The digital draft: preserving process in a computerized world


They say the devil is in the details and as a student in the Humanities I know all too well how difficult it can be to get those details right when writing a first draft. Where before a stack of hand- or typewritten notes signaled a hard day’s work, in today’s digital age the ease with which we can delete our mistakes makes it significantly harder to let anyone (including ourselves) inside our thought process. As technology continues to make our lives increasingly high-speed, interconnected, and paperless, how do we negotiate between leaving no trace and recording the method to our madness?

This question is particularly important when we consider the Smithsonian’s role as disseminator of knowledge. As the museum strives to find the balance between the original artifacts in its collections and virtual representations of them, photography serves as a fascinating case study in what happens when the digital literally becomes the physical.

Caponigro pen and ink study cropped 


I recently had the opportunity to sit in as my supervisor, Shannon Perich, Associate Curator in the Photographic History Collection, presented a valuable lesson about the importance of process to a group of summer camp students who paid us a visit. At first glance, the alternately light and dark blue rectangles she showed the group appeared to be nothing more than simple geometric shapes. Yet, as we soon learned, these images were actually preliminary sketches by American digital photographer John Paul Caponigro that reveal the photographer’s visual thinking behind his breathtaking ocean view Sonata I. By first drafting various options with regard to spatial proportions and color saturation in structured ways, Caponigro demonstrates his attention to the details of balance and composition. And by juxtaposing these original figures with Caponigro’s richly detailed final product, we come to see these rectangles in a new way; the process of creating digital photographs is brought to life and to light.

Caponigro Sonata I cropped 


Just as importantly, by exposing the time and planning the photographer took to create his final print, these sketches highlight the fact that today’s works of art, though digital, nevertheless do not simply fall from the sky. In a world that is increasingly instant, this documentation of a digital art photographer’s process reminds us of the importance of slowing down and going through experimental drafts before committing to a final decision, a timely reminder for artists and patrons of the arts alike.

Cropped Caponigro Color Study 

Despite the time-saving advantages technology affords us, or perhaps because of them, it’s safe to say we’ll always want to know where things come from and how they are made. An idea’s journey from conception to realization will always be something we want to know, and as Caponigro’s attention to process shows us, even the digital world strives to leave its trace.

What kinds of digital drafts do you produce?

Carolyn Ureña is an intern in the Photographic History Collection at the National Museum of American History.