The cover shot shows the continuing growth of photomaking machines. It also shows the decline of the ‘professional’ machine, the SLR’s, compact and format cameras, and the massive growth of the mobile machine, iphone/smartphone etc. The line has blurred between photographs produced by professionals paid to produce images and those taken by the citizen. The media, advertising and many people are now accepting images produced by the smartphone where previously they would have paid someone to produce the image.
Last year I stood in a field next to a professional photographer whose work is regularly used by Getty Images. We were photographing the Belvedere along with another 50 or so people. He told me he now earns less than a tenth for an image than he did ten years prior.
From Analogue Truth to Digital Undecideable
The shift from film processing to digital imaging has also impacted the veracity given to a photograph. Consider The Photographic Image by Daniel Rubinstein and Katrina Sluis p 29.
‘Previous understandings of the photographic image as an indexical, discrete or enframed semantic unit appear increasingly inadequate when faced with the inter- network with its boundlessness, simultaneity and processuality. One important consequence of photography’s diffusion into general computing is that it is no longer clear ‘where’ the image is. Online, there is no point at which the image ends; rather, there is an endless succession of temporary constellations of images, held together by a certain correlation of metadata, distribution of pixels or Boolean query. The very technologies that underscore the veracity of representation also produce the possibility of serial duplication.
and p 30
There is a shift here away from content to the rhythm, circulation, and proliferation of the utterance, which, as Jodi Dean notes, ‘exerts a force, a compulsion; repetition has effects independent of the meaning of what is repeated’ (2010: 26). The fractal structure that underpins the network suggests a very different kind of temporality that is based around non-linear, fragmented and instantaneous time. The network does not have opening hours, holidays, weekends, past or future. It is always in the present and it is everywhere at the same time. The time of the network is different from the time of the ticking clock and from the biological time of the living organism. Each packet of data it carries is inscribed with its own time frame, its own ‘time to live’ (TTL), its own internal duration (Cubitt 2012: 8–15). In contrast, photography has traditionally been understood as having a very straightforward relationship to time: as a placeholder of memories, a frozen slice of the past, or to paraphrase Barthes, that was there. For Barthes (1981: 5) there was a sense of continuity between the moment in the past when the picture was taken and the moment in the present when the picture is viewed, because ‘[w]hat the photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once; the photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially’.
The digitalisation of the photograph means the image is made rather than reproduced. The making is decided by algorithms and hardware produced by manufacturers of the new digital equipment. There are productions of images seeking to mirror what the eye sees and other such as the hipstamatic that are giving a modified view of the world. In the latter retro and simulated ageing of photographs are examples.
There can be no dispute that the digital image is less real than its analogue predecessor despite looking sharper and to many eyes more real. Again The Photographic Image by Daniel Rubinstein and Katrina Sluis p 32.
The undecidability of the networked image. It is quite common to think about software as rational and mathematically determined. However, some software theorists take issue with this approach and point out that there is something inherently impenetrable, even ghostly or spectral in the way software is structured. Wendy Chun writes: As our machines increasingly read and write without us, as our machines become more and more unreadable so that seeing no longer guarantees knowing (if it ever did), we the so-called users are offered more to see, more to read. As our machines disappear getting flatter and flatter, the density and opacity of their computation increases. Every use is also an act of faith: we believe these images and systems render us transparent not for technological, but rather for metaphorical, or more strongly ideological reasons. (Chun 2011: 17) The present ‘frenzy’ of image making and the parallel decline of visual knowledge is related to the paradox of software Chun describes. This is due to two competing phenomena: the proliferation of digital images and visual culture and the decline in the transparency of total information systems (Chun 2011: 15). There is continuity here with earlier concerns about the opacity of the photographic apparatus. As Flusser suggests, photography was always a black box operated by a photographer according to a program that fulfils the aims of the military-industrial-entertainment complex that makes the camera. He notes that ‘Anyone who takes snaps has to adhere to the instructions for use – becoming simpler and simpler – that are programmed to control the output end of the camera’ (2000: 59).
Photography is changing but remains the same. The photographer, professional and citizen, points and shoots and edits and displays. There are now an infinite number of ways of representing what was there and in digitalisation we must accept that it is undecidable if it is the truest or best representation of what was real. It is also clear that the appetite of consumers of images remains voracious and more accepting of a much wider range of sources. Much of the availability even at a high quality is now becoming available for free.
Despite this change there are still tremendous opportunities to find new ways of explaining the world through photography. Photography for me is about something interesting other people don’t see, capturing it and then finding a way of getting them to see it and be curious about it. To do this we need to keep looking.
One of the most well-known critiques of representation is articulated in the work of Michael Bakhtin (1895–1975) through the concept of the ‘dialogic’. While Bakhtin developed his critique in a different cultural environment, the dialogic model is particularly illuminating within the context of the networked image. The basic premise of the dialogic model is very simple: every utterance gets its meaning from the context within which it is pronounced. Meaning is not pre-determined or given in advance, but constructed from the network of relations in which the utterance came into being, the utterances it responds to and the ones it anticipates. Considered dialogically an image cannot be reduced to the intentions vested in it by the photographer or the author, because ‘when a speaker produces an utterance at least two voices can be heard simultaneously’ (Wertsch 1991: 13). The question then becomes, how can we ultimately know what is the meaning of the networked image? According to the dialogic model there can never be a final and definitive interpretation of any image because in each new situation, in each new encounter with an audience or viewers, the image will acquire new inter- pretations and meanings. An image does not receive its meaning from its indexi- cality nor from its iconicity, but from the network of relations around it. This implies, as Rupert Wegerif says, that ‘meaning cannot be grounded upon any fixed or stable identities but is the product of difference’ (Wegerif 2008: 349). Algorithmic imagination When Descartes posited representation as the basis for finite, universal and rational worldview he was able to do so by defining subjectivity as rational and autonomous. In this way knowledge became limited to that which can be determined by the representational powers of the subject. As we have argued, the network creates conditions of production and dissemination that allow the image to be both formed and formless, both finite and infinite, both rational and irrational. The image does not cease to be mimetic, or have content, but this content consists of self-replicating images that create meaning by operating in the register of intensity rather than representation. This is not the ocularcentric image anchored in Cartesian rationality, Brunelleschian perspective, Albertian frame, but an image that is subject to a logic of instant multiplicity where it can appear simultaneously in any point whatever of the network. While replication has always been an inherent characteristic of photography, the simultaneity of the image creates a climate of pluralism and abundance, of visual excess and of sensorial overload that remains unaccounted for by the semiotics of representation, sign, signifier and signified. Or, as Deleuze (1989: 139) suggests: ‘The diversity of narrations cannot be explained by the avatars of the signifier, by the states of a linguistic structure which is assumed to underlie images in general.’ 36 Daniel Rubinstein and Katrina Sluis source
The concept of dialogis neatly explains for me the narrative surrounding a photograph. Without a context and a viewer with a worldview there is no narrative. The photograph is a piece of paper with shades of lights and darks on it and nothing more. It is the context and the viewer that creates the dialogue. Further I am hoping to create work that by viewing the photograph the viewer is changed.
Categories: Positions and Practice