Photography and History

03Jan13

Flusser, Vilem. ‘Photography and History’ Writings translated by Andreas Ströhl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002) 126-131

[originally published in 1989]

p.126

We should differentiate between prehistoric, historical, and posthistorical images, and we should consider the photograph to be the first posthistorical image.

Prehistoric images are those that were produced before the invention of linear writing. Historical images are those that contradict linear texts either directly or indirectly. Posthistorical images are those that set linear texts into the image.

p.127

Historical images are manifestations by means of which the imagination defends itself against the linear conception of the world that wants to explain it away.

Even images that appear independent of texts, such as church windows,columns, or oil paintings, can be understood as illuminations of this type: they originate in historical consciousness, but oppose it with imaginative consciousness.

This dialectic, by means of which images become more conceptual and texts more and more imaginative, is the dynamic of history. This dialectic is interrupted thanks to the invention of letterpress printing. Texts get out of hand and images – as “art” – are expelled from everyday life.

From this point on all models of perception and behavior can be found in texts. As models of experience created for an elite, images become increasingly difficult to decode. Which is to say, culture is divided into two unequal branches.

The text branch drives history forward up to the industrial revolution and beyond, and the image branch threatens to wither, despite the fact that it has been transfigured by the Benjaminian aura.

This was the cultural situation about 150 years ago. Photography was invented to bring pictures back into everyday life, to bring perceptions and the behavior depending on them back to experience. To do this, the new images had to retain certain characteristics of printed texts. Like texts, they had to become mechanically producible, reproducible, and distributable, and their value had to be contained in the information that they carried rather than in their material base.

p.128

The division of culture into a scientific-technical culture and an artistic culture has been overcome thanks to photography: scientific perception and technical behavior can be experienced in the image.

Nevertheless the image has remained an image. Structurally speaking, it is antihistorical. We do not experience our environment through images as a process, but as a sequence of scenes.

Certainly, the photograph has succeeded in carrying the image into history; but, in doing so, it has interrupted the stream of history. Photographs are dams placed in the way of the stream of history, jamming historical happenings. Thus the photograph can be considered the first posthistorical image.

The historic-procedural (progressive) consciousness had begun to exhaust itself long before the invention of the photograph.

p.128-129

Since this time, most of the models of perception and behavior have been coded numerically, and we owe the photographic apparatus to the behavior coded this way. Numeric thought is timeless, because it perceives the environment as a mass of particles in which clusters form, either accidentally or intentionally.

p.129

Of course, there is a fundamental tendency toward becoming continually formless, and this tendency toward entropy can be used as a measure of time. Photographs are intentionally  produced, negatively entropic clusters. Negative entropy can be called “information.” From the perspective of formal consciousness, photographs are information intentionally produced from a swarm of isolated possibilities. Thus, photographs differ in principle from prehistoric images. Prehistoric images are worldviews (copies of the environment). Photographs are computed possibilities (models, projections onto the environment).

In photographs, the calculation of dot elements (such as molecules in silver compounds) and the computation of these elements into images are also apparent. They are not actually surfaces (like the prehistoric and historical surfaces), but rather mosaics.

Thus to be more exact in speaking about photographs, we should not say imagination, but rather visualization. For imagination is the ability to step back from the environment and to create an image of it. In comparison, visualization refers to the ability to turn a swarm of possibilities into an image.

Most of us (including most photographers) are still caught up in historical, progressive, enlightened consciousness. Thus, photographs are received with a different consciousness from the one that produces photo apparatuses.

Much of what is said and written with respect to photos can be attributed to this discrepancy. Photos are not received as projections, that is, as images of the future, but rather as copies of scenes, that is as images of the past.

pp.129-130

And, it is generally assumed that photographs illustrate (document) happenings, as if they were historical images. The consequence of this misunderstanding between the programmers of photo-production and photo-distribution apparatuses and the addresses of the photographs is absolutely characteristic of the present cultural situation.

p.130

The programmers of photographs […] hover about history, and they project a potentially alternate future. To the addressees, however, photos are not the starting point of programs to be developed in the future, but rather end points of history.

The behavior of the addressees of photos expresses their understanding of them: being photographed is the goal of everything they do. For these sorts of addressees, the image is not a model of the future. Rather, they (and their environment) will be immortalized in the image.

This misunderstanding in convenient to the programmers. Because addressees behave according to the function of the images, they become functionaries of the modeling programs.

In this manner, the addressees of photographs are blind to the new level of consciousness where the photographs have been programmed. In this manner, the programmers become a cultural elite of technocrats, media operators, and opinion makers who manipulate an unconscious society.

[discussion of parallel situation with linear writing, and illiterate masses]

pp.130-131

With respect to posthistorical images, we too are illiterate. We too are incapable of decoding the “software” generating these images.

p.131

The hegemony of the literati was breached thanks to the invention of the printing press: everyone became a literatus.The same is possible today: everyone can become a programmer.

Photographs are simply the first among the posthistorical images. In the case of photographs, the acquisition of the codes, in which the new consciousness articulates itself, is a more difficult task than in the case of more developed images, such as synthetic images.

Two aspects of the photograph make it more difficult. First, photos resemble copies more than projections. At first glance,a photo of an airplane does not reveal that, just like a synthetic computer image, it signifies a possible airplane rather than a given one.

Second, the photograph seems to be made by a photographer operating the apparatus, rather than by a software specialist programming the apparatus. The projecting and computing nature of the photograph is less evident than in synthetic images. Yet this is precisely why learning to photograph in the sense of a posthistorical projection is extraordinarily emancipatory. Because photographs are in the process of departing from paper and chemicals in favour of electro-magnetic fields, there are already numerous approaches to learning how to photograph.

Thus, the universe of images that surrounds us and whizzes us around will be changed from the bottom up.

It will be a universe through which we will project ourselves out of the present and into the future.

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