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ABOVE: The San Diego County Fair Photo. Photo credit: Joe Nalven/Infrared

Rooming Together: Digital Art and Photography at the County Fair

by Joe Nalven

October 15, 2007

©2007 Joe Nalven

We look at art in caves, churches, homes, museums, galleries and even the county 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 space is 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 venue.

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 chance was 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.

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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 manipulated images, 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 all-media shows.

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 photography 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 fees.

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 lenticular) and creative/alternative processes.

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 resisted subsuming imagery 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 by Michael Mettler and Old Nantucket Light by Jay Rayl. Note the similarities below: 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 photographic composition).

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ABOVE: Comparing Images from Photography and Digital Photographic Composition. "Silence," 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 her, manipulated photography in Photoshop stands apart from the way one processes reality from a photographic mindset.

By contrast, Pasha Turley, one of the jurors at the Fair and with considerable experience in jurying and 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 the Fair.

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?

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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 consider 'Photoshopped.'

"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 into 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 little.

"Both Salton Sea and London were accepted in the traditional photography sections 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 Vernitti's Toy Train to Shimla.

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ABOVE: "Graphic Rain," Mary Waring (Upper), "Toy Train to Shimla," Theresa Vernitti (Lower).

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 toy 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 book about working with skin texture, toning, aging and the like in Photoshop).

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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 www.digitalartguild.com/ content/view/19/26)

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, Hemorrhage, 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 the coin.

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ABOVE: "Hemorrhage," Adam Cote.

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ABOVE: Roger Krueger, "Apres Punk."

Even so, there are further conversations raised by the Fair's jurors about issues within 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 frustration to the way the categories for digital art were defined. One result was moving images that were submitted as paintings over into the photographic-oriented images to sharpen both the category definition and what their experience was as painters and what a painting ought to look like.

Explained Klamt, "I found jurying digital art more difficult than I expected it to be because of the lack of clarity of the categories. Digitally-altered photography from last year is a better descriptor (than digitally-composited photography). The definition said that the image had to look photographic. As a result, we moved a lot of stuff over from what artists called digital painting to the digitally composited photography category. There were some images that looked like a 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 it.

"The three of us jurors are painters. Many of the images did not involve a painting process even if you are repainting over the top of a photograph. These were less than a painting process. What I was thinking was what I do. There are no photographic elements when I do painting. 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. It allows me to move elements around the way they suit me, but a lot of the digital stuff seems like what I ended up with my so-so photographs that have a lot of filters and things added to them. Sometimes it 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 too little to judge. Like 3D rendering."

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ABOVE: "Trees," Cam Garner

Peter Gorwin juried several areas within the photography section: Color Scenic and Alternative Processes. Because of the impact of digital processing, new problems surfaced within 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 technically deficient. Either the artists had just gotten on board with digital output or never took the time to make a fine digital image and print it right. 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 the images 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 in Photoshop judgment or output, you need to give them low grades. Many images fell beneath the bar on this score. People need more education on what they are doing with Photoshop--not with the manipulation, but their perceptions of outputting, brittle sharpening, halos.

Gorwin found that the categories invited fudging on the part of the photographer, given the temptation of doing things digitally. (See the discussion above with Paul Sewell indicating his dilemma of where to place his image, 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 sprocket holes so that the mosaic creates an image of the mountain. Some were obviously brown toned or platinum palladiums, and we asked to look at the back of the submission to see what was done as the alternative process.

"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 with the digital process on the output side."

And then there were issues about whether the digital process was intended or simply a mistake.

"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 compared to photography, perhaps explaining, in part, the smaller number of entries and the emphasis on process-oriented rather than thematic 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 darkroom.

Directions and Momentum: How Far Can a New Coordinator Go in Reshaping the Digital Art/Photography Exhibition?
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 perspective, though, 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 piece. (However, 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 technology 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 about digital applications in image-making and create a more informed public to discern what it is they see in the various submission categories.

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 place in autostereoscopic photography at the San Diego County Fair as well as having one of his digital paintings accepted and moved into the digital photographic composition category.


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