Photography, Reflected on the Google Art Project

The Google Art Project is an innovative idea that utilizes the web to digitally archive and preserve artwork. It allows it to be accessible by everyone in the globe, including people who might not have physical access to certain museums. It is a natural product of the digital age, where everything is being digitized, shared, and kept on the web, from books to orchestras to paintings. The Google Art Project serves as a resource for cultural art products coming from all over the world.

Nonetheless, the experience of viewing artwork digitally is still and always will be a limited one in comparison to being in presence of a painting in real-life. Physically visiting a museum still surpasses looking at artwork online, as there is much more to experience – the location, the architecture, the history – than merely looking at a work of art. The artistic value of a painting or work of art does not only lie in it’s visual value, but there is also cult value, or the significance of the work of art itself, the person who made it, the reason it was made, the process of making it, and so on.

I wanted to contrast this with photography, to see how such a project, if done for photographs instead of paintings, would be different. In the past, when photography depended on film rather than digital methods, a processed photograph had more cult value, particularly when early photography was mostly used for portraits. At the time, photography was a longer process that required more effort and was more expensive. It needed several “analog” steps, from capturing the image to processing it. Film had limited space, and you could not “preview” or “delete” photographs on the spot like we do now. Therefore, at that time, photography also had a cult value just like paintings

Edward Steichen’s photo of a pond in Long Island, New York, in 1904. This rare print has set the world record for most expensive photograph, sold for $2.9 million in February 2006. The only other two copies in existence are in museum collections.

It is interesting to note that such a limitation of value or a separation between visible and cult value is diminishing as technology progresses. Modern technology has resulted in the availability of easy-to-use photography devices, such as mobile phone cameras and compact digital cameras. The technology of photography has been extended, adding the function of online sharing that has almost become inseparable from the act of photography itself.  All latest cameras are equipped with technologies like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and other connectivity technologies that facilitate immediate sharing. Mobile phones in particular have apps, like Instagram, that have become inseparable from the camera. All this has cost the photograph its cult value. It seems that a photograph of today naturally belongs to the web rather than a museum.