Photographic Materiality in the Age of Digital Reproduction


Sassoon, Joanna. ‘Photographic Materiality in the Age of Digital Reproduction’ Photographs Objects Histories: On the materiality of images ed. by Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart (London: Routledge, 2004) 186-202


The invention of digital technology represents the first revolutionary change for photographic methods since Talbot’s invention of the calotype, which introduced the negative/positive process and transformed the photograph from being a unique item to one that was reproducible.

By the direct conversion of light into a digital format to create a stable image, ‘photographs’ that only exist in the digital form can be seen in one context as a truer version of photography (writing with light) than those that require the creation of a physical intermediary to view the image in a material form.


[on digitization of material photographs] Like its mechanical antecedents, digital reproduction technology can be seen on one level as democratic, fulfilling demands for increased accesss to collections while preserving the status of the original object. However, it can also be seen as an insiduously repressive technology enabling institutional control over what is made accessible, with criteria as to what is appropriate to be made public through digitising rarely being discussed.


[…] if an assessment of the relationship between the material photograph and its digital referent is based on image content alone, then the digital translation can be seen as a substitute for the material item.

[…] the nature of the photographic object and the institutional practices that surround it means that the translation from the material to the digital becomes a cultural, rather than simply a technological process.


The search for a single set of properties of a photograph belies the diversity of the medium and the vigour of the debate that this multifaceted nature brings, as it is precisely the polysemic nature of the photographic medium which continues to engender a dynamic body of theory, practice and criticism.

Three important features of the photograph are central to many debates about the complexity of photographs: the materiality of the photographic objects, the concept of the original photograph and the origin of photographic medium.

It is therefore appropriate to consider a photograph as a multilayered laminated object in which meaning is derived from a symbiotic relationship between materiality, content and context.

[…] it is important to understand that the processes at work in the translation from the material to the digital image serve to change the nature and the very experience of seeing photographs in contradictory ways.


Translating photographic images into digital form is, by necessity of the technology, a standardising process during which a variety of physical  distinctions between different types and forms of photographs are eliminated.

Fundamentally, what were once three-dimensioned physical objects become one-dimensional and intangible digital surrogates, with the tactility and materiality of the original object being reduced to both an ephemeral and an ethereal state.

Likewise, these important and diverse material and visual cues embedded in original photographs, such as original technologies and social uses, as I suggested above, are transformed by the nature of the viewing technology into a unit of a predetermined size, quality and tonal range of the digital image.

[In the digitization of photographs] the careful balance of inherent material characteristics and cultural origins is shifted radically in the creation of a digital ghost.

By its nature as a visualising medium, digitisation encourages a shift from thinking about complexity of a material object to viewing the visual surface of an image. At once the technology reduces the subtlety of the material features of the individual photographic object and highlights the homogeneous nature of the digital image. Likewise, it reduces the complexity of the photographic object to a single dimension, with the backs of the photographs, where additional information lends further meaning to the image content, rarely being digitised.


[The] concentration on the visual nature of the digital image at the expense of other material features of the photograph is further emphasised in the viewing of images through an intermediate and universalising technology.

While the digital medium emphasises the aesthetic qualities and image content of a photograph, this again obscures the subtleties of visual clues that originate from the materiality of the photograph and have become an automatic part of the lexicon of reading an original photographic object.

Thus it can be argued that digitisation is limiting understandings of photographs to their being an aesthetic medium rather than a document of evidence.

[contrary to Benjamin’s conflation of singularity and authenticity] multiple photographic originals with similar or identical image content cannot be assumed to be duplicates, as each may contain subtle material differences affecting the image, owing to variations in printing styles and papers, be enlarged or cropped, be in different physical conditions and survive in a range of contexts of equal importance.

Through its life, the photograph, as both image and object, can potentially move across several spaces, including the sites of production, use, reproduction and preservation, and along with each change in ownership and context, new meanings are acquired, all of which provide evidence of past uses and meanings.


[on digitising] This creates an image bank of auratic digital objects without reference to associated contexts or clues as to their previous physical embodiment.

Thus, in the process of digitising, custodial institutions are explicitly changing the meanings of photographic objects.

[gives examples of arrangements of photos on album pages – not reproduced]

This new artificial metonymy of the institutionally created digital collection results in collections of singular image quasi-objects obtaining an ‘aura of transcendance and independance’.

Using a lupe to magnify detail in an original photograph, for instance, physically draws the viewer into the core materiality of the object to interact with the larger detail under view, while almost touching the object’s surface. Enlarging a digital image involves using a keyboard or mouse while maintaining physical distance from the screen image. Thus, an intermediate technology used to view a digital surrogate is unable to replicate the interactive nature and process of viewing experienced with a material object.

With such fundamental change in the experience of viewing, it becomes important to explore what is lost in the process of translation from the material to the digital.


While the digitisation of photographs is being driven by the real need to increase access to the image content of collections, the question becomes: access to what?

[see Susan Stewart]

The structure and organisation of photographic collections where image content is seen as of primary importance is such that they are homogenised with others into a collection in that ‘clearing house of meaning’ [Stewart]

The origin and importance of photographic meaning, and how the photographic object is perceived in relation to other forms of material, are revealed through  of the documentation relating to the material.


[…] while documentation can facilitate access to certain facets of the photographic object, absence of descriptions of key features, such as material processes, mounts and physical condition, can restrict the value of the photograph as a historical and visual resource.

With their focus on content of the individual object, photograph collections are reduced to, and managed as, data banks of images, understood to be uncomplicated, transparent and passive representations of truth. [see Barthes CL]

Information detailing relationships with other photographs and forms of materials is critical to understanding the ongoing and shifting meanings that surround photographs. Once this information becomes invisible to the researcher, the intellectual and social value, and the polysemic nature of the photographic object, is reduced.

Thus, institutions that manage photographs as image-banks shift the way photographs are understood, and likewise limit the origins of photographic meaning from being contextually and materiality derived to being content driven.

In archives it is important to preserve contextual information such as provenance, history of ownership and relationships wth other forms of materials, so that photographs are seen as an integral part of a communication chain as documents in their own right.


The very essence of the definition of what constitutes an archive and a collection, as a material onject in itself, is under challenge as institutional practice reflects the way digitisation encourages that shift from the contextual to image content.

If at one level digitising provides enhanced access to collection content, the process of selecting ‘suitable’ images for digital collection constitutes a further intellectual mediation by an institution of material that has already been filtered by the ravages of time and previous collecting decisions and documenting practices.

Many photographs that are not digitised effectively disappear.


[Sassoon discusses website (JCPML) where] the complexity of data structures preserves the archival relationships and adheres to archival principles, and is ample demonstration that this kind of database can easily be implemented in the digital world.


Hypertext offers the opportunity to explore new associations freely because of relationships  being recreated in the ethereal sphere. In such an environment pre-existing photographic meanings are retrievable and new ones built from within the ephemeral electronic network.

An archival approach to documenting photograph collections requires a transformation in the understanding of the nature of a photograph. Rather than seeing the photograph as an image and as a passive object, it can be seen as a material document that has played an active role in history.

What is produced in the process of translating a photograph from the material to digital is not an ‘echo of the original’ [after Benjamin] , but a mere shadow of its former being.

This digital shadow obscures the carefully documented balance of power between materiality and context that is critical to the determination of photographic meaning.

Where once materiality and meaning were bound up in a complex, synergistic and symbiotic relationship, the resultant digital object is an ephemeral ghost whose materiality is at best intangible.


[Sassoon asks] is the age of mechanical reproduction of images yielding to an age of digital dematerialisation of images?

Will the aura of technology lead to the ruination of the aura of materiality and the aura of alchemy of the original photographic object, perhaps at the very moment when we are beginning to understand its significance?


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