially in
light of the intense
impact of digital process and media. Here, the story begins about five
years ago at the Fair when a
taken on exhibiting digital art along with the photography exhibition,
but in a separate and smaller
side room. This year marked another step: digital art was moved from the
smaller side room into
the main exhibition area with photography. This latest step makes
sense--the pervasiveness of all
things digital had been incorporated into "traditional" photography.
Still, the area for digital art
was separated from photography within this one large room, raising the
question of where the
boundaries should be, within and across these visual media.
ABOVE: (a) A partial view of the exhibition space: Photography and
Digital Art. (b) Detail
showing location of digital art. Photo credit: Georgia Ratcliffe
If you are wondering about fine art of the kind made with
oils, acrylics, watercolor
and mixed media, well, there was a warning in the invitation to artists
wanting to participate in this
year's exhibition: "Digital art works must be entered in Digital Arts
Exhibit." So, the hard boundary
line between digital-created art and photography and non-digital-created
art continued at this
year's Fair, and the two were exhibited on different floors of the Fair.
To keep such dividing lines in perspective, the San Diego Art Institute
(SDAI) in San Diego's Balboa
Park prefers all-media shows, allowing the individual artist of whatever
media to submit work into
regional and international exhibits. What counts is the goodness
or toughness of the
image and not
how it was made. As an historical note, the San Diego Art Institute in
2006 dedicated its nearly
50th international exhibit to an all-digital art show, allowing digitally
digital painting, algorithmic art and digital photography to co-exist
within the same exhibition.
However, that was an exception, and current regional and international
shows at SDAI continue as
Categories and Their Fuzzy Boundaries
In looking at many events and exhibitions, digital art is sometimes housed by
itself, sometimes with all media and sometimes with photography. Is this variation
mere happenstance or is there a logic to these differences? The San Diego County
Fair decided to reorganize the 2007 exhibition space for photography and digital
art. What had been housed in two separate spaces in 2006--two separate but nearby
rooms--was collapsed into one room, but with areas specifying what was
and what was digital art.
This rearrangement of the exhibit space in 2007 provides an opportunity to examine
how the physical boundary change between these media precipitated various
discussions and reflections about the conceptual boundaries between them. While
this commentary focuses more on the perspective of the jurors who police and
enforce the boundaries between submission categories, some attention will be given
to the perspective of those seeking to enter their images into these categories,
the Fair attendees and, in looking to the future, the show coordinator. Though
specific to the Fair, these comments speak to the wider discussion about conceptual
and exhibition boundaries between digital art and other media.
There are other issues that may drive the selection and expansion of categories.
One such issue is exhibition revenue. The FairŐs organizers for the photographic
exhibition discovered about a decade ago that if the number of photo categories was
increased, so too was the total number of entries. There was a greater incentive to
enter into the exhibition with the expanded number of categories because there
would be an expanded number of winners. And, of course, more entries mean more
With respect to the number and type of categories, consider the following. The
categories at the Fair for entering into "digital art" were just five. The Fair
divided digital art into: Digital photographic composition, digital painting,
animation, rendering and algorithmic/fractal images. All process oriented. There
was no color nature, no color portraiture, no family moments and the like. Those
categories were over in the photography section.
The photography section had a multiplicity of catogories, mostly
thematic: Abstract, waterscapes,
color nature, color portraiture, black and white nature, color scenic,
family moments, sports... our
best friends with a few oriented to process, such as autostereoscopic (3D
What does the greater number and type of categories in the photography section tell
us, by way of comparison, about how the digital art section should be configured
and why? After all, photography had been impacted by digital
technology (digital cameras,
Photoshop and inkjet printers), and still the Fair's photography exhibit
under process and media categories. It can't be just the technology.
As one walked through the Fair exhibit, one might have chanced upon Silence
Michael Mettler and Old Nantucket Light by Jay Rayl. Note the similarities
landscapes with water and plants both dissected by a wooden element (bridge versus
boat) and both with a strong affect of weather (snow versus storm). These images
would have offered an interesting conversation if they had been juxtaposed one
against the other. But one was in photography, the other in digital art (digital
ABOVE: Comparing Images from Photography and Digital Photographic
Michael Mettler (Upper); "Old Nantucket Light," Jay Rayl (Lower).
Would the better result be allowing a free flow of
photography and digital art to
bump up against
each other in thematic categories? Donna Cosentino, the past Coordinator
of the Photography and
Digital Art (then called eArts) Exhibition at the Fair, answered my
question with an "Oh nooo!!!"
reflecting her strong opposition to merging the two kinds of imagery. For
photography in Photoshop stands apart from the way one processes reality
from a photographic
By contrast, Pasha Turley, one of the jurors at the Fair and with
considerable experience in jurying
curating shows, took the opposite point of view. "There is no point in
separating them these days.
Where does it begin and where does it end? If I were the Coordinator, I
would put all the abstracts
together, all the night images together, all the family moments together
... both digital art and
photography. I would merge them. I'm about imagery. If the image works,
it works. End of story."
Another way of looking at these categories and divisions between digital
art and photography is
even before the images get up on the walls. Does the fuzzy boundary
problem exist when the
artist/photographer considers the definitions for submitting images to
Paul Sewell expressed his puzzlement about his imagery: Photography or
digital art? Where should
he be uploading his images: to the Fair's photography section or to its
digital art section?
ABOVE: "Salton Sea" (Left) and "London" (Right), Paul Sewell.
"I entered five images into the San Diego County Fair" Sewell said.
"I found it very
difficult to figure out which category to place my photos in. For instance, one of
my photographs was taken digitally, with no manipulation but a filter applied that
simulated a palladium print (Salton Sea). My color prints are converted to
black and white and then the color is added back. Not really what I would
"I remember years ago getting my hands on a Colorvir kit that contained around 15
bottles of chemicals that could bleach, color, solarize and posterize an image. I
could dodge and burn, increase the contrast and even overlay one image on top of
another, which included the not-so-obvious technique of putting a different sky
a landscape. Not really that different from Photoshop.
"The only safe thing I could do is group everything into the 'digitally altered'
category. This made me feel like my shots were bastard love children because
landscapes, portraits, still life and the like were all bundled into the same
category. I almost didn't enter because of this fact.
"As I read the definitions for photography and digital art I should have entered
all my prints into the 'digitally manipulated' category.
"In the end I said 'screw it' and entered them in the photographic categories I
felt they should be entered into. I know the line can be drawn in many different
places, but I would have liked to have seen the rules for digital opened up a
"Both Salton Sea and London were accepted in the traditional
even though the black and white one was digitally palladium toned. Technically, it
should have gone into digitally altered."
Remnants of the Fuzzy Boundary Problem
Consider these two images: Mary Waring's Graphic Rain and Theresa
Train to Shimla.
ABOVE: "Graphic Rain," Mary Waring (Upper), "Toy Train to Shimla," Theresa
Which one is photography and which digital art?
Actually, that is a trick question since Vernitti's image looks like it was
digitally manipulated as opposed to the straight architectural style used by
Waring, but both images are straight photographs.
Vernitti explains why her image looks, well, rather unusual: "I was traveling on a
train--a smaller, low-power train up to a hill station in India called Shimla.
The train passed through over 100 tunnels, and I was able to get a few different
effects from these depending on the lighting and from what materials the tunnel was
constructed. Basically, I had my head dangerously out the window much of the time.
Most of the images are blurry and give an acceptable feeling of movement. This
particular image, despite the scrappy shooting conditions somehow came out rather
sharp and nicely composed."
The point of the trick question is the reality that many viewers encounter in
looking at exhibited images.
I stopped a number of Fairgoers walking through the exhibit, and most said they
enjoyed the images and didn't really care about my question about joining or
separating digital art from photographic imagery. However, one Fairgoer provided
more insight into the questioning than perhaps he realized. He said he preferred
sharp divisions and would have liked photography to be in one room as it had for
many years and digital art to be in another room. However, "Since I can't tell
whether an image I'm looking at has been digitally enhanced, it's just as well that
they are in the same room."
This viewer's response underscores that many of the images are eerily difficult to
differentiate when looking at the image with no further information about process.
And perhaps that is the point of leaving the mystery in the art rather than
explaining it away.
I posed the question about boundaries to Lee Varis, the author of Skin (a
about working with skin texture, toning, aging and the like in Photoshop).
ABOVE: Lee Varis, author of "Skin." Photo Credit: Joe Nalven.
Lee, having worked with body-double imaging in analog and digital,
had just finished a workshop presentation at the Fair, and had a ready response:
"There are no boundaries."
While some readers may throw up their hands, or digital pens, at the lack of
certainty of boundary between photography and digital art, or if there is a
boundary at all, the reality is indeed fuzzy; the fuzzy boundary reflects a moving
target of how digital technology directly and indirectly shapes our thinking about
what to call an image. (For additional discussion on this subject, see the curator
notes for the joint exhibition of the Digital Art Guild and the PhotoArtsGroup at
Moving Beyond the Boundary Issue:
Interpreting Digitalness Within Photography and Digital Art
Is all this worrying about boundaries between digital art and photography much ado
about nothing? After all, many of the images are recognizably photographs or
digital art--or shall we say, that they meet with our stereotypes about what a
photograph and digital art look like. Adam Cote's digital painting,
looks like an abstract painting and not like a photograph. The same could be said
about Roger Krueger's night photograph, Apres Punk, but on the other side of
ABOVE: "Hemorrhage," Adam Cote.
ABOVE: Roger Krueger, "Apres Punk."
Even so, there are further conversations raised by the Fair's jurors
digital art and the digital aspects of traditional photography.
Greg Klamt was one of the jurors for the digital art section. His experience, and
that of the
other digital art jurors, was decidedly more in the painting arena, providing some
the way the categories for digital art were defined. One result was moving images
submitted as paintings over into the photographic-oriented images to sharpen both
definition and what their experience was as painters and what a painting ought to
Explained Klamt, "I found jurying digital art more difficult than I expected it to
be because of the
clarity of the categories. Digitally-altered photography from last year is a better
(than digitally-composited photography). The definition said that the image had to
photographic. As a result, we moved a lot of stuff over from what artists called
to the digitally composited photography category. There were some images that
photograph plugged into some program. I don't know how that was done, but I don't
think it was
that great. Some were nice images, but I don't think a whole lot of work went into
"The three of us jurors are painters. Many of the images did not involve a painting
if you are repainting over the top of a photograph. These were less than a painting
I was thinking was what I do. There are no photographic elements when I do
Most of mine
are digital paintings essentially created on a blank canvas.
"Digital painting is about a clear story, and the image does what I want it to do.
allows me to
move elements around the way they suit me, but a lot of the digital stuff seems
what I ended
up with my so-so photographs that have a lot of filters and things added to them.
works it well, but some are still learning.
"In all, we only considered five images to be digital painting. If the categories
had been clear, this
wouldn't have been a problem. Two of the categories in digital were small and way
judge. Like 3D rendering."
ABOVE: "Trees," Cam Garner
Peter Gorwin juried several areas within the photography section:
Color Scenic and
Processes. Because of the impact of digital processing, new problems surfaced
what had once
been a straightforward chemical darkroom operation.
"I found a lot of the images compelling at first sight but at closer look they were
the artists had just gotten on board with digital output or never took the time to
make a fine
digital image and print it
Either they had misconceptions about Photoshop or hadn't understood output, whether
they were doing
it themselves or
sending it out. There was a lot of oversharpening, a lot of banding. We were
frustrated since many of
were really nice compositions, but so manipulated that it took away from the work.
"We all have our likes and dislikes as judges, but when we see these deficiencies
judgment or output,
you need to give them low grades. Many images fell beneath the bar on this score.
People need more
what they are doing with Photoshop--not with the manipulation, but their
perceptions of outputting,
Gorwin found that the categories invited fudging on the part of the photographer,
temptation of doing
things digitally. (See the discussion above with Paul Sewell indicating his dilemma
of where to place
not knowing whether a particular juror would pick up the photographic/digital
process challenge or
simply lump in
with mistakes or perhaps something the juror may have been unaware of.)
"One person shot a series of a precise and well-conceived vision of a well-known
mountain in black
and white film. He
then lined these images up (and this has been done before), creating a photo
mosaic. You can see the
holes so that the mosaic creates an image of the mountain. Some were obviously
brown toned or
and we asked to look at the back of the submission to see what was done as the
"Here the artist said he aligned the photographs digitally to make them even but
the category said
you couldn't do any
digital manipulation whatsoever, but it was a brilliant image. I don't find
anything wrong with that,
but the rules
said no. We still left it in. We decided not to throw that one out. We could have
thrown it out. I
think it should
not be output digitally and all should be all analog and not get artists trying to
fudge on the image
digital process on the output side."
And then there were issues about whether the digital process was intended or simply
"In the Color Scenic category," Gorwin observed, "one
of the artists took
creative license, but we had to decide whether the
digitization (the blurring) was part of the creative process the artist took or
whether it was an
accident that the
person didn't realize he was doing."
In short, ambiguities continued to plague what appeared to be sharply drawn
definitions--about what was this and that within and across the digital
art/photography exhibition at the Fair. Klamt agreed with Varis' comment that
ultimately there were no boundaries, but for the sake of an art exhibition,
categories gave those who submitted their images something to aim at above and
beyond the goodness of their image and gave viewers something to talk about.
One might further observe that digital art lags in terms of a defined history
photography, perhaps explaining, in
part, the smaller number of entries and the emphasis on process-oriented rather
categories; also, photographers
appeared to have no decided advantage on quality output as they might have had had
they retained the
use of the chemical
Directions and Momentum: How Far Can a New Coordinator Go in Reshaping the
Stephen Burns, the Coordinator for the Photography and Digital Arts Exhibition at
the San Diego
County Fair, saw the dramatic
rise in the
number of entries, particularly in photography. He viewed this increase in the
number of entries as a
response to opportunities
and a re-energized interest created by digital technology.
Burns was able to take the next step in bringing digital art into the same room
with the photography
exhibition, pointing out
that it would have been difficult for the previous Coordinator, Donna Cosentino, to
do so. It would
have been too great a
change with the initial incorporation of digital arts (eArts) into the Fair.
Burns also brought in autostereoscopic photography (3D images that can be seen
without the aid of
additional glasses) as a new
category within the photography section. (See www.auticular.com for more
information on this
technology.) However, Burns
thought that this type of photography might be better placed in digital art since
it is digital in
image capture, digital in
the intergration of the separate images, and digital output. (From a viewer's
these images look like
spectacular photographs rather than what one expects to find in digital art.)
Burns is also considering refining the categories used in digital art, perhaps
adding a new one that
will include works that
use both a photographic tradition and a painting tradition within the one art
collapsing digital art and
photography into a single all-media division seems remote.)
There may be another area that will prove more important in the short run rather
than tinkering with
boundaries and new
applications. The number of free workshops has been dramatically expanded as well
as making some of
them interactive. The
series of free professional workshops hosted by the San Diego Photoshop Group at
the County Office of
Education was now moved
to the Fair. Perhaps these workshops would incentivize the public to learn more
applications in image-making and
create a more informed public to discern what it is they see in the various
About the Author:
Joe Nalven is a digital artist who edits the Digital Art Guild webzine at www.digitalartguild.com. He teaches
about culture in
college classes on cultural anthropology and humanities. He won first and second
autostereoscopic photography at the
San Diego County Fair as well as having one of his digital paintings accepted and
moved into the
See list of other DP&I.com essays and commentary here.
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