Fred Ritchin’s book After Photography is reminiscent of, or even a modern version of Walter Benjamin’s Essay “A Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” (which he references in chapter 3) as both men were dubious of the future of the integrity of photography. However, Ritchin’s concern is focused not on what photography does for the democratization of art, but what digital technology is doing for the democratization of information. Now that everyone is a photographer and every moment is shot and posted on the internet, we live in a world of excess. Is there a brain freeze happening from the abundance of information? Are we desensitized and overwhelmed? The crux of the issue lies in the question of what our obsession is with images. Why do we need to cling to every moment, creating visual trails of experience? It is broken down in terms of media, data, tourism, science, and art, mulling over the addiction to preservation.
Ritchin brings up the hard to tackle questions, deeper than artistic integrity but delving into the psychological, often existential thoughts on truth. What is real life? Are we living in an illusion? Furthermore, when a large portion of this visual information is manipulated, what does it do for our perception of reality? On a lesser note about the digital medium, he quotes Pixar’s Alvy Ray Smith: “the computer also promises a secular uberenvironment in which ‘reality is merely a convenient measure of complexity.'” In Layman’s terms: for the amount we accept, we know very little. Media studies need to take a stronger position in education, especially for children growing up in a distorted world.
He urges that the digital revolution is actually the digital destruction. We are dealing with the repercussions in our heads and our hearts. We don’t have privacy or boundaries, we exploit ourselves, our resources, and our creations. Ritchin’s use of photos is disturbingly helpful. When faced with the reality of how many photos from OJ to the pyramids are tweaked, it literally shows the problem and encourages healthy skepticism.
In terms of photojournalism, Ritchin makes the line pretty clear. Like the famous anonymous quote, “credibility is like virginity. You can only lose it once,” as a social documentarian, as soon as you photoshop one image, it’s over. However, Ritchin explores the bleak future of honest imagery, as many companies don’t want raw shots. He pushes even further into what is desirable, delving into the terrifying notion that we are getting further and further away from reality not just in photos but such extremes as genetically modified foods and fetal gender selection.
Ritchin succeeds at scaring the reader to always be suspicious. Not just of doctored photos, but theories, beliefs, and people. Who can you trust now? It’s not just the size of a waist or color of skin in a magazine; when renowned publications and government institutions are using faulty information and doctored images claiming to be the truth, we know we are in trouble. Ritchin does sugar-coat this frightening reality, he reiterates it time and time again that we are doomed. We have gone too far and gotten ourselves in way, way over our heads. Is there a point of return?