The Transparency of the Medium


Belting, Hans. ‘The Transparency of the Medium’ An Anthropology of Images trans. by Thomas Dunlop (Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2011) 144-168

The photographic image is usually understood as either an object trouvé. a thing that the camera find in the world, or else as the product of a camera. In other words, a photograph is seen either as a replica of the world or else as an expression of the medium that created it, its boundaries defines by what technology accomplishes between the moment when the picture is snapped and the print produced.
Some clarification is necessary, therefore, if we are to speak of photographic images in the anthropological sense; i.e., as images of memory and imagination with which we interpret the world, as we did with images before photography and as we do today with the products of digital technologies.
Barthes did not develop an actual theory of photography; instead, almost against his will, he opened up the medial boundaries of photography, which so fascinated him, in such a way that it might be considered in the broadest context of the image.
The collecting of photographs, their exchange, or their function as symbols of memory follow anthropological patterns for the use of the image that are far from new; namely, the use of the image as a means of taking possession of the world and making sense of it.
[Belting] I want to relate photographs to the beholder and to life experiences and concerns that he expresses in images, in his own images, even when it is through photography that they are expressed.
When an image finds its way into this technological medium, it is a symbolic product of the imagination that has already come a long distance.
From this perspective, photography, the quintessential modern medium, operates like a new mirror in which images of the world appear. Human perception has repeatedly accommodated itself to new pictorial technologies, but in keeping with its nature it transcends such medial boundaries.
Like perception, image too are inherently intermedial. They transcend the various historical media that are invented for them, pitching their tent in one new medium after another and then moving on to the next. It would be a mistake to confuse the image with these media.
For a medium is but an archive of dead images until we animate the images with our gaze.
Like images in other media, photographs, too, symbolize our perception of the world and our remembrance of the world. The internal development that photography has undergone since its invention has in no way been inevitable, but it, rather, symptomatic of the free play that takes place as image and medium interact.
The two have different origins: the medium as technology and the image as the symbolic meaning of the medium.
Modernity’s conception of the world has changed fundamentally since the early years of photography.
The photograph marched in step with this evolution, furnishing the mirrors in which contemporary beholders wished to look.
Flusser insisted on a rigid distinction between the old image and the technical image, but his distinction is in fact only meaningful when we see that it in fact distinguishes between image and medium.
[citing Flusser]
“Images are magical.” They belong to “a world in which everything is repeated” and therefore everything conforms to anthropological patterns. Distinct from this is the “historical linearity” of media and techniques.
Flusser’s “philosophy of photography” undertakes a “critique of functionalism in all its aspects – anthropological, scientific, political, and aesthetic.” His aim is to promote the freedom of the image against the tyranny of the photographic medium, “freedom to play against the apparatus.”
Photography was once considered the vera icon in modernity, a reputation that it has tried to justify ever since. But the “world out there” became increasingly suspect and uncertain as modernity unfolded, with the ultimate result that so-called reality no longer attracted the imagination.
Photography no longer shows us what the world is like, but what the world was like at a time when people still believed that they could possess it in the photograph.
The contemporary gaze prefers to look at the imaginary, and pretty soon it looks even further afield at a virtual world, and as it follows this path, the real world become nothing but an obstacle.
Photography was once sold as reality. But even then, it did not capture the reality of the world, but rather synchronized our gaze with the world: photography is our changing gaze upon the world – and sometimes a gaze upon our own gaze.
[referring to indexicality] A new argument against photography alleges that it is merely a token of what is real. This, too, photography can be: a copy or a kind of footprint of everything with which we have ever come into contact, the proof that such and such things and events must have existed when they were photographed.
But photography can only have this meaning if we are looking for a trace of reality.
Technology is willing. From the very beginning, photography was deployed against its pretended or real meaning. In fact one can even use it to picture what cannot in fact be pictured but only imagined.
It is useless to direct the camera at the world: there are no images out there. We make (or have) them always and ever only within ourselves. Hence the perpetual discord between pictorialism and documentarism, which like a swinging pendulum has driven the photographic image in pursuit of two different intentions: now the pursuit of beauty and no the quest for truth (now the subjective impression, now the objective record of the world).
Instead of repeating here the old comparison with painting, which in the end only served to secure photography’s status as art, it makes more sense to probe the meaning that the photographic image possesses for its producers and beholders. That meaning could consist either in rescuing a pleasing image from the worl, or, conversely, in analyzing the world through images. In the former case, the world delivered the motive, in the latter, the image was the key to the world.
The perception of the photographic image is substantially different in the two cases. If an image bears its meaning within itself, it is a composition. If on the other hand it shows us something of which our plain-and-simple vision is unconscious so that we are able to grasp the world with greater visual acuity than our eyes possess, then it is a medium that we interpose between ourselves and the world.
Photography constitutes a short episode in the old history of representation. But even so, the world changed in our eyes when it began to be photographed.
Photography geometricizes, ranks and classifies the world. Places become photographic places and as such are captured in the square of the print with no way out; what was observed by the camera at that moment is locked within a past time, as Régis Durand put it, following Smithson.
The world quickly and thoroughly ceases to resemble the photograph, though it was taken, after all, for the very sake of resemblance. Only in photography does the world remain the way it once was.
In photography the world becomes an archive of images. We chase after it like a phantom and yet only possess it only in the images from which that world has always managed to escape. Photographic images, too, remain mute remains of our transitory gaze. We animate them only when they bring back our own memories.
The gazes of two beholders looking at the same picture diverge where memory separates them. The remembering gaze of the current beholder is different from the remembered gaze that led to the photograph and is reified in it. But the aura of an unrepeatable time that has left its trace in the unrepeatable photograph leads to an animation all its own, which presupposes affective sympathy in the beholder.

No Responses Yet to “The Transparency of the Medium”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s