Wunderkammer to World Wide Web

03Apr12

Mitchell, William J. Wunderkammer to World Wide Web: Picturing Place in the Post-photographic Era’ Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination ed. by Joan M. Schwartz and James R. Ryan (London: I.B.Taurus, 2003) 283-304

p.283

For as long as history records, societies have formed their knowledge of past times and distant places by capturing, transporting and displaying evidence of displaced scenes – in particular, visual evidence.

The capabilities of the image production, accumulation and distribution systems that were available for this purpose have determined the quantities and perceived levels of reliability of the evidence that has resulted, and hence the cultural, social and legal uses to which this evidence could be put. And there has always been a flip-side, as well; each such technological system has created characteristic opportunities for falsehood and fiction.

To understand these systems adequately, and to assess their changing roles  in the production of historic and geographic knowledge, we must look beyond the optical precision and other technical properties of the image formation process. We must consider how all aspects of a system – production, reproduction, storage, processing, management, distribution and consumption – combine to create a ground for discursive practice.

Extraordinary new technical and cultural possibilities are emerging and, at the same time, the transformed terrain of visual practices provides a new vantage point from which to look back and put the 150-year history of photographic practice into perspective.

p.284

[Mitchell describes visual evidence and display systems before photography]

These sorts of systems are slow, laborious, expensive and sometimes dangerous to their operators. They produce small quantities of extremely compelling evidence, which we often value highly because of its rarity or uniqueness, and which frequently conveys a sense of the marvellous.

Slightly less direct in their operation are systems tat make use of contact impressions, such as brass rubbings, plaster casts, fossils, fingerprints, footprints and death masks. Because the processes of creating these impressions are straightforward mechanical ones, providing little opportunity for discretionary intervention, we are generally willing to regard the resulting records as relatively precise and accurate – close approximations to mirror-images of their subjects.

And at least some of the aura of the original survives the contact transfer process; it therefore really matters whether the Shroud of Turin actually shows a direct impression of the body of Christ.

Less direct again are systems that rely upon projected rather than contact impressions. In Pliny the Elder’s mythic account of the origin of drawing, for example, a young Greek woman traced the shadow of her lover’s profile. Her hand was guided by the shadow but it was not mechanically constrained to follow it precisely.

p.285

Finally, there are systems that operate as if  they were constructing traces of mechanically projected scenes. Cartographers operate this way when they translate raw survey data into maps.

Those ‘as ifs’ create all sorts of complexities. If you care about the value of the resulting images as evidence about some actual scene, you have to satisfy yourself that the artist’s implicit or explicit projection algorithm was mathematically correct.

Even more interestingly, of course, you have to allow for the possibility that the scene was fictional rather than actual – that the “as if” extended to creating arbitrary marks within the visual conventions established by the projection algorithm. A convincingly realistic perspective view of a building, for example, might actually depict an unexecuted project.

p.286

The importance of the photographic process was that it created a greatly enlarged role for mechanized, non-discretionary steps in the image production process […]

Photography left little room for the ‘as ifs’ of manual image production. The apparatus of lens and picture plane – directly appropriated from the camera obscura – reliably mechanized the projection step. Then, the action of projected light on a thin film of emulsion automated, with extraordinary spatial resolution and tonal fidelity, the step of converting the projected image into a permanent visual trace.

Little wonder, then, that the photographic image quickly attained a status as uniquely trusted and valued visual evidence. An image resulted only if some actual scene was in front of the camera (and the lens cap was off).

So we entered the era of the photo ID, scientific photography, photographic legal evidence, photo-documentaries and photojournalism. On journeys of exploration and discovery, the camera first supplemented then supplanted the sketchbook. On great public occasions, and at important moments in private and family life, cameras attended.

Opportunities for the deliberate construction of graphic fictions and falsehoods remained; the advertising and movie industries rely on them entirely, after all. However, these were sharply curtailed by comparison with those available to the draftsperson, and they were mostly seen as marginal to an image-making tradition that celebrated, defended and traded upon its capacity to deliver trustworthy evidence.

p.287

[Mitchell describes the adaptation of devices for collection, organization, preservation and display for use with photography]

This whole family of technologies for photographic production, processing, reproduction, accumulation, management and distribution was characteristic of the now-fading machine age. These technologies were chemical and mechanical, rather than electronic. They traded in analog rather than digital information, thus preserving a clear distinction between valuable, first generation, ‘original’ images and less valuable, later-generation ‘copies’.

p.288

[description of the beginnings of digital technologies (early nineteenth century, same time as photography) and development]

p.289

[Digital] capabilities come packaged in many ways. For the nostalgic, they can be wrapped in a box that looks just like a film camera, except that the CCD replaces the film plane. They can be arranged in accordance with the logic of electronic components and their interconnections, rather than that of mirrors and mechanisms, to create some surprising new gadget shapes.

They are shrugging off their ancestry, to look less and less like filmless cameras, just as today’s automobiles do not look much like horseless carriages.

Just as silver-based photography requires a darkroom process for transforming latent images into visible marks on paper, so digital photography needs processes for transforming pixel values stored in computer memory into visible displays and prints.

Since display devices vary widely in their colour palettes, contrast levels, resolutions and so on, and since algorithms to map pixel values are arbitrary human constructs, there is nothing objective or inevitable about display generation processes. They are closely analogous to musical performances, in which performers interpret symbolic data (that is, scores) as sequences of sounds generated by particular musical instruments.

p.290

Thus the technology of digital imaging, by comparison with that of chemical photography, creates a freshly re-enlarged space for arbitrary artistic intervention. It is easy, within this space, to construct not only obvious visual fictions, but also deceptively plausible visual evidence of scenes that do not exist and events that never took place.

Since digitally transformed images may look exactly like plain old photographs, and since we have been slow to relinquish our long-cherished trust in the evidence of such photographs, this condition, though perhaps temporary, has provided numerous tempting opportunities for hi-tech liars and conmen.

[Mitchell describes three cases of photographic manipulation/altering – OJ Simpson, McCaughey sextuplets, and National Geographic‘s pyramids]

p.291

Digital cameras and related practices directly extend the ancient tradition of perspective image capture – a tradition that began with the manually executed procedures and manually operated perspective machines of the Renaissance, continued with the camera obscura, was assimilated to the industrial era with the chemical and mechanical processes of photography, and eventually became electronic in the age of semi-conductors.

But this is only a small (and early) part of the story of digital imaging. A more radical departure, now emerging, is to create electronic devices that capture three-dimensional digital models of scenes rather than two-dimensional views.

p.292-293

[Describes the processes of three-dimensional digital imaging]

p.293

The photorealistic virtual camera, in the highly developed form to which it had evolved by the 1900s, subverts the familiar legitimising narrative of photojournalism and similar practices – that the image-maker was an eyewitness, right there, in the right place at the right time. The ‘as ifs’ are back, in a startling new way.

And, when a sectioned anatomical view is produced from a MRI scan, it is only as if the body had been sliced.

From the introduction of virtual cameras into digital models of actual scenes, it is a short step further to introduce them into 3D digital models of wholly imaginary scenes, so providing the means to explore fictional geographies. It is as if these geographies actually existed, and had been captured with laser scanners.

p.294

[Description of technologies of 3D video games]

p.295

We could once rely on the material differences between images to signal whether we should take them as facts, falsehoods or fictions. Photographs were not physically the same as paintings, but this is not the case with digital images.

It makes no difference to a display device whether a pixel value was captured by a CCD in a digital camera, computed by an image-synthesis algorithm operating on a three dimensional model, or arbitrarily chosen by an artist using a digital paint system. A pixel is a pixel is a pixel.

p.297

Given abundant digital memory, copying digital files is quick, inexpensive and easy – much easier than printing photographs from negatives. There is absolutely no difference, except for the date stamp between original and copy. And the ease of reproduction destroys rarity value.

p.298

Like HDTV, the Web eliminates the material substrate of images, and distributes them in completely dematerialized format. Unlike HDTV, it is a highly decentralized rather than centralized system – one that blurs traditional distinctions between producers and consumers, and reduces the role of gatekeepers such as editors and publishers.

p.299

Increasingly, then, the places we frequent have IP addresses as well as geographic coordinates. Each such place is electronically interconnected to every other, and can potentially function as an image collection, dissemination and reception point.

p.300

A discontinuous geography of cyberspace – woven from random and transitory remote connections, from virtual cameras located within digital models as well as digital cameras pointed at actual scenes, and from fictional as well as actual terrain – is overlaid on that of physical space.

This shift to digital accumulation and distribution systems has important consequences for the permanence and accessibility of the historic and geographic record. Bits are for ever, and can be stored in much greater quantities to create more comprehensive records than ever before, but the physical media on which they are stored are highly perishable – even more so, in some cases, than paper. Furthermore, with progress in digital technology, storage formats and the associated devices quickly become obsolete, so that the information expressed in these formats becomes unreadable.

p.300-301

Thus, digital storage and distribution systems have created a new economy – more precisely, a political economy – of preservation and access. Librarians, archivists and other digital gatekeepers must decide what to transfer from old media to digital format (so vastly increasing its accessibility), what digital data to migrate to newer formats and what digital data to keep spinning. Through these choices, the historic and geographic record, including the visual record, is continually constructed and reconstructed.

p.301

The images we employ to construct our understanding of the world and situate ourselves in it are being captured in far greater quantities than ever before.

p.302

Webcams, surveillance cameras and imaging satellites typically execute their tasks unattended by human operators, under the command of software that encodes generalized strategies and responds to occasional remote commands. Photographs are mostly the outcomes of human attention directly paid to scenes, and of explicit intention to record, but many digital images are not. They are, therefore, cultural coinage of a different kind, with different functions and values; we can meaningfully ask what such an image tells us, for example, but not what its originator was trying to tell us. They are not given credibility by recognition that the photographer was actually there, and is prepared to attest to it, but by faith in the mindless, mechanical reliability of a robot-on-the-spot.

Increasingly, digital images – no matter how they originate – end up in electronic storage on Web servers, and thus form parts of an incomprehensibly huge, rapidly expanding, virtual archive of historical and geographic knowledge. None of us can ever hope to become familiar with more than a tiny fraction of this […] Nor can we take possession, as individual and institutional collectors traditionally have done, by holding images in our albums, library shelves and galleries; we now find what we want by surfing and searching through cyberspace.

The Web has subverted the collector’s credo that you must physically possess something in order to get ready access to it.

p.303

In increasingly many contexts, we employ image recognition and analysis software to classify and sort visual information automatically, and to abstract higher-level knowledge from it. None of this software is neutral, of course; it inescapably manifests the biases and limitations of its authors, and demands rigorous critical scrutiny.

Taken together, it adds up to a large and complex intellectual construction that mediates all our interactions with digitally encoded visual evidence and inexorably frames our interpretations of it. We cannot formulate useful conceptions of the veracity, reliability, comprehensiveness or conclusiveness of visual evidence, except in relation to the structure and capabilities of this dynamically evolving intervening system. Software constructs an electronic gaze.

Since display of a digital image is an actively constructed operation – typically involving search and selection of data, setting various display parameters and applying display algorithms – traditional distinctions between producers and consumers blur. When a viewer adjusts the brightness, contrast or colour balance of a screen image, that viewer is playing much of the role that a photographer once performed by setting camera controls and through darkroom processes.

You can see this new technological system and its associated practices as a characteristic social construction of our time, as the consequence of autonomously unfolding technological logic, or as some complex combination of the two.

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