Analog to Digital: the indexical function of photographic images


Dzenko, Corey. ‘Analog to Digital: the indexical function of photographic images’ Afterimage vol.37 no.3 (Sep-Oct 2009) 19-23


[Conpares to Marshall McLuhan’s description of railway]

[…] digital photography “accelerates” or “enlarges” traditional photographic processes.

Digital photography challenges the historical belief that photography is representative of reality. But have viewers’ perceptions shifted in relation to theoretical discussions?

While digital technology affects the theoretical notion of the photographic index, these theories overlook the appearance of the image and the social applications of transparent lens-based media.

Viewers continue to read digital photographs as representative of reality, a function images maintain despite the transition from analog to digital.

[Quoting Fred Ritchin] “the end of photography as we know it” “Certainly subjects have been told to smile, photographs have been staged, and other such manipulations have occurred, but now the viewer must question the photograph at the basic physical level of fact.”

Theoretical focus on this loss of physical connection, however, and reactions such as Ritchin’s, do not account for the social function of digital photographic images.

As Sutton argues, reading an analog photograph as connected to reality is an ideological function of photographs based on their indexicality.

While the process of reading photographs is influenced by the context of the image, just because a photograph is created or distributed with digital technology does not negate its indexical function as many theorists have suggested. Focusing only on the theoretical lack of indexicality in digital images ignores the social uses of analog photography that are now performed by digital images. Because photography functions in multiple social arenas, it is helpful to explore a vernacular example outside the fine art context.


[In photojournalism, cites online versions of newspapers:] But these digital photographs still fulfil photography’s indexical role: viewers assume the digitally captured or transmitted appearance of a subject in the context of photojournalism matches the appearance of the same suject in reality.

Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin [Remediation: understanding new media, MIT Press, 2000] use the term “remediation” to describe how characteristics of older media are used to establish the cultural uses of newer media. This borrowing results from viewer’s desire for a direct, or seemingly natural, connection between representation and reality.

As Bolter and Grusin argue, “Whenever one medium seems to have convinced viewers of its immediacy, other media try to appropriate that conviction.”

[…] social applications of digital photography still rely on assumptions about the function of analog photographs.

By using digital images, the conventions of earlier formats are maintained in order to create a transition between analog and digital, instead of a distinct switch.

Joan Foncuberta [‘Revisiting the histories of photography’ in , Photography: Crisis of History, Actar 2002] argues “The dramatic metamorphosis from the grain of silver to the pixel represents nothing more than a screen which conceals the evolution taking place in the whole framework that provided photography with a cultural, instrumental and historical context.” This suggests that theories regarding the shift from analog to digital photography need not focus solely on the feared outcomes of technological shifts.


Whatever happens in the larger cultural context of photography, as Foncuberta notes, will apply to both analog and digital photographs because digital images have assumed some of the functions of their analog forerunners

There are instancesin which the theoretical differences between analog and digital photographs do not change the viewing process as demonstrated by members’ participation in Telegarden, in the vernacular use of images in online newspapers, and by Skarbakka’s reliance on the assumed connection of a photographis image to reality in “The Struggle to Right Oneself” and “Fluid”.

While digital photographic practices include a new ease of editing and transmission of images, this has not resulted in widespread mistrust of photographic transparency as was nce feared.

Imaging technologies will continue to provide new possibilities for the format and distribution of images, and these developments will continue to be rooted in previous social uses of photography.

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