The Technical Image


Flusser, Vilém. ‘The Technical Image’ Towards a Philosophy of Photography (London: Reaktion Books, 2000) 14-20


The technical image is an image produced by apparatuses. As apparatuses themselves are the products of applied scientific texts, in the case of technical images one is dealing with the indirect products of scientific texts. This gives them, historically and ontologically, a position that is different from that of traditional images.

Historically, traditional images precede texts by millennia and technical ones follow on after very advanced texts. Ontologically, traditional images are abstractions of the first order insofar as they abstract from the concrete world which technical images are abstractions of the third order: They abstract from texts which abstract from traditional images which themselves abstract from the concrete world.

Ontologically, traditional images signify phenomena whereas technical images signify concepts.


This apparently non-symbolic, objective character of technical images leads whoever looks at them to see them not as images, but as windows. […] Consequently they do not criticize them as images, but as ways of looking at the world (to the extent that they criticize them at all). Their criticism is not an analysis of their production but an analysis of the world.

This lack of criticism of technical images is potentially dangerous at a time when technical images are in the process of displacing texts – dangerous for the reason that the objectivity of technical images is an illusion.

The imagination that produces them involves the ability to transcode concepts from texts into images; when we observe them, we see concepts – encoded in a new way – of the world out there.

With traditional images, by contrast, the symbolic character is clearly evident beacsue, in their case, human beings (for example painters) place themselves between the images and their significance. Painters work out the symbols of their image ‘in their heads’ so as to transfer them by means of the paintbrush to the surface. If one wishes to decode such images then one has to decode the encoding that took place ‘in the head’ of the painter.


The encoding of technical images is, however, is what is going on in the interior of this black box and consequently any criticism of technical images must be aimed at an elucidation of its inner workings. As long as there is no way of engaging in such criticism of technical images, we shall remain illiterate.

[Technical images] are not windows but images, i.e. surfaces that translate everything into states of things; like all images, they have a magical effect; and they entice those receiving them to project this undecoded magic onto the world out there. The magical fascination of technical images can be observed all over the place: The way in which they put a magic spell on life, the way in which we experience, know, evaluate and act as a function of these images.


The fascination that flows out of the television or cinema screen is a different fascination from the sort that we observe in cave paintings or the frescoes of Etruscan tombs.

The function of technical images is to liberate their receivers by magic from the necessity of thinking conceptually, at the same time replacing historical consciousness with a second-order magical consciousness and replacing the ability to think conceptually with a second order imagination. This is what we mean when we say that technical images displace texts.

Texts were invented in the second millennium BC in order to take the magic out of images, even if their inventor may not have been aware of this; the photograph, the first technical image, was invented in the nineteenth century to put texts back under a magic spell even if its inventors may not have been aware of this. The invention of the photograph is a historical event as equally decisive as the invention of writing.


Thus culture [in the nineteenth century] divided into three branches: that of the fine arts fed with traditional images which were, however, conceptually and technically enriched; that of science and technology fed  with hermetic texts; and that of the broad strata of society fed with cheap texts. To prevent culture breaking up, technical images were invented – as a code that was to be valid for the whole of society.


[Technical images] cannot reduce culture, as was intended to the lowest common denominator but, on the contrary, they grind it up into amorphous masses. Mass culture is the result.

The explanation for this is as follows: Technical images are surfaces that function in the same way as dams. Traditional images flow into them and become endlessly reproducible: The circulate within them (for example in the form of posters). Scientific texts flow into them and are transcoded from lines to states of things and assume magical properties (for example in the form of models that attempt to make Einstein’s equation comprehensible). And cheap texts, a flood of newspaper articles, flyers, novels, etc. flow into them and the magic and ideology inherent within them are translated into the programmed magic of technical images (for example in the form of photo-novels). Thus technical images absorb the whole of history and form a collective memory going endlessly round in circles.


Nothing can resist the force of this current of technical images – there is no artistic, scientific or political activity which is not aimed at it, there is no everyday activity which does not aspire to be photographed, filmed, videotaped. For there is a general desire to be remembered and endlessly repeatable.

All events are nowadays aimed at the television screen, the cinema screen, the photograph, in order to be translated into a state of things.

The universe of technical images, emerging all around us, represents the fulfilment [sic] of the ages, in which action and agony go endlessly round in circles. Only from this apocalyptic perspective, it seems, does the problem of photography assume the importance it deserves.


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