Flusser, Vilem. ‘The Future of Writing’ Writings translated by Andreas Ströhl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002) 63-69
[originally written, 1983-4]
Writing is an important gesture, because it both articulates and produces that state of mind which is called “historical consciousness.” History began with the invention of writing,not for the banal reason often advanced that written texts allows us to reconstruct the past, but for the more pertinent reason that the world is not perceived as a process, “historically,” unless one signifies it by successive symbols, by writing.
The difference between prehistory and history is not that we have written documents that permit us to read the latter, but that during history there are literate men who experience, understand, and evaluate the world as a “becoming,” whereas in prehistory no such existential attitude is possible.
If one examines certain Mesopotamian tiles, one can see that the original purpose of writing was to facilitate the deciphering of images.
It may be shown through text analysis that the original purpose of writing, namely, the transcoding of two-dimensional codes into a single dimension, is still there: every text, even a very abstract one, means, in the last analysis, an image.
The translation from surface into line implies a radical change of meaning. The eye that deciphers an image scans the surface, and it thus establishes reversible relations between the elements of the image.
The reversibility of relations that prevails within the image characterizes the world for those who use images for the understanding of the world, who “imagine” it. For them, all the things in the world are related to each other in such a reversible way, and their world is structured by “eternal return.”
In such a world, circular time orders all things, “assigns them their just place,” and if a thing is displaced it will be readjusted by time itself.
In sum: the “imagined” world is the world of myth, of magic, the prehistoric world.
The eye that deciphers a text follows its lines, and thus establishes the univocal relation of a chain between the elements of which the text is composed. Those who use texts to understand the world, those who “conceive” it, mean a world with a linear structure. Everything in such a world follows from something, time flows irreversibly from the past toward the future, each instant lost is lost forever, and there is no repetition.
In sum: the “conceived” world is the world of the religions of salvation, of political commitment, of science, and of technology – the historical world.
Images are mediations between man and his world, a world that has become inaccessible to him immediately.
One must learn how to decipher these images, one must learn the conventions that give them their meaning, and one may commit mistakes.
The “imagination” that produces road maps is not the same as the “imagination” that produces cave paintings and projections. Explaining images with the help of texts may therefore be useful.
But there is another, and more profound, reason for the invention of writing and of historical consciousness. There is in images, as in all mediations, a curious inherent dialectic. The purpose of images is to mean the world, but they may become opaque to the world and cover it, even substitute for it.
No longer are such images tools, but man himself has become a tool of his own tools; he “adores” the images he himself has produced. It is against this idolatry of images, as a therapy against this double alienation, that writing was invented.
Writing, historical consciousness, linear, rational though were invented to save humankind from “ideologies,” from hallucinatory imagination.
For most of its course, historical consciousness was the privilege of a small elite, while the vast majority continued to lead a prehistoric, magico-mythical existence. This was so because texts were rare and expensive, and literacy the privilege of a class of scribes and literati. The invention of printing cracked this clerical case open, and it made historical consciousness accessible for the rising bourgeoisie, but it was only during the industrial revolution and through the public primary school system that literacy and historical consciousness can be said to have become common in the industrialized countries. But almost immediately, a new kind of image, the photograph was invented, which began to threaten the supremacy of writing, and it now looks as if the days of historical, rational conceptual thinking were numbered, and as if we were approaching a new type of magico-mythical age, a posthistorical image culture.
The reason why rational, conceptual thinking (and acting) is an exceptional form of existence, why history seems to be a brief interlude within the ageless “eternal return” of myth and magic, is that writing, just like images, is torn by an internal dialectic, and that this dialectic takes a more pernicious aspect in writing than it does even in image making. The purpose of writing is to mean, to explain images, but texts may become opaque, unimaginable, and they then constitute barriers between man and the world. The vectors of meaning of such texts turn around and point at their authors, instead of pointing at the world.
It is against the threatening rise of formal rationalism, of a meaningless existence amid speculative, opaque explanations, that the rise of the new image culture must be seen.
The new type of images are unlike their prehistoric predecessors in that they are themselves products of texts, and in that they feed on texts. They are products of history.
The essential difference between a TV program and a tapestry is not (as one might believe) that the one moves and talks while the other stands still and is mute, but that the TV program is the result of scientific theories (texts) and that it needs texts (for instance, telegrams) for it to function.
The easiest way to imagine the future of writing, if the present trend toward a culture of techno-images goes on, is to imagine culture as a gigantic transcoder from text to image.
All texts will flow into that box (news about events, theoretical comments about them, scientific papers, poetry, philosophical speculations), and they will come out again as images (films, TV programs,photographic pictures): which is to say that history will flow into the box, and that it will come out of it under the form of myth and magic.
In sum, the future of writing is to write pretexts for programs while believing one is writing for utopia.
History may be said to be the attempt to submit imagination to the criticism of reason. Texts are meant to be critiques of images, and writing, as a code, is an analysis of surfaces into lines. Therefore, during history, imagination was the source of reason: the stronger the imagination,the greater the challenge of critical reason, and rich images permit more powerful linear explanation.
TV programs are not, of course, the most impressive examples of what happens when reason betrays itself and serves imagination. Nazism is a better illustration.
At present, the purpose of writing is to explain techno-images, and the task of reason is to criticize imagination.
To write meant, in the past, to render opaque images transparent for the texts they are hiding. In other words, reason, in the past, meant analysis of myths, and in the future it will mean de-idologization.
It is perfectly possible that the general trend toward techno-images will become irresistible, and that reason will degenerate into the planning of programs – that to write will mean not to make “grams” but “programs” and that all texts will become pretexts.
Thus, in fact, we may discern, at present, two possible futures of writing: it will either become a critique of techno-imagination (which means an unmasking of the ideologies hiding behind a technical progress that has become autonomous of human decisions) or it will become the production of pretexts for the techno-imagination (a planning for that technical progress). In the first alternative, the future will be unimaginable by definition. In the second,history in the strict sense of that term will come to an end, and we may easily imagine what will follow: the eternal return of life in an apparatus that progresses by its own inertia.
Filed under: Andreas Ströhl, Edited Books, Essays, Images and reality, Invention of photography, Language, Lived Experience, Pointing & Photography, Post-photography Theories, Vilém Flusser, Writing, Writing/Literature & Photography | Leave a Comment
Kotz, Liz. ‘Language Between Performance and Photography’ October. Winter 2005, Issue 111, 3-21.
Although there is a tendency to see language as something like the “signature style” of Conceptual work, it is important to remember that the turn to language as an artistic material occurs earlier, with the profusion of text-based scores, instructions, and performance notations that surround the context of Happenings and Fluxus.
This turn to language, I will argue, occurs alongside a pervasive logic structuring 1960s artistic production, in which a “general” template or idea generates multiple “speciﬁc” realizations, which can take the form of performed acts, sculptural objects, photographic documents, or linguistic statements.
In what follows, I would like to propose one trajectory through this art, in which uses of language vector toward the conditions of “photography,” on the one hand, or toward the conditions of “performance,” on the other—not that these are clearly separable, as we will see.
[Discussion of Brecht, Three Chair Events]
Viewed in retrospect, from the perspective of late-sixties Conceptual art, one is struck by the relative repression of photography in most proto-Fluxus and Fluxus-related work. Although many early and mid-1960s performances were photographed—by Peter Moore, Manfred Leve, George Maciunas, and others—photography was rarely systematically employed or addressed by Brecht or other Fluxus artists, who apparently regarded photographs as secondary, documentary records of an experience that was primarily perceptual and temporal—not representational and static.
An almost moralistic aversion to the photographic reduction of experience was widespread around Minimalist art as
well, as is evident in Carl Andre’s comment that “art is a direct experience with something in the world, and photography is just a rumor, a kind of pornography of art.”
In a sense, Cagean and Minimalist projects were united by an ambivalence to inscriptive technologies and representational media: despite Cage’s use of radio broadcasts and magnetic tape in certain compositions, he famously refused to own phonographic records, which he viewed as falsiﬁcations of music, and many of his own performance protocols (such as the orientation to the visual and theatrical, to environmental sound and so forth) focus precisely on those elements that evade sound recording.
[discussion of Joseph Kosuth’s Proto-Investigations]
For all its powerful referential dimensions and its capacity to indicate and describe objects and experiences, language structurally entails certain gaps, between “word” and “thing,” between “meaning” and “intention,” which cannot be
eliminated in even the most precise communicative act or philosophical proposition.
[…] the shifts between the two pieces manifest a crucial series of transformations that occur in 1960’s art: from the heightened perceptual attention to phenomena and participatory models of post-Cagean projects to the systematic and
self-reﬂexive investigation of representational media characteristic of self-consciously Conceptual engagements.
Unlike in photography, with its logic of original and copy, the relationship between a notational system and a realization is not one of representation or reproduction but of speciﬁcation: the template, schema, or score is usually not considered the locus of the “work,” but merely a tool to produce it; and while the “work” must conform to certain speciﬁcations or conﬁgurations, its production necessarily differs in each realization.
If photography as a means of documentation is so ubiquitous in late 1960’s art, this is not simply due to the proliferation of Earthworks, Conceptual practices, site-speciﬁc projects, and ephemeral realizations, but is a result of the fact that the “work of art” has been reconﬁgured as a speciﬁc realization of a general proposition.
Filed under: Conceptual Art, Essays, Indexicality & Photography, Liz Kotz, October, Performance & Photography, Photograph as Document | Leave a Comment
Batchen, Geoffrey. ‘Photogrammatology: Writing/Photography’ Art Document, Winter (1994), 3-6
By projecting photography as a system of representation, each individual photograph becomes an historical, and therefore mutable, artefact of meaning.
This view of photography directly opposes the one propagated since the late 1960’s by formalist scholars, such as John Szarkowski.
This Kantian historiography therefore entails a continual search for “concepts peculiar to photography,” for a photographic essence (a “photography-as-such”) that is able to transcend the specific contents or historical circumstances of any given image. Thus, for formalists, the object of photographic study is the very essence of photography itself.
Postmodernism has opposed itself to this search for essence, seeing it as both intellectually fruitless and politically conservative.
Motivated not by an essence specific to its own being but by the place it occupies within a dynamic field of intertextuality, a given photograph could mean anything. A photograph has a stable meaning at a particular moment in its history only because other potential meanings are momentarily suppressed. In other words, all meaning comes at a cost – the exercise of power.
[reference to Saussure]
Solomon-Godeau offers us an historical reading of photography that represses the thing itself in favor of its situated network of deployments, actions, and effects. In similar fashion, Tagg as specifically identified the history of photography with the “diversified field of a history of writing.” Not only does this equation again stress photography’s unbounded ubiquity but it also reiterates the notion that photography has no substantial identity of its own – no specific agency and no photographic essence at its origin. For like photography, writing is regarded as another of those systems of representation that is merely instrumental in the transference of information and power from one place to another.
This idea is again central to work of Saussure. In his Course in General Linguistics, writing is presented as an imperfect, even dangerously distorting instrument for the representation of speech, the true expression of language.
So for Saussure, as for Tagg, the relationship between writing and speech is equivalent to the relationship between photography and reality. One is seen as an unequal representation of the other.
In Of Grammatology, Derrida shows how the supposed uniqueness of speech is entirely enfolded within the economy of writing. Writing, the denigrated supplement, the conduit through which true language merely passes, turns out to be the condition of possibility for any language whatsoever. The Saussurean desire to separate writing from its origin, to posit a unified and stable presence which comes “before writing,” involves a conceptual politics that Derrida terms logocentrism. As he points out, it is this same politics that in other contexts also persistently privileges man over woman (phallocentrism) and White over Black (ethnocentrism). And it is this same politics that one finds reproduced in the postmodern attempt to separate photographies from photography, context from thing, and reality from the photographic.
This does not mean that the identification of photography as writing is without value. However, if we wish to do more than reproduce an inverted version of our culture’s existing conceptual and political hierarchies, we need to acknowledge that the notion of writing deployed by much postmodern criticism has tended to ignore the term’s complexity.
Derrida’s grammatology is the practice of this acknowledgement. In his work, writing is transformed from the marking of a surface to an economy of inscription that incorporates surface within depth, speech within writing, and reality within representation, such that each of these terms is radically reconfigured.
Accordingly, a grammatology might look to the origins of photography’s identity, whether these origins purport to be a transcendental essence (Nature) or a plurality of functions (Culture), and find in every case that an apparently reliable foundation is continually displaced by a dynamic play of differences.
The postmodern critique of essence is the critique of identity “as such” – in this case, a critique of the formalist notion of photography as something unified and undifferentiated. Postmodernism wants to say that photography is nothing but difference, and replace its singular identity with a multiple one, photographies.
In other words, the postmodern identification of photographies with a sphere of operations that is entirely cultural – the assumption that “mutability as such,” can be delimited – is itself an essentializing gesture.
Suggestive as it is, we don’t need to look to the authority of post-structuralist theory to acknowledge the need for a troubling of these binary divisions. We can find this same complication writ large within the archival narrative of photography’s own history. We could look, for example, at aspects of photography’s historical origins and find that, once again, a certain kind of eruptive “writing” is already there before us.
Discussion of origins of word “photography”
[…] at the time photography was being named as a form of writing, writing itself was being written as cultural and historical, rather than a natural of God-given, phenomenon. At the same time, as Barbara Stafford has pointed out, “the image of ‘writing’ had expanded until all physical shapes became dimly meaningful forms of script, and each of these forms (physiognomics, botany, mineralogy, or geology) has its own science of decipherment.
Getting back to the question of identity, it is interesting to note that the word “photography” is a compound of “light” (Nature) and “writing” (Culture), a linguistic construction that sidesteps the necessity of deciding to which of these spheres photography should be consigned.
The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, traces the etymology of the Greek suffix graphy to an “abstract noun of action of function.” In other words, graphy could be read as either active or passive. Operating simultaneously as verb and noun, this is a writing that produces while being produced, inscribing even as it is inscribed.
[Further discussion of Daguerre, Niepce and Talbot’s descriptions of photography]
What I have tried to suggest is that, if we look closely at photography’s history, we will find what I have called a photo-grammatology – a disruptive unravelling of all those conventions of identification that anchor both formalist and postmodern accounts of photography.
Recognizing that photography’s identity entails an economy of contradiction, these historical examples of “photography as writing” demand that we rethink the parameters of contemporary debate on this same issue. Resisting the exclusive embrace of either formalist or postmodern historiography, photography’s own complication of oppositional logics continually brings us back to the question of the medium’s deconstruction – back what what Derrida describes as “the experience of the impossible”.
To conclude with another quotation from Derrida, “this concept of the photograph photographs all conceptual oppositions, it traces a relationship of haunting which perhaps is constitutive of all logics.”
Filed under: Art Documentation, Context and photography, Essays, Geoffrey Batchen, Images and reality, Invention of photography, Language, Oral/Spoken Culture, Politics & Photography, Writing, Writing/Literature & Photography |
Flusser, Vilem. ‘Poetry’ Does Writing have a Future? translated by Nancy Ann Roth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2011) 71-75
A distinction is traditionally made between poetry and mimicry (poesis and mimesis). But under the sway of the alphabet, this close connection between thinking and language – poetry – is usually understood as a language game whose strategy is to creatively enlarge the universe of languages.The universe becomes poetically broader and deeper through the manipulation of words and sentences, the modulation of linguistic functions, a game with the meanings of words and sentences, rhythmic and melodic modulation of phonemes.Poetry in this sense is that source from which language always springs anew and, in fact, overall in literature, even in scientific, philosophical, or political texts, not only in poetic ones.
Images will detach themselves from their imitative, mimetic function and become inventive and poetic. This poetic power is clearly visible in films, videos, and synthetic images. As for poetry, in the sense of a language game, on the other hand, its route to the new culture appears to be blocked: for it is bound to alphabetic writing.
We are not always aware of what we owe to poetry in the broader sense: almost everything we perceive and experience. Poetry produces models of experience, and without such models, we would scarcely be able to perceive anything. We would be anesthetized and would – having to rely on our atrophied instincts – stagger about blind, deaf and numb.
Poets are our organs of perception. We see, hear, taste, and smell on the basis of models we have from poets.
These colors, sounds, and tastes are as they are not because they have been culturally – that is to say, poetically – shaped from some imperceptible natural ground.
The model of love that channels the contemporary love experience is Hollywood’s rather than the Buddhist or the central African because media channels are built on an historic, imperialistic pattern.If cable were introduced to the media, for example, central African love models could be transmitted as well as those of Hollywood.
We already perceive in a far more complex manner than earlier generations did. Not only our love lives, but also our perceptions of color, sound, and taste are becoming more complex.
Poetry in the sense of a construction of experiential models is already beginning to develop now and will achieve dimensions in the near future that will exceed all expectations.
The alphabetic poet manipulates words and linguistic rules by means of letter to produce a model of experience for others. In doing so, he thinks he has forced his own, concrete experience (sensibility, idea, desire) into the language and so made this experience and the language that has been changed by this experience accessible to others.
The new poet, equipped with apparatuses and dining on them digitally , cannot be so naive. He knows he has to calculate his experience, to dissect it into atoms of experience to be able to program it digitally. And in making this calculation, he must confirm the extent to which others previously modeled his experience. He no longer identifies himself as author but rather as remixer.
Even the language he manipulates no longer seems like raw material stacked up inside him but rather like a complex system pressing in around him to be remixed.
He relies on theories and no longer works empirically.Such an informatic approach to poetry has long been in preparation. In Mallarme, for example, this attitude finds theoretic, nearly informatic expression; and the cool, calculating, exact, even mechanical dimension of poetry is clearly visible in the precision of many of Shakespeare’s sonnets.The new poet, sitting at his terminal and waiting expectantly to see which unanticipated word and sentence formations appear on the screen, is gripped by a creative delirium no less intense than the one a writing poet felt in his struggle with language.
Filed under: Analogue - Digital, Books, Language, Lived Experience, Love/Desire, Vilém Flusser, Writing | Leave a Comment
Flusser, Vilem. ‘Spoken Languages’ Does Writing have a Future? trans. by Nancy Ann Roth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2011) 63-69
When programming has set itself free of alphanumeric writing, thought will no longer need to work through a spoken language to become visible.Thought and speech will no longer be fused, as they were when the alphabet was predominant.This fusion of thinking and speaking is actually remarkable. For there certainly have been other codes besides the alphabet for making thought visible, for example, codes of painting and codes of mathematics. So people were always aware that speaking was only one of the ways to play with thought, and they repeatedly attempted to find a common denominator among them.But the alphabet was the dominant code.As the alphabet is surpassed, thought will liberate itself from speech, and other, nonlinguistic thought (mathematical and pictorial, and presumably new ones as well) will expand in ways we cannot yet anticipate.
Speaking, on the other hand, will not be surpassed at all. On the contrary: released from the alphabet, spoken language will flood the scene, tapes and speaking images will scream and whisper to society.
The danger will be that language, released from the alphabet, will revert to an uncultivated state. Our languages have passed through the filtering and caustic grid of the alphabet for thousands of years, and in this way, they have become powerful and beautiful, delicate, precise instruments. If they are allowed to grow unchecked, they – along with a great deal of thinking – will become barbaric.The alphabet’s effect on speaking should not be overestimated, however. For in observing the contemporary linguistic situation, one notices that the overwhelming majority of writing and speech is nonsense and worse.If this twaddle, this demagoguery, ceases to dominate thinking after the thinking after the loss of the alphabet, it might be regarded as an epistemological, political, and aesthetic catharsis.Our languages (the Indo-Germanic and Hamito-Semitic) are inflected; that is, in them, words change meaning according to their position in the sentence order. Sentences formed from such words are pro-nouncements: predicates pushed out by their subjects. Accordingly, the things our languages say (the universe of our languages) consist of projectile, arrow-shaped situations. For example, the sentence “Hansel loves Gretel” is a sketch of “loves” that goes out from Hansel and aims at Gretel.
This is not true of all types of languages.
In agglutinative languages (e.g., Tupi-Guarani), there are word collages instead of sentences so that their universe (that of which they speak) has a circumstantial rather than a projectile character. In some isolating languages (say, in Chinese), there are no sentences, but there are juxtapositions of syllables, and instead of a projectile character, their universe therefore has a mosaic character.So long as we think in ways bound up with language, we will be disorientated in these two universes. They make our thought unsteady because they offer evidence that our universe is structured not by reality but by our languages. So the unsteadiness is a good thing, but it also shows what we owe our languages: they offer us the net in whose threads and knots we think, feel, desire, and act.For our languages are open systems: elements of other languages (words and rules) may be incorporated without loss of character. Translation enables us to say something we’ve said before in our own language, differently. The variety, the structural similarity and the functional difference among our languages means our universe is always open to a creative renewing of ideas, feelings, desires, and acts.Our languages are codes in which various wordings are locked into symbols for concepts, and the rules of sentence construction are locked into rules of thinking. They are double-locked codes.Now codes tend toward two opposite horizons, toward denotation, where each single symbol means one particular element in its universe, and toward connotation, where each symbol refers to a region of that universe that is ambiguously defined, and each element in the universe may be refered to by more than one symbol.The advantage of a denotative code (e.g., symbolic logic) is that it is clear and distinct; that of a connotative code (e.g., painting) is the wealth of references and resulting variety of possible interpretations.The double locking of our languages means they can be expanded toward both horizons. We can speak exactly and precisely (denotatively) as well as allusively and suggestively. We can even do both at the same time. our languages are exceptionally productive codes as a result.And yet the experience of hundreds of generations is stored in our word forms and sentence construction. When we speak, this collective memory presses from us out into the public arena, where it is enriched.Most languages – the so-called primitive ones – are not sufficiently codified to serve as memory. In some Indian languages, the vocabulary changes from decade to decade because many words become taboo and may no longer be used.
Some other languages are by contrast so highly codified that they seize up and can no longer be developed (ancient Egyptian would be an example).
We face the challenge of preserving and passing on our languages’ precious balance between rigor and elasticity.For if the future brings a new code that relies less and less on linguistic codes and more and more on codes of calculation and computation, if the swell of speech that will then flood over us turns out to be no more than background noise for the new mode of thought, then we may well fear the loss of language, the precious legacy we have abandoned.We may comfort ourselves with the thought that before the invention of the alphabet, spoken language as a unique code was continually enriched and transmitted, and that the same might happen after the alphabet becomes obsolete.For with respect to spoken language, prealphabetic conditions are categorically different from postalphabetic ones.Homer may be an example of the transition from speaking to writing as a language-preserving and language-creating gesture. (The mythagogues were probably singers, incidentally, so that the transition to alphabetic writing could have been perceived as an impoverishment of a whole dimension of spoken language.)After the alphabet becomes obsolete, there will no longer be an elite entrusted with the preservation and enrichment of spoken language. Left to itself (that is, to prattle), language will run wild.
A glance at the current situation, though still embryonic, shows how little hope there is that an illiterate elite of the future might take care of the language.
Here the new mythagogues (Dylan Thomas, Brazilians, Indian and African bards) seem to have a creative effect on language and to restore its lost musical dimension.Not until the invention of the tape recorder, one would think, has linguistic creativity had such an immediate and extensive impact as with these poems distributed in their millions. But are we actually dealing with poetry? However one defines this word etymologically – whether as dictation or as adage – on closer consideration, there is something different going on with these new mythagogues.For cassettes and records are largely obsolete. Not so much because an opera on videotape carries more information than one on a record but rather because images suit the rising new mode of thought better than sound.
And so exactly because contemporary spoken poetry is so creative, it shows that spoken language is doomed to enter the service of new codes and to become background noise – as we know it from sound film, in music, and still more in speaking as an auxiliary function, so that it can be said of silent film that it is the true filmic language.In the postalphabetic situation […] speaking will merely assist (as, say, gestural codes do today) the dominant codes. This suggests that with the rise of speech in an unimaginably distant past, a rich and creative gestural code was degraded into something auxiliary, just as speech is about to be degraded.
Filed under: Analogue - Digital, Books, Language, Oral/Spoken Culture, Vilém Flusser, Writing | Leave a Comment
There is an experiencing self, who lives in the present and knows the present.
And then there is a remembering self. And the remembering self is the one that keeps score and maintains the story of our life […]
Those are two very different entities: the experiencing self and the remembering self […]
The remembering self is a storyteller. And that really starts with a basic response of our memory, it starts immediately, we don’t only tell stories when we set out to tell stories: our memory tells us stories, that is, what we get to keep from our experiences, is a story.
What defines a story? And that is true of a story that our memory delivers for us and it is true of a story we make up.
Filed under: Memory and reconstruction, Storytelling, Talks, Videos |
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.
Filed under: Books, Hans Belting, Images and reality, Medium Specificity, Memory & Photography, Observer & the Photograph, Photograph as Document, Postmodernism and Memory, Roland Barthes, Vilém Flusser | Leave a Comment
Pallasmaa, Juhani. The Eyes of the Skin (Chichester: Wiley, 2008)
All the senses, including vision, are extensions of the tactile sense; the senses are specialisations of skin tissue, and all sensory experiences are modes of touching and thus related to tactility.
Our contact with the world takes place at the boundary line of the self through specialised parts of our enveloping membrane.
Touch is the sensory mode that integrates our experience of the world with that of ourselves. Even visual perceptions are fused and integrated into the haptic continuum of the self; my body remembers who I am and where I am located in the world.
A remarkable factor in the experience of enveloping spatiality, interiority and hapticity is the deliberate suppression of sharp focussed vision. This issue has hardly entered the theoretical discourse of architecture as architectural theorising continues to be interested in focused vision, conscious intentionality and perspectival representation.
A forest context, and richly moulded architectural space, provides ample stimuli for peripheral vision, and these settings centre us in the very space. The preconscious perceptual realm, which is experienced outside the sphere of focused vision, seems to be just as important existentially as the focused image.
The defensive and unfocused gaze of our time, burdened by sensory overload, may eventually open up new realms of vision and thought, freed of the implicit desire of the eye for control and power. The loss of focus can liberate the eye from its historical patriarchal domain.
In Western culture, sight has historically been regarded as the noblest of the senses, and thinking itself thought of in terms of seeing. Already in classical Greek thought, certainty was based on vision and visibility.
The invention of perspectival representation made the eye the centre point of the perceptual world as well as of the concept of the self. Perspectival representation itself turned the world into a symbolic form, one which not only describes but also conditions perception.
There is no doubt that our technological culture has ordered and separated the sense even more distinctly. Vision and hearing are now the privileged sociable senses, whereas the other three are considered as archaic sensory remnants with a merely private function, and they are usually suppressed by the code of culture.
The inhumanity of contemporary architecture and cities can be understood as a consequence of the negligence of the body and the senses, and an imbalance in our sensory system.
The growing experiences of alienation, detachment and solitude in the technological world today, for instance, may be related with a certain pathology of the senses.
The dominance of the eye and the suppression of the other senses tends to push us into detachment, isolation and exteriority.
The fact that the modernist idiom has not generally been able to penetrate the surface of popular taste and values seems to be sue to its one-sided intellectual and visual emphasis; modernist design at large has housed the intellect and the eye, but it has left the body and the other senses, as well as our memories, imagination and dreams, homeless.
[Ocularcentrism was not without its critics, including Nietsche, Bergson, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Lacan and Derrida etc]
But man has not always been dominated by vision. In fact, a primordial dominance of hearing has only gradually been replaced by that of vision. Anthropological literature describes numerous cultures in which our private senses of smell, taste and touch continue to have collective importance in behaviour and communication.
Ong analyses the changes that the shift from the primordial oral culture to the culture of the written (and eventually the printed) word has caused on human consciousness, memory and understanding of space. He argues that as hearing dominance has yielded to sight-dominance, situational thinking has been replaced by abstract thinking.
The gradual growing hegemony of the eye seem to be in parallel with the development of Western ego-consciousness and the gradually increasing separation of the self and the world; vision separates us from the world whereas the other senses unite us with it.
Artistic expression is engaged with pre-verbal meanings of the world, meanings that are incorporated and lived rather than simply intellectually understood.
Natural materials express their age and history, as well as the story of their origins and human use.
Buildings of this technological age usually deliberately aim at ageless perfection, and do not incorporate the dimension of time, or the unavoidable and mentally significant processes of aging. This fear of the traces of wear and age is related to our fear of death.
The ceaseless bombardment of unrelated imagery leads only to gradual emptying of images of their emotional content. Images are converted into endless commodities manufactured to postpone boredom; humans in turn are commodified, consuming themselves nonchalantly without having the courage or even the possibility of confronting their existential reality. We are made to live in a fabricated dream world.
The eye itself has not, of course, remained in the monocular, fixed construction defined by Renaissance theories of perspective. The hegemonic eye has conquered new ground for visual perception and expression.
Perhaps, freed of the implicit desire of the eye for control and power, it is precisely the unfocused vision of our time that is again capable of opening up new realms of vision and thought. The loss of focus brought about by the stream of images may emancipate the eye from it patriarchal domination and give rise to a participatory and empathetic gaze.
The haptic experience seems to be penetrating the ocular regime again through the tactile presence of modern visual imagery. [cites the music video and the inability to stop and analyse the flow of images]
Although the new technologies have strengthened the hegemony of vision, they may also help to re-balance the realm of the senses. In Walter Ong’s view, ‘with telephone, radio, television and various kinds of sound tape, electronic technology has brought us into the age of “secondary orality”.
The perception of sight as our most important sense is well-grounded in physiological, perceptual and psychological facts. The problems arise from the isolation of the eye outside its natural interaction with other sense modalities, and from the elimination and suppression of other senses, which increasingly reduce and restrict the experience of the world into the sphere of vision. This separation and reduction fragments the innate complexity, comprehensiveness and plasticity of the perceptual system, reinforcing a sense of detachment and alienation.
I experience myself in the city, and the city exists through my embodied experience. The city and my body supplement and define each other. I dwell in the city and the city dwells in me.
Vision reveals what the touch already knows. We could think of the sense of touch as the unconscious of vision. Our eyes stroke distant surfaces, contours and edges, and the unconscious tactile sensation determines the agreeableness or unpleasantness of the experience.
The eye is the organ of distance and separation, whereas touch is the sense of nearness, intimacy and affection. The eye surveys, controls and investigates, whereas touch approaches and caresses. During overpowering emotional experiences, we tend to close off the distancing sense of vision; we close the eyes when dreaming, listening to music, or caressing our beloved ones. Deep shadows and darkness are essential, because they dim the sharpness of vision, make depth and distance ambiguous, and invite unconscious peripheral vision and tactile fantasy.
The imagination and daydreaming are stimulated by dim light and shadow. In order the think clearly, the sharpness of vision has to be suppressed, for thoughts travel with an absent-minded and unfocused gaze.
The skin reads the texture, weight, density and temperature of matter. The surface of an old object, polished to perfection by the tool of the craftsman and the assiduous hands of its users, seduces the stroking of the hand.
Filed under: Books, Image Proliferation, Juhani Pallasmaa, Materiality, Mechanics/Politics of Vision, Phenomenology, Touch/Tactile Perception | Leave a Comment
Marks, Laura U. ‘The Memory of Touch’ The Skin of the Film (London: Duke University Press, 2000) 127-193
Haptic perception is usually defined by psychologists as the combination of tactile, kinesthetic, and proprioceptive functions, the way we experience touch both on the surface of and inside our bodies.
In haptic visuality, the eyes themselves function like organs of touch.
Haptic visuality is distinguished from optical visuality, which sees things from enough distance to perceive them as distinct forms in deep space: in other words, how we usually conceive of vision. Optical visuality depends on a separation between the viewing subject and the object. Haptic looking tends to move over the surface of its object rather than to plunge into illusionistic depth, not to distinguish form so much as to discern texture. It is more inclined to move than to focus, more inclined to graze than to gaze.
Because a haptic composition appeals to tactile connections on the surface plane of the image, it retains an “objective” character; but an optical composition gives up its nature as physical object in order to invite a distant view that allows the viewer to organize him/herself as an all-perceiving subject.
The difference between haptic and optical visuality is a matter of degree. Inmost processes of seeing, both are involved, in a dialectical movement from far to near.
Haptic images are actually a subset of what Deleuze referred to as optical images: those images that are so “thin” and unclichéd that the viewer must bring his or her resources of memory or imagination to complete them.
Filed under: Laura Marks, Materiality, Phenomenology, Touch/Tactile Perception |
Crowther, Paul. ‘The Phenomenology of Photography’ Phenomenology of the Visual Arts (even the frame) (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009) 139-142
Bourdieu’s point here is that photography is more than common visual communication, but it, nevertheless, so useful in terms of its mundane social documentary functions that these functions always subvert attempts to present it as high art. Issues of technique and form can never quite overcome the spectre of documentary significance.
However, this is not the insuperable problem which Bourdieu takes it to be. They key is to find an explanation of what makes photography art, which is based on factors involving both technical and formal achievements, and photography’s documentary functions.
Autographic media such as painting and sculpture offer only direct traces of those gestures by the artist, by means of which the referent is represented. In such cases, whether or not the subject ever existed in reality is not an issue which can be resolved with certainty purely on the basis of the image’s mode of representation.
The photograph, in contrast, is causally rigid in terms of its relation to the referent (though Barthes himself does not put it like this). What we see is, by virtue of the mechanical and chemical processes involved, a direct causal trace of the referent’s visible being. And even if the photo is a fake, it is composed of elements that involve the physical traces of some visual item or states of affairs that have actually existed.
On the basis of this distinctive causal rigidity, photography can be characterized in terms of three fundamental aspects – the viewpoint of agent, subject, or spectator.
Now the punctum and air are not features which are in any way intrinsic to photography (though Barthes seems to think that they are).
It may be that the occurrence of such factors in photography gives them an experiential impact that is different from their occurrence in other media, but they are not features intrinsic to photography itself.
Barthes’ linkage of photography to intimations of mortality, in contrast, is grounded on factors which are distinctive to photography. But we must make an important qualification here. For whilst these responses are grounded in the ontology of photography, whether or not they are manifest is a function of the relation between particular photographs, and particular individuals , in particular historical circumstances. They are privileged interpretative perspectives based on photography’s casual rigidity, but not features which are themselves intrinsic to the description of what photography is (i.e. to what Barthes calls its noeme.
Daguerrotypes and the very earliest photographs, for example, involve long time-exposures, and a limited range of immobile subjects. This means that whilst the ontological structure is in place, it is not historically and technologically developed enough to bring out all the distinctive intimations of mortality noted by Barthes.
Indeed, whilst Barthes takes the photograph to be an intrinsic testimony to someone having witnessed the referent, this does not have to be the case. There are circumstances where photographs are taken without someone looking through the lens, or without having seen the referent as presented to the lens. This means that the link between photographic agency and spectatorship cannot be intrinsic to photography per se.
One can, of course, have many copies of a print or digital original, but these are taken from a negative or from a specific configuration of electrical signals (as in digital photography). In such cases the prints are tokens of a type, and it is the type which is unique.
This has some remarkable consequences. Every appearance of a visible item is contingent, in the sense that it can be seen from a number of other possible perceptual viewpoints.
Hence, whilst each actual spatio-temporal component of an item comes into being and passes away with seeming contingency, it forms a necessary component in the identity of that item. The causal rigidity of the photograph’s relation to its referent not only shows that the referent once existed, it also reveals one of the particular visual aspects which is a necessary factor in that referent’s identity.
Ironically, through being photographed, the aspect comes to exist independently of the object as a causal trace. But because of the causal rigidity of its relation to the referent, we know that this trace presents an inescapable aspect of the referent’s identity. The photograph not only testifies to the necessity of its referent having existed, but also to features which were, or are, essential to that existence.
Let us now rethink his insight that the photograph presents its referent as something which is dead and is going to die. Again, this characterization needs qualification. It is literally true of photographs of people or other living things who have died since the photograph was taken.
However, many photographs are of people or living things which are still alive, and many other such images, of course, are of inanimate items – in which case it seems absurd to say that they are dead and they are going to die.
Obviously the photograph is not a duplicate of its referent, but because of the existence and identity factors analyzed above, it is ontologically bound to it. Whilst the photograph survives, so does a form of some of its referent’s visual aspects – and it is the visual dimension which describes what is most fundamental to something’s existence and identity, namely its mode of occupying space.
It is, indeed, the creative tension between temporal loss and spatial presence which makes of photography much more than the imprint of something which has existed at least once.
[introduces Nietzsche’s eternal return]
[cites Susan Sontag On Photography]
Indeed, Sontag is making some rather more serious errors of the kind which I identified previously in relation to Barthes, namely the conflation of intrinsic with contextual factors.
Sontag’s problems here are extremely instructive in terms of their origin. Her analysis constellates, in effect, around the implications of snapshot photography. She emphasises factors which are mainly functions and effects of the instantly captured image realised in specific kinds of socio-historical context.
However, the wealth of factors which Sontag identifies, and the very fact that she sees them as intrinsic to photography, points to ward an interesting and decisive issue. It is that of whether there is something about the snapshot itself which is of intrinsic significance for the ontology of photography.
Now historically speaking, the technology of the snapshot is secondary to that of time-exposure, and it arose in a specific cultural context. However, in ontological terms, there is a case for regarding it as prior – as something which is intrinsic to the medium in its most complete form.
This is because (whilst there is still a role for time exposure) the immediate shot makes time – and thence the recording of action – into an active feature of the photographic image, rather than a factor which has to be overcome in order to even take a picture.
The image taken by the immediate click of the shutter, in other words, is what photography must tend towards if the full range of its semantic possibilities is to be realized.
This offers a broad parallel with the achievement of fully developed linear perspective in pictorial representation. Through linear perspective it becomes possible to represent visual reality as a systematically connected continuum, of which the particular picture functions as a spatio-temporal cross-section.
Analogously, the snapshot allows photography to encompass the realm of action, thus enabling the single photograph to offer a spatio-tempral cross-section of systematically continuous reality.
[…[ the sheer capacity to vary the size of the referent per se is something intrinsic to the ontology of the medium itself.
It is not, of course, unique to photography, insofar as similar transformations of scale are also intrinsic to any pictorial art. However, in photography, it takes on a distinctive and extraordinary power precisely because the variation of spatial scale constellates around a causally rigid trace of the referent’s visual appearance.
The ontology of photography, then, is intrinsically connected to factors which are basic to our embodied inherence in the world. Our intuitive fascination with this is the basis of photography’s phenomenological depth. The fact that photography has such intrinsic meaning is precisely what enables its informational function to be reconfigured as an object of aesthetic, and thence artistic significance, in its own right.
Filed under: Images and reality, Indexicality & Photography, Medium Specificity, Paul Crowther, Phenomenology, Roland Barthes, Space and photography, Susan Sontag, Time and photography | Leave a Comment
Snyder, Joel. ‘Picturing Vision’ Poetics of Space: A Critical Photographic Anthology ed. by Steve Yates (Albequerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995) 157-171
Our willingness to accept photographs as natural and mechanical records of what we see underscores the power of our belief that certain kinds of pictures achieve significance because they are “natural” – meaning that such pictures are related to what they depict in exactly (or roughly) the same way vision is related to what we see.
But the history of the camera and its ancient forerunner, the camera obscura, demonstrates beyond any question that camera imagery is entirely conventional, demonstrates that cameras have been designed to achieve specific kinds of pictorial results.
The question that is hidden beneath the modern (and futile) discourse about the ontological status of photographs is far more interesting than any that has yet been posed by theorists of photographic representation: How is it that we ever came to think of photographs as natural phenomena at all?
Our passive and unquestioning acceptance of the commensurability of certain kinds of pictures with what we see is the source of our unshakeable belief in the congruence of certain pictures and the world we view.
The history of Western painting from the early-fifteenth to the late-nineteenth century was marked by the attempt to secure a scientific basis (both mechanical and physiological) for picture construction that serves, in turn, to warrant the viewer’s belief in the fidelity of the picture to what it represents.
The primary condition for this kind of picture-making is the belief that vision is amenable to depiction because it is itself pictorial. New theories of vision lead to new “facts” concerning what we “really see”.
The artist can depict what we see because what we see is pictorial. And yet, in paintings, the artist can achieve fidelity to his own vision based upon his knowledge of vision and depiction, and we will accept the picture as credible and warranted even though we might insist at the same time that we never quite saw things that way before.
[…] the joining of artistic practice to scientific theory in the early Renaissance gave a new rationale and impetus to artists who wished to depict what they saw. And it provided rhetorical assurance to the audience that what they saw in paintings was related by the sure methods of science to what they saw when looking at the world.
The first text on linear perspective, De Pictura, written in Florence in 1435, by Leon Battisa Alberti, also marks the first effort by a painter to establish the certainty of his method of picture construction by deriving it from a scientific account of vision.
The system continues to be used today in its purest form, in many kinds of handmade illustrations, and, of course, in nearly all applications of photography, including motion pictures and television.
De Pictura lays out procedures that permit an artist to paint what is seen by means of rules derived from a mechanical and psychological account of how one sees.
Linear perspective, by definition, requires the painter to “fix” the eye in a determined and unvarying relation to the picture surface in order to recreate within the picture the rational structure of perceptual judgements.
[further discussion of Alberti’s rationale]
The scientific account of vision adopted by him provides a basis for explaining how we are able to make “certified” judgements about the sensible things of the world. It is not an account of momentary glances or “impressions,” nor is it, strictly speaking, an account of “appearances.” A completed perceptual judgement, that is, a unified one in which we correctly identify objects, their attributes and their interrelations, can be made only under specified observation conditions through time, by means of discrimination, comparison, and integration.
What is fragmentary or unsure in perception cannot be certified, unified or identified. Such fragments have no place in depiction because they are irrational and incomplete; they fail to achieve the purpose of vision.
We still resort to this mode of depiction, or modes very closely related to it, when we wish to make “literal” pictures. But when we do so, we adopt a thoroughly medieval notion of vision and early-Renaissance conception of depiction.
Filed under: Edited Books, Essays, Images and reality, Joel Snyder, Mechanics/Politics of Vision | Leave a Comment
Transcoding media and rediscovering political pasts & photographic futures…
Originally posted on thinking practices:
In mid-2011, I accessed a vernacular archive of slides which contained hundreds of images of Chile. These images were sent to England during the 80s to connect Chilean exiles (who were living in Britain at that time) with the changes that were taking place in their ‘homeland’ during Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-1990). The archive contains images of social change. Overall, it reflects the increasing obsolescence of the Chilean socialism embodied by Allende’s government, the perpetuation of Pinochet’s neoliberal model, and the struggle against those changes.
I began to manipulate the slides, to interrogate both their materiality and their hidden stories. Since the archive’s images were mostly taken during the 80’s, during my childhood, I could also recognize in these images my own recollections of a dictatorial past and my own childhood experiences. It was irrelevant to me whether that recognition was valid for others or not. I was much more interested…
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Filed under: Blogs, using found photography, using projection | Leave a Comment
Savedoff, Barbara E. ‘Transformation in Photography’ Transforming Images: How Photography Complicates the Picture (New York: Cornell University Press, 2000) 47-128
Photography’s special significance lies in its documentary quality, in the fact that the photographer does not have the painter’s freedom to create and control.But if this is true, we can only evaluate photographs as documents, as more or less true to the world. [Look up Joel Snyder, “Photography, Vision and Representation” Critical Inquiry I September 1974, 155, 154][Joel Snyder and Neil Walsh Allen] They deny that the photograph can be treated as a reliable index of what was in front of the camera by describing the many ways in which the photographic image diverges from what we see when we look at the world.
They not only claim that we can evaluate photography as art, they also claim that we can evaluate photographs in much the same way that we do paintings.This denial of special principles, however, makes it impossible to fully account for the ways in which we actually experience and evaluate photographs. In what follows, I argue that we do experience photographs differently from paintings and that the critical demands of the two media diverge. I explain this divergence not by showing that photography is actually more closely tied to reality than painting, but by showing that we perceive it in this way.
[discusses photographs of representations (paintings, sculptures, mannequins, plywood paintings with faces cut out]I will show that the phenomena of transformation depend on the photographs divergence from reality. Nevertheless, I will argue that the power and fascination of photographic transformation depend on the fact that we irresistibly see photographs as presenting us with a record of reality.
By showing that, unlike painting, we read photographs as documenting the world, I will be showing that photography cannot simply adopt painting’s principles. Photography demands a separate analysis.
[describes Walker Evans’ Torn Movie Poster 1930]The grotesque effect of the photograph of the movie poster depends on the equivalence of object and it representation, of woman and picture-woman, that photography allows.
This equivalence between photographed object and photographed picture of an object is achieved primarily through the photograph’s flatness. […] in a photograph, pictures are reproduced in their two-dimensionality, whereas objects are reduced to two dimensionality. In this way the object and its picture are put on the same footing, they cannot be distinguished by the type of space they occupy.The photograph leads to a double vision: we know we are looking at a photograph of a poster, but we see it as a photograph of a woman. The tension between the two incompatible ways of seeing the picture is disturbing and surreal in that it seems to represent the horrible and impossible – the person made object, the person breaking apart to reveal a wall.The photograph thus presents us with a string of transformations.
[discusses photographs of billboards and paintings]
[discusses photographs of statues]
As with the photographs of pictures, the disturbing effect of these photographs of statues seems to arise from the creation of an equivalence of status between sculpture and person, but the reason for this photographic equivalence is not so obvious.For both pictures and sculpture, equivalence – and hence animation – is encouraged by the photograph’s motionlessness, its lack of colour, and by our tendency to anthropomorphize objects selected for our attention by the photograph.
In real life, representations impress us as inanimate. They generally are stationary is a world where living things move. The still photograph minimizes this distinction between the animate and inanimate. Both people and things are presented without motion.The use of black and white also promotes the animation of representations in both film and still photography. […] it conceals color distinctions among paint, marble, and flesh. Furthermore, the unnatural world of black and white facilitates our perception of unnatural “magical” animation. The farther removed the depicted world is from our natural world, the less we expect conformity with natural law.
Finally, the animation of representations is aided by our tendency to anthropomorphize those objects selected for attention in a photograph.This tendency is particularly strong when the object displays human features especially when those features are expressive. This expressiveness can be enhanced by camera angle, lighting and the prominence of the features within the photographic composition.[describes examples of gargoyles/statues that appear more lifelike in photographs than the humans also depicted]
Because we readily think of paintings as constructions, we see the equivalence and transformations they show as products of the artist’s imagination. On the other hand, because we tend to think of photographs as objective records of the world, the phenomena they show, no matter how surprising or disturbing, are not as easily dismissed as imaginative fictions.
Rightly of wrongly, a photograph is thought of as having a closer connection to the objects and events it depicts than even the most documentary painting. Because of the mechanical nature of its production, the photograph seems to have a special connection with reality and an independence of the photographer’s intentions.For this reason, a photograph is thought to verify the existence of its subject in a way a painting never could; the photograph requires the presence of a horse for its production, while a painting could depend wholly on the artist’s imagination.[See Kendall Walton “Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism” Critical Inquiry II (Dec 1984)]Whereas Walton uses these observations to provide evidence that photographs are “transparent,” I will use them to support the claim that photographs are perceived to possess an objectivity unavailable to painting.
The point is that as long as the works are identified as paintings, they will be seen as products of the artist’s imagination, to the extent that what they depict does not conform to what we know of the world. When, on the other hand, works are identified as photographs, they are seen not as products of the imagination, but as records of our world. This explains why photographs can have a peculiarly unsettling power and fascination. The disturbing images in photographs are seen as corresponding to a disturbing reality; they are not so easily dismissed as mere fantasy.
The painting is not seen as an object within the photograph, it is seen as the image presented by the photograph. The intrusion of the world surrounding the work of art, however, or the works own disintegration, introduces elements that can defeat a reading of a photograph as an art reproduction and enable the animation of the pictured work.[on the photo of a torn movie poster][…] the tear, the texture of the wall, and the creases lend a physical substance to the poster image: they alert us to the fact that we are looking at a bit of the world, not an insubstantial image. The intrusion of the world into the poster, instead of showing up the poster as a mere representation, imparts its own concreteness to the poster’s image.
In truth, photographs can be far from objective in how they present a subject; the photographer’s choice of camera angle, lighting, and framing all influence the way in which the subject will be seen. Furthermore, the characteristics of the medium itself – its two-dimensionality, the delimitation of its image, the use of black and white – all contribute to a divergence between what we see in a photograph and what we would have seen in person.Nevertheless, our awareness of all these factors does not change the way we see photograph – as having a special connection to reality.As Walton, Bazin, and Arnheim all point out, the documentary power of the photograph has to do with the way photographs are typically made; it does not reside in the exact duplication of appearances. Even a blurred photograph has a documentary value unavailable to a drawing or painting.
Our faith in the documentary character of the photograph is inappropriately, but irresistibly, transferred to the way that things appear within the photograph. In other words, not only do we believe that a photograph of a horse is evidence of the horse’s existence, we also believe that it shows us what the horse really looks like.People with high fevers may know that their hallucinations are not real, but they may seem real nonetheless; that is why hallucinations can be so distressing. Similarly, we may know that what the photograph seems to show is not real, but we may see it as real, and that is what makes the photograph so disturbing.
[discusses images from Imogen Cunningham, Clarence John Laughlin, Magritte and Walker Evans]
The painting may be inventive and playful in the way it collapses space, but it cannot create the conflict of knowledge and perception we find in the photograph.
The difference in our reactions to paintings and photographs do not rest on differences in precision, persuasive detail, or compelling composition, although these characteristics may certainly be important. The fundamental difference in our reactions rests instead on our disparate beliefs about the genesis of each image.
[discussion of photorealist painting and painterly photography]
We read photographs and paintings differently not simply because of differences in the way they look and not simply because of what we know about their genesis – the two reasons are interrelated. Presumably we see photographs as documents because of the mechanical production of their image, but the detail and precision typical of that image allow for the confusion of the documentary and duplicatory functions discussed earlier.If all photographers used, for example, the painterly techniques of Seeley’s and Kasebier’s gum bichromate prints, it is not clear that photographs would be given that much greater credence than paintings as indicators of how things look.
Straight photographs, altered photographs, and paintings admit of different readings, and these different readings result from the different conventions we bring to viewing – but conventions can change. Our present conventions and expectations depend on ideas we have about how photographs and paintings are typically generated. If altered or digitally manipulated photographs were to become the norm, our ways of reading photographs would significantly change.
Filed under: Analogue - Digital, Barbara E. Savedoff, Books, Essays, Images and reality, Indexicality & Photography, Materiality, Painting and Photography, Photograph as Document | Leave a Comment
Landscape is a social product; particular landscapes tell us something about cultural histories and attitudes. landscape results from human intervention to shape or transform natural phenomena, of which we are simultaneously a part.
The act of naming is an act of taming.
From its inception photography has been involved in investigating and detailing environments, helping culture to appropriate nature.
In Western philosophy, culture and nature have been posited as a binary with culture viewed as superseding, and thereby repressing, nature.
Both culture and nature are complexly inter-related, as, indeed, are masculinity and femininity.
Nature is both ‘internal’, fundamental to what constitutes us as human, and ‘out there’ in that we experience the external world through the senses, including sight.
Imagery feeds our desire for a clear sense of identity and of cultural belonging; critical imagery may question that previously accepted.
The content of images may seem natural. But representational and interpretive processes are cultural in that they are anchored in aesthetic conventions. Photographs substitute for direct encounter; they act as surrogates, mediating that which was seen through the camera viewfinder.
The spectator, even if highly tutored in the effects of aesthetic and photographic coding and of the judgements that must have been exercised by the photographer, still at one level looks ‘through’ representation at that depicted.
Filed under: Books, Introduction, Liz Wells, Photograph as Document, Photography and Place, Photography and Positivism | Leave a Comment
Flusser, Vilem. ‘The Photograph as Post-Industrial Object: An Essay on the Ontological Standing of Photographs’ Leonardo, 19:4, 329-332, 1986
The Latin term ‘objectum’ and its Greek equivalent ‘problema’ mean ‘thrown against’, which implies that there is something against which the object is thrown: a ‘subject’. As subjects, we face a universe of objects, of problems, which are somehow hurled against us. This opposition is dynamic. The objects approach the subject, they come from the future into the subject’s presence.
The shock between subject and object occurs over the abyss of alienation which separates the two. The present tendency is to relegate this shock from human subjects to automatic apparatus. Automatic cameras may serve as an example.
Understanding has to do with the eyes; the Greeks called this gaze which makes the data stand still ‘theoria’. Conception has to do with hands and fingers; the Greeks called this kind of gesture ‘praxis’. They felt a contradiction between theoretical understanding and practical action.
The fifteenth century established a dialectic between theory and praxis. One began to look in order to grasp better, and to grasp in order to see better. Modem science was born.
The eighteenth century used modern science to analyse work into two elements: one concerned the shape to be imposed on data, the other the gesture of that imposition. This resulted in machines and machine tools: the industrial revolution.
Out comes a new type of cultural object, the industrial object. This has had profound consequences: artisans and artists became marginalized,and society became divided into owners of machines and machine tools, makers of machines and machine tools and servants of machines and machine tools.
Industrial objects differ from pre-industrial ones in two aspects. First, they are more numerous-machines, being more rapid than humans, produce more objects than humans do; the result was object inflation, a devaluation of cultural objects. Second, they are stereotypical – the same tool impresses the same shape on a series of objects; the result was that cultural objects became equivalent to each other. This progressive devaluation of and indifference toward cultural objects is called ‘mass culture’.
As cultural objects became increasingly cheaper, and machines and tools increasingly more expensive, one tended to believe that those who owned the machines and the tools held the power of decision. This belief is one of the roots of Marxism. But as it became evident that ‘shape’ and ‘value’ are synonymous, that it is the toolmakers who shape the future of society, this belief shifted. It is now the toolmakers (‘information programmers’) who are believed to hold the power of decision.
The information the photo carries sits on its surface and not within its body, as in the case of shoes or fountain pens.
Though this would seem to be true for all pictures, it is not. Pre-industrial pictures are valuable as objects because one loses the information they carry if one destroys their body, just as with shoes or fountain pens. Photos are worthless as objects because the information they carry is stored elsewhere and may be transferred easily from one worthless surface to another.
A post-industrial object is objectively worthless and carries information that can be replicated and information that has been elaborated by an automated apparatus. Thus, if we are to grasp the photo (and post-industrial culture in general), we must concentrate upon the camera (and the apparatus in general).
The universe of given objects (‘nature’) tends toward a progressive loss of information. It tends toward an ever more probable distribution of the elements which compose it. Culture is a store of improbable situations which humankind opposes against this mindless natural tendency toward loss of information, toward ‘thermic death’, toward oblivion.
This is why information is synonymous with value. However, if apparatus can create information in the place of humankind, what about human commitment? What about values?
In order to restate the above philosophical problem, one may distinguish between three types of photos: photos made by fully automated cameras (e.g. a photo made from a NASA satellite), amateur photos (e.g. a photo of the photographer’s dog in front of the Duomo Cathedral in Florence) and professional photos (e.g. an experimental photo). The first type carries information programmed by humans and elaborated by apparatus. The third type carries information intended by the photographer, and this intention may be opposed to the one that programmed the apparatus. It is the second and by far most frequent type of photo which is of interest here.
The amateur photographs everything the camera can photograph and tries to exhaust the camera program. As a result, the information these photos carry has not in fact been intended either by the amateur or by the camera programmer; they were mere virtualities within the camera program, which became real through an automatic releasing gesture.
Snapshots carry little information.They are probable. But some of them are highly informative, difficult to futurize; and for a curious reason: they are bad photos. They owe their information to an error, to a deviation from the camera program.
We are familiar with this sort of information that results from error. New biological species arise through errors in the transmission of the genetic program.
An apparatus that has escaped from human intention, realizes all its virtualities automatically and deviates from its program by error, works like nature. This implies that a society dominated by uncontrolled apparatus will be thrown back into the terror of blind, absurd automaticity, into a pre-cultural situation.
The challenge is to control the apparatus. This is shown in the third type of photo. When the experimental photographer deviates from the camera program, it is done intentionally, not by error. But the problem remains that despite the intention to deviate from the program, the photographer can only photograph what is contained as a virtuality in the camera program.
Photos are about to emigrate from their material support into the electro-magnetic field, to abandon their chemistry: they will no longer be seen on paper but on screens. This is a technical revolution, and basically all cultural revolutions have a technical basis.
The new photo can be distinguished from a chemical one in three ways: (1) It is practically eternal; it is not subject to entropy, to the second principle of thermodynamics. (2) It can move and sound. (3) It can be changed by its receiver.
Objects are bad memories: paper falls into ashes, buildings into ruin, entire civilisations into oblivion. Humans are committed to preserving the information they create; they are committed to struggle against entropy, against oblivion.
The new photos may be stored in this kind of memory. [silicon-based]
(2) Total art
Ever since the fifteenth century, Occidental civilisation has suffered from the divorce into two cultures: science and its techniques – the ‘true’ and the ‘good for something’ – on the one hand; the arts – beauty – on the other. This is a pernicious distinction. Every scientific proposition and every technical gadget has an aesthetic quality, just as every work of art has an epistemological and political quality. More significantly, there is no basic distinction between scientific and artistic research: both are fictions in the quest of truth (scientific hypotheses being fictions). Electromagnetized images do away with this divorce because they are the result of science and are at the service of the imagination.
Thus the new photo not only does away with the traditional classification of the various arts (it is painting, music, literature, dance and theatre all rolled into one), but it also does away with the distinction between the ‘two cultures’ (it is both art and science).
Totalitarian society is discoursive: it emits information, like the daily press or the television system. Democratic society is dialogical: it permits the exchange of information, like the telephone. Both forms overlap at present, but discourse dominates. The new photo will change that. Cables and other reversible channels will carry information both ways. The new photo may be changed by its receiver to be sent back, thus changed, to the sender. Everybody will become capable of collaborating in the elaboration of information (within the limits imposed by automation). Democracy has become technically possible for the first time since the industrial revolution.
[Discussing the exhibition les Immatereux]
There was no object present, just immaterial information. From the point of view of industrial culture, all this was entirely useless. It cannot be consumed, only contemplated. If in the future people concentrate upon producing such useless information and relegate the production of useful objects to automatic machines and artificial intelligences, then we shall have a useless culture.
But if one changes one’s point of view, the exhibition suggests that it is precisely this uselessness of pure information that will permit humankind to lead a meaningful life for the first time.
Thanks to the automatic machines, humankind is becoming unemployed and thus free to pursue the useless dialogical elaboration of pure information. This, of course, is called ‘play’ […]
The future culture of immaterial information, as exemplified by the new photo, will hold objects in contempt: it will consume them without paying any attention to them. In this sense, the human being will no longer be subject to objects. No longer facing the universe of objects,the individual instead will be linked,through numerous channels, with other people, and together they will exchange information. One may call this sort of existence ‘intersubjective’, to distinguish it from subjective existence.
The new photo is thus an example of the emerging culture of immaterial information. All useful activities will be executed by apparatus. The individual will become free to elaborate pure information in dialogue with all the others. This information will be stored in un-perishable memories. It will be total art, and every human being will become, potentially, a universal artist. The human being will no longer exist as subject to an objective universe but as a knot within a social network which transcends space-time. This is, of course, utopian.
Filed under: Analogue - Digital, Banality & Photographs, Camera culture, Content vs Materiality of Photographs, Essays, Leonardo, Post-photography Theories, Vernacular Photography, Vilém Flusser | Leave a Comment
Damisch, Hubert. ‘Five Notes for a Phenomenology of the Photographic Image’ October, 5, Summer 1978, 70-72
Theoretically speaking, photography is nothing other than a process of recording, a technique of inscribing, in an emulsion of silver salts, a stable image generated by a ray of light.This definition, we note, neither assumes the use of a camera, nor does in imply that the image obtained is that of an object or scene from the external world.
The reluctance one feels, however, in describing such images [photograms] as photographs is a revealing indication of the difficulty of reflecting phenomenologically – in the strictest sense of an eidactic experience, a reading of essences – on a cultural object, on an essence that is historically constituted.
To consider a document of this sort like any other image is to claim a bracketing of all knowledge – and even, as we shall see, of all prejudice – as to its genesis and empirical functions.
The photographic image does not belong to the natural world. It is a product of human labor, a cultural object whose being – in the phenomenological sense of the term – cannot be dissociated precisely from its historical meaning and from the necessarily datable project in which it originates.
Imprinted by rays of light on a plate or sensitive film, these figures (or better perhaps, these signs?) must appear as the very trace of an object or a scene from the real world, the image of which inscribes itself, without direct human intervention, in the gelatinous substance covering the support.
Here is the source of the supposition of “reality,” which defines the photographic situation.
A photograph is this paradoxical image, without thickness or substance (and, in a way, entirely unreal), that we read without disclaiming the notion that it retains something of the reality from which it was somehow released through its physio-chemical make-up.
This is the constitutive deception of the photographic image (it being understood that every image, as Sartre has shown, is in essence a deceit). In the case of photography, however, this ontological deception carries with it a historical deceit, far more subtle and insidious. And here we return to that object which we got rid of a little too quickly: the black box, the photographic camera.
Niepce, the successive adepts of the Daguerrotype, and those innumerable inventors who made photography what it is today, were not actually concerned to create a new type of image or to determine novel modes of representation; they wanted, rather, to fix the images which “spontaneously” formed on the ground of the camera obscura.
The adventure of photography begins with man’s first attempts to retain that image he had long known how to make.
This long familiarity with an image so produced, and the completely objective, that is to say automatic or in any case strictly mechanical, appearance of the recording process, explains how the photographic representation generally appeared as a matter of course, and why one ignores its highly elaborated, arbitrary character.
In discussions of the invention of film, the history of photography is most frequently presented as that of a discovery. One forgets, in the process, that the image the first photographers were hoping to seize, and the very latent image which they were able to reveal and develop, were in no sense naturally given; the principles of construction of the photographic camera – and the camera obscura before it – were tied to a conventional notion of space and of objectivity whose development preceded the invention of photography, and to which the great majority of photographers only conformed.
The lens itself, which has been carefully corrected for “distortions” and adjusted for “errors,” is scarcely as objective as it seems. [French for lens is objectif]. In its structure and in the ordered image of the world it achieves, it complies with an especially familiar though very old and delapidated [sic] system of spatial construction, to which photography belatedly brought an unexpected revival of current interest.
(Would the art, or rather the craft, of photography not consist partly in allowing us to forget that the black box is not “neutral” and that its structure is not impartial?)
The retention of the image, its development and multiplication, form an ordered succession of steps which composed the photographic act, taken as a whole. History determined, however, that this act would find its goal in reproduction, much the way the point of film as spectacle was established from the start.
So that photography’s contribution, to use the terms of classical economy, is less on the level of production, properly speaking, than that of consumption. Photography creates nothing of “use” (aside from its marginal and primarily scientific applications); it rather lays down the premises of an unbridled destruction of utility.
But it is important to note that even when it [photographic activity] gives us, through the channels of publishing, advertising, and the press, only those images which are already half consumed, or so to speak, “predigested,” this industry fulfils the initial photographic project; the capturing a restoration of an image already worn beyond repair, but sill, through its physical nature, unsuited to mass consumption.
Photography aspires to art each time, in practice, it calls into question its essence and its historical roles, each time it uncovers the contingent character of these things, soliciting in us the producer rather than the consumer of images.
Filed under: Essays, Hubert Damisch, Images and reality, Indexicality & Photography, Invention of photography, October, Phenomenology | Leave a Comment
McCauley, Anne. ‘Overexposure: Thoughts on the Triumph of Photography’, The Meaning of Photography ed. by Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson (Williamstown, MA: Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, 2005) 159-162
[discusses photography’s acceptance into art institutions]
Museums became infotainment for people who wanted to walk rather than sit in front of screens when escaping from their jobs, to have the illusion of free will when they chose what to look at and when to leave.
If the desire for exoticism – finely wrought goods from temporally and geographically distant places – lured visitors into these emporia of culture, then how did the photographs sit in that space.
I would like to be able to say that art museums embraced photographs because artists coming out of Pop art reintroduced recognizable, commercial signs and photo-based images into “high art,” and conceptual and performance artists of the late 1960s and early 1970s snuck them in through the back door as documentation. This is the line that I have fed my students for years, and there is some truth in it, but it is a story of interest only to fellow fine artists and the one percent of urbanites who make up the “Art World”.
In fact, the public had always loved photography: witness the Family of Man and the enormous circulation of picture magazines in the 1920s to the 1950s. The people who didn’t like photography were elites, cultural or social […]
Art changed, museums changed, and elites changed. First in America, and finally, even in that bastion of culture, France, museums have turned over increasing amounts of space to photography.
Certainly part of this transformation can be written off on purely economic grounds […] but the overriding truth is that photographs are now enticing visitors across the socioeconomic scale with their tidy mixture of comfortable familiarity, historic insight, and just enough formal distortion to make them look different from recollected vision.
As an object, the photograph tells its story in a flash at a safe distance, which is the way we now want our messages.
But at the same time, the photographic object still carries its indexical link to another time, its historicity.
While we marvel over the fact that Leonardo’s hand actually held the brush that dragged across the wood panel or that Rembrandt’s wife actually lay in front of him as we made that pen drawing, we cherish the traditional art because of what it arouses in the present, not because it freezes the past.
In contrast, photographs shown in public spaces still bear traces of the same power that draws us to family albums: They remain fetishes that mystically and magically embody lost bodies.
As one of the few visual media still having an extra-artistic life, photography can be painted as popular (in family albums, newspapers, advertising, Facebook) and artistic, thus fodder for historians, anthropologists, journalists, sociologists, and humanists, as well as art historians who want to escape the damning charge of “elitism” that currently plagues the field.
The success of photography within humanistic studies and its simultaneous omnipresence within art schools and museums hinge on the same paradoxical assumption: that one forgets about the technologies needed to actually make a picture but remembers that the photograph is indexical and thus always documentary.
Something has been gained: Many scholars are looking closely at photographs and thinking about how they shape our view of the world. But something has been lost: Too many take them as given, as mental constructs removed from labor.
Digital photography, making the darkroom obsolete and shifting the creativity to the keyboard, encourages this type of thinking, as does the practice of outsourcing the actual printing to commercial firms that is now customary for all large, mural-scale fine arts photographs.
Most photographic production historically always entailed division-of-labor techniques, but those photographs remained commodities with no pretences to rarity or artistic value.
At the risk of sounding like a follower of a Debord or Sontag, I am a little uneasy with the current fascination with photography, whether the large, glossy, laminated prints stunning visitors at art museums or the family snapshots being published by cultural historians.
We are now hoarding machine-made goods in the absence of almost any handmade objects; we are artificially constructing uniqueness out of mass sensibilities (wanting our family to be different from all families); we are desperate for connections with people whom we know only through the mediations of electronics and technologies of vision.
Have we become so happy with the copy that we can no longer imagine the real thing?
Filed under: Analogue - Digital, Anne McCauley, Criticism of Photography, Edited Books, Essays, Images and reality, Personal Responses to Images, Photography's Art History | Leave a Comment