Fred Ritchin Awakening the Digital
Winter 2009
Interview by Brian Palmer
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark


Fred Ritchin is an educator and author of the recently published book, After Photography. He is also a longtime editor, formerly picture editor of The New York Times Magazine and executive editor of Camera Arts, and is director of PixelPress, an organization that has published an online Web site experimenting with documentary work online and has also collaborated with many human rights organizations on media campaigns. He has witnessed and analyzed the development of photography, particularly photojournalism, for more than three decades. Ritchin spoke with Brian Palmer at New York University about the early years of the digital revolution, during which he believes many opportunities to shape the new technology to help build a more democratic media environment were lost, and about the present day, where digital continues to pose challenges ‑ and offer tremendous opportunities ‑ to imagemakers and the global community.

How did you first get involved in photography?

When I was in college I worked for the yearbook and they gave me use of a camera, a darkroom, and free paper. I would work all night, on my own, learning by trial and error. And when I entered publishing for my first job, I found that working with photographs was somehow safer than with words because editors were less sure how to deal with images. Photographs could be more subversive, with multiple meanings, ambiguous, somewhat outside the control of editors who would change nearly every word in a sentence. I felt sorry for the writers and better able to argue for the work of the photographers.

The first two sentences of your book After Photography are: 'We have entered the digital age. And the digital age has entered us.' Entered us how?

The concept is that all media change us. The media change us, we create new media, they change us ‑ it's dialectical ‑ but it puts us on different pathways, so the fact that we created the telegraph machine or the camera then affects succeeding creations, and us.

The other issue is that the digital age is about an environment, it's not just about tools. I think many people misperceive this revolution. You can't have a revolution solely of tools. It's not the transition from the pistol to the submachine gun that we're talking about. We're talking about a whole new environment in which we are going to reconceive ourselves and the world, and so when we create these digital machines, tools and so on, what we're actually doing is creating a new environment for ourselves. But it's largely unconscious. So the digital age entering us is about the idea that being surrounded by digital media is accelerating a reconceptualization of a worldview.

What worldview are we now absorbing?

The digital age is offering us this sort of decentering. I may be wrong, but I think I'm the only one in the world who's written about it this way: Quantum physics is about discrete energy packets and digitalis about discrete segments: this is not an accident. A Newtonian worldview is about continuity and so is the analog worldview. The universe is both Newtonian and quantum. The universe is both analog and digital; they coexist. Light ‑ and photography is about light ‑functions as wave and particle simultaneously. When you look at it, only then does it become one or the other, as one sees in the famous double slit experiment. The ambiguity is fantastic. In my view, what we're doing is switching from a Newtonian to a quantum conception of the universe by entering the digital, and I find that both fascinating and exhilarating, if for the moment largely unconscious.

Hypertext and the Web are much closer to quantum physics than to the Newtonian ‑ the ideas of nonlinearity and nonlocality.  The Web is about nonlocality. If I had friend in Japan, I might be much more in contact with that person in the asynchronous Internet than I can be with my next‑door neighbor, whom I almost never speak to. By going into this virtual, quantum universe, I'm now capable of thinking that time goes backwards, that there are parallel universes, that wave and particle coexist.

Photographers in the conventional analog sense have seen the medium functioning as cause and effect: the light comes down and the negative is exposed ‑ that's Newtonian; that's billiard balls. But in the quantum universe, the digital universe, you have these discrete pixels, you have these zeros and ones. Each can be changed independently. My sense is that 5, 10, 15, 20 years from now, the world is going to wake up and say: My God, the digital revolution was largely about reconceiving the world as quantum! The code‑based digital revolution was also about reconceiving the world in terms of genotype instead of phenotype! Phenotype is appearance, that's what analog photography is about. Genotype is about code, which is essentially what digital media are about. It's not an accident that the introduction of digital media coincides with the moment when we've reconceived ourselves as DNA. We're a hell of a lot more complex than we thought we were. Looking at a Richard Avedon portrait is wonderful, but it misses the code‑based human in which you see our histories, our overlaps, and our futures.

What interests me as well is the reading of time in multiple dimensions, in multiple ways. We often say photography is capturing the present in order to see it as the past. In my book After Photography, I write about photographing the future ‑ why can't you do that for example as a way of pointing out what the world will look like if we do nothing about global warming? Instead of waiting for the apocalypse and photographing the result, why not use photography to help prevent it ‑ show what scientists predict it would look like for part of New York City to be underwater as a way of asking people and governments to change their behavior.

I teach a course called the Future of Imaging, and I always think I'm talking about the present while people always say, 'but you're talking 10 or 20 years in the future'. You can feel code‑based issues all around us; this idea of being transgendered, transhuman, post‑human for example ‑ these are code‑based issues as well as sociological and psychological and political. I think it's fascinating stuff, and I think that there's a gigantic resistance in society to considering them. If you really have a revolution, it's revolutionary. It's not only using a word processor instead of a typewriter or a digital camera instead of film.

Using your 1990 book In Our Own Image as a benchmark, what were you thinking then about digital?

Actually even before that, in 1984, I wrote a piece for The New York Times Magazine, called 'Photography's New Bag of Tricks'. At that time, digital imaging meant Scitex machines, these half‑million dollar, million dollar machines with a trained technician who had to take a two‑week fulltime course. Only major magazines and big corporations could afford them, not individual artists. And there was no Photoshop. That came five or six years later. I was concerned with issues of malleability, because in the fixed analog world the photograph is a recording of the visible. It's certainly an interpretation, and what's recorded may be either trivial or misleading, but we knew that it was a recording.

At that time, magazines started to go into digital production where you could do all the layouts on the screen. You didn't need to do things in the old way with paper and paste and scissors and razors. You could transmit the publication immediately to the printer. So I knew that it would be irresistible ‑ once images were in the digital format, why not change them? Why wouldn't you change them?

You're referring to the National Geographic cover?

The pyramids. I interviewed the editor of the Geographic and he called digitally squeezing the pyramids closer together to make a vertical image from a horizontal photograph a retroactive repositioning of the photographer a few feet to one side. It was no big deal to him. I was interested that he was somehow into time travel or even a quantum universe. He didn't mean it that way, but what he did seemed enormous to me. I wanted to warn the journalistic media world that this stuff is coming and being smart people as we are, we should sit down and figure out what to do about it.

We can see 25 years later that the journalistic community has done little in terms of addressing issues of credibility, authenticity. Governments have done very little, aside from the attempt in France now in advertising photos ‑ if the National Assembly passes it ‑ to warn people that the image has been changed, particularly out of a concern about anorexia and ultra‑thin models. There is a similar attempt in England. But even that has taken a long time.

After Photography is saying that that window of opportunity is closing on keeping a strong sense of photographic credibility, and so now the good thing to do is to really think about the new and exciting things you can do in digital, including coming up with forms of resistance to prevent those in power ‑ governments, movie stars, advertisers ‑ from messing around with people by staging photographs so that they appear to say one thing when actually something else is also going on.

I thought of this because when I worked briefly at Time magazine. I researched the 'Pictures of the Year' feature in 1978. Pope John Paul II had gone to Auschwitz. He knelt by the eternal flame. I was very moved. But when I looked at the outtakes, I saw all these images of dozens of journalists just a few meters away photographing him. So what we all saw as this unbelievably poetic, spiritual gesture of the Pope kneeling at the eternal flame was also a media event. No one else saw these other images except the magazine's editors and researchers. And so in the digital environment, why not show that moment and then roll over that image with the mouse, the cursor, to show context?  The readers can then judge for themselves.

Having photographed at the White House, I saw how its Office of Production works to set up photo ops. Don't a lot of people have a lot invested in maintaining the illusion?

I agree. This exposure of the manipulation doesn't cost anything to do but nobody does it. Publications too often share in the sometimes fake authority of the politicians and the governments and the celebrities. They're not always being honest.

How did we end up invading Iraq when there were no weapons of mass destruction there? How did we wind up basically kowtowing to those in power and photographing the invasion of Iraq as if it was a World War II rerun with a Mission Accomplished photo opportunity on top of it all?  Journalists really have to be wondering, to what extent are we doing public relations or are we doing critical investigations? The idea of doing public relations is you're in with the power. If you're exploring things critically, then you're always outside the power. It's actually quite painful to position oneself outside the power. It takes a lot of personal strength to look at things, evaluate them, and report on them from a position of curiosity, of questioning as opposed to wanting to participate. It's like going to a banquet.  You don't want to stand back and photograph it. You want to be part of it. You want to eat.

I think that photography, particularly photojournalism, lacks sufficient intellectual inquiry. It lacks intellectual frameworks. It gives prizes for all kinds of work that looks like other work but doesn't really bring us somewhere else. At the end of the day what's most important to me is the world, not photography. Often what happens in the business or the industry of photography is that photography usurps the world. The image itself becomes more important than the world. But we must ask, what's the impact of the image? Did it change anything? Did it help the people being photographed?

These are the reasons I've written the books, these are the reasons I've been a picture editor, these are the reasons I'm a professor, to ask the question: does all this imagery help or hurt us in trying to make the world a better and more comprehensible place to live in?


You've spoken about the revolutionary potential of digital and the opportunities out there, but university photography programs, generally speaking, seem to be rather traditional and pointed toward the past. How do you teach photography in an environment in which people are beguiled by digital but fundamentally afraid of how it's changing the world they know?

Photography at its root means writing and drawing with light. It's not about cameras. It's not about tripods. It's really about an attempt to describe and communicate what is important to the observer. In that sense, it's not a mechanical age medium. It has the freedom of drawing, poetry, of meditation. It has as much freedom as the human spirit is capable of. So if you start with the human spirit ‑photography is an intermediary and an amplifier, and often a limitation as well ‑ then you're starting in a place where anything is possible. In my book I describe David Rokeby, who uses a camera to make music. He'll use the camera to observe gestures and so on.  The software is written to output it as music. I'd love to be able to photograph a demonstration, a political demonstration, and output it as music. Outputting it as music is a form of writing with light. I'm not limited to one idea of what photography needs to be. So in that sense, I can say that most photographic programs are using a very small set of possibilities within the photographic potentials and that the students themselves, I find, are generally much more open. They themselves are sets of possibilities and potentials. If they then meet a photography that is there to work with, to collaborate with them in this giant set of potentials, then you're not only worried about the f/64 movement and Edward Weston or Pictorialism. You're not always looking backward to fit into a tradition, which can be very reassuring, but you're saying, what does it mean to be a human being? What does it mean to live on this planet? What does it mean to cohabit with the mammals? What do these things mean? And then photography at its best becomes, in a way, a song of the self and a song of the planet.

You give your students a story by Julio Cortâzar, show them Antonioni's Blow‑Up, and give them Don DeLillo's White Noise to read. Isn't that kind of heterodox for a photography professor?

I don't want students to say, oh, if I do it like Cartier‑Bresson I'm a good photographer. I think what has to happen is that photographers understand, critically, that they're able to read photographs and other media and ask questions like, what does it really do? What's it about? How can it be interpreted differently? How can it be contextualized differently? This will then affect their own work.

I'm trying to say to the students, look at these different approaches to photography, where is the authenticity? Where do you want to join in? If you're going to be a commercial photographer in the sense that you're going to commodity everything, well, what happened to Michelin Cortázar's story was that he was able to better understand life and himself by interrogating the photographic process. So the act of photography is not one act. It's not simply saying point the lens this way because that's foolish. You don't have to go to university to learn that. I can give anybody a camera and a 10‑minute lesson and he's a photographer.

By assigning White Noise, the Don DeLillo novel, I'm posing questions about the overlay of image on so many aspects of daily life and the ways in which that overlay of image becomes a simulation, a simulacrum, a distortion, a commodity that becomes as important as air and water to so many people, a thing which we need to live.

I often use an example from when I was a child. We went to the market and brought home tomatoes that were every shape and every color. They were bruised and marred but when you bit into one, it had an amazing taste and liquidity. It ran out of your mouth.  You were in this place that the tomato brought you to ‑ you were in the place of 'tomato'. Now you go the market and all the tomatoes are the same color. They're perfect ‑ no blemishes ‑ but they've become almost plastic and they have no taste. The image of the tomato has triumphed over the tomato itself.  And I think that, similarly, image has largely suppressed the potential for any meaningful politics, because you have to look a certain way, you have to talk a certain way, to be an effective politician. The actual issues are often avoided. Image reigns.

So you're essentially planting these seeds in students so that they develop tools and skills?

Students may think that they are entering this field and if they follow its traditions everything will be fine. Then you hear you're at this extraordinary point in history where the possibilities and challenges have never been greater. It requires enormous confidence in your own intuitive abilities, your own belief in what's authentic, to go and find pathways that are the most meaningful while knowing that we have all kinds of wonderful predecessors. But they are predecessors. You can't necessarily do what other people did.  You as an individual are going to have your own needs and aspirations.

I remember interviewing Henri Cartier‑Bresson and he told me that there are four important books to read. One was Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel. With all the flaws of the book and all the criticism, what I took away was how you, more or less, hit the target when you're not really trying to hit the target, because if you try to hit the target, it's much harder than if you don't try to hit it. How do you catch a butterfly? You can run after one with a net or you can open the net and let it come to you. If you open the net and let it come to you, it means that you're open to the butterfly, ready for it. You're ready for life, you're ready for the world, you're ready for the spirit.  To me that is the 'decisive moment' that Henri was talking about.

What did we miss? What did I miss?

Simply put, I think that photography, writing with light, is about looking for a space of illumination. It's not really about a camera. 

Fred Ritchin is professor of photography and imaging at New York University. Previously the picture editor of the New York Times Magazine, executive editor of Camera Arts magazine, and founding director of the Photojournal­ism and Documentary Photography Program at the International Center of Photography, Ritchin has written and lectured internationally on media for many years. The author of In Our Own Image: The Coming Revolution in Photography, his essays have also appeared in books such as In Our Time: The World as Seen by Magnum Photographers, Sahel: The End of the Road, and Under Fire; Great Photographers and Writers in Vietnam.

He is also director of PixelPress (pixelpress.otg) an organization that works at the intersection of new media, documentary and human rights, collaborating with humanitarian organizations on campaigns, for instance to wipe out polio or to advance the Millennium Development Goals. He lives with his family in New York City.

Brian Palmer is an independent journalist and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, New York. Palmer has written for publications including Mother Jones, The Huffington Post, Pixel and ColorLines. He is on the faculty of The School of Visual Arts' MFA Photography, Video, & Related Media Program in New York City. From 2000 to 2002 Palmer was an on‑air correspondent at CNN. Prior to that he was a staff writer at Fortune and Beijing Bureau Chief for US News & World Report. He began his career in journalism in 1988 at The Village Voice newspaper. In 2008 he produced Full Disclosure, a documentary based on his embeds in Iraq with a US Marine infantry unit, for which he received grants from the Ford Foundation and the Applied Research Center.

Mary Ellen Mark is an American photographer known for her documentary photography and her portraiture. She had has published 16 books and has been exhibited at galleries and museums worldwide. She has received numerous awards, including a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, the Dr. Erich Salomon Preis Award, and three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts.