Pixel Perfect

By David L. Coddon / Photo by Kristina Yamamoto

This installation shows the amount of images uploaded to Flickr.com from around the world in 1/60th of a second (a standard shutter speed for editorial photography), making statements about the disposability of photography and how everyone takes the same photos.

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Instagram says more than 100 million people a month use its photo-sharing service. Image host Flickr counts more than 87 million members uploading several thousand photos each minute. And perhaps inevitably, Oxford Dictionaries named "selfie" its 2013 word of the year; the word can also now be found in American Heritage Dictionary.

The high-flying technological and social networking revolution has left traditional film photography in the dust. As standup comic Demetri Martin, a frequent face on The Daily Show, puts it, "The digital camera is a great invention because it allows us to reminisce. Instantly."

Now, everyone's carrying a camera. We're capturing more images and sharing more moments than ever before, using cyberspace as our limitless photo album. With images flowing at the speed words, the photography playing field has been leveled.

But what about photography as an art form to be exhibited and archived? At San Diego's 30-year-old Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA) in Balboa Park, the new digital reality is making an impact... and being embraced.

"A whole new language has developed in photography," says MOPA's director of exhibitions, Scott Davis, adding that the digital revolution has opened "a lot of avenues in the type of material we can or will exhibit. We've been able to show artists whose work doesn't exist in physical form."

Among these artists is photographer Doug Rickard, a UC San Diego graduate whose work exists exclusively in a digital platform, which can be seen in the current MOPA exhibition "Staking Claim: A California Invitational."

While most of the museum's permanent collection has been digitalized for archival purposes, less than 30 percent of its collection was shot digitally, says assistant curator Chantel Paul. But there's no question about the paradigm shift within photography.

"Science has always been a part of photography," Paul says. "It's a technologically based art form. The technology has allowed people to explore and create images in different ways. How [digital photography] is used is really up to the artist. There are people who have never used a film camera.

"We're in a really good place, because everyone is taking pictures. People are familiar with the art form. There's an accessibility to that art form that there might not have been before."

Here, however, is where Paul sounds a note of caution. "Anyone can take a picture," she says. "Not everyone can take a photograph."

The digital transition has simplified the process of capturing an image, which, Paul says, "has created a visual social conversation." She also recognizes the medium's current limitations.

"Digital can be cold, and you can't get a full range of tonality all the time," she says. Her concern regarding the evolving technology: "Photography that only lives in the digital world is vulnerable to obsolescence."

What artistic merit, from a curatorial standpoint, Instagram images and photographs circulated via Flickr will have, "I don't think we know yet," Paul says.

In any event, as photography has become more democratic, MOPA aims to reflect the evolution of the art form in all its facets.

"We have changed the way that we think about photography," says Scott Davis. "It's a different world now."

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