Monday, 27 October 2008

One Thing After Another

Photographers who have learned their stuff post-digital must find the persistence of the terminology, habits of mind and even units of measurement of the Film Era slightly baffling. Why on earth do we still refer to 35mm lens focal lengths, for example (as if "28mm" had a more natural relationship to "wide angle" than "17mm") or, even more weirdly, refer to darkroom techniques such as "burning" and "dodging" in image processing software, when 99.9% of film photographers had never so much as stepped inside a darkroom? Now, there are quite good commercial reasons for this persistence, but at heart we are dealing with a phenomenon that is understood by archaeologists and cultural historians, and has even been given a stupid-looking name.

Today's word is: skeuomorph.

It's a useful, if ugly, word for something we've all noticed: the way a stylised picture of a 1950s dial phone still says "phone", or the way a sound recording of a motor-drive is added to a digital camera. Obsolete, yet somehow familiar. Functionless, but somehow reassuring. The concept is quite well discussed in Wikipedia, so I'll just give one of the OED's illustrative quotes:
T. SHAW Unearthing Igbo-Ukwu 15 When something is originally made in one material and is then translated into another, but by its form and decoration reveals the original model which it imitates, this is called a ‘skeuomorph’, and the object in the new material is said to be ‘skeuomorphic’. Thus the bronze pot described is skeuomorphic of an ordinary pottery vessel.
It's the kind of thing that makes your full-on "truth to materials" Modernist want to scream.

The Mottisfont herms (see the post Batting below) are kind of skeuomorphic -- 18th century decorative reinterpretations of functional classical objects. The picture below is unusual, in that -- in a complex dance of two-steps forwards and one-step backwards -- I have overcome my Film Era prejudices and allowed myself to transform the unconvincing colours of the original in PhotoShop, only to produce a retro-looking result that looks like it's been hand-tinted.

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