My granddaughter Ella, aged 8, asked me over Xmas how the universe started. She is bright so I asked her why it had to start. Everything has to start she says. Does it? I asked. This conversation is hopefully going to go on for a life time. Photography is similarly troubled by the question is the image presented a true representation of reality? What is reality I ask? Let us consider.
The above two images are of my wife, Karen. The one on the left was taken in 1959 when she was five years old. It is what we call an analogue image taken by her father Robert on a Leica. A view is this is a reliable representation of a moment that occurred. Light bounced off her, through a lens on to light sensitive film which when developed produced a negative and then a print. It is a true representation of reality at that moment.
The image on the right was taken last year when Karen was 64 years old. I took the image on a digital Canon camera. Much is now written that this is a far less reliable representation of a moment that occurred. Light bounced off her, through a lens on to a light sensitive sensor which is then coded in to digital ones and zeroes. It is coded via algorithms that decide where the ones and zeroes should go. The image that is then printed goes through further algorithmic manipulation to produce the image we see. A view is that this is a far less reliable representation of a moment that occurred.
It all depends where we stand. For me personally I did not know Karen when she was five but this image is one of the most real representations of her for me. It captures her in the way Barthes found his mother. I also saw her when I took the image of her last year and again to my eye it is a fair representation of what I saw. The trouble is that however hard I try to explain this to you your response will be my opinion is too subjective.
I will come back to the ski slopes of the theory of photography shortly but for a moment will return to the conversation with Ella. The human brain cannot deal with entirety all at once. It has to break things down in to manageable chunks. It invented language to help it do this. It then forgot that it had to break things down in to manageable chunks as it struggles to put the chunks together in a meaningful whole. We invent the word ‘real’ and then go to great lengths debating if something is a representation of that reality. I will explore this further in my project but set out here that there was no beginning, there will be no end, I am not separate from the world other than linguistically and ontologically.
This is important to me because the photographic image has become one of the best chunking devices to produce evidence that we existed and continue to do so. Ironically it doesn’t confirm we do exist as every photograph is telling us something about something that might have happened. It is always something from the past.
It is debatable whether the analogue image above is a more reliable representation of reality than the digital image. Isn’t the choice of chemicals and surfaces a form of algorithmic intervention between the subject and the print?
Rossack (2011:23) argues the digital image has broken the ‘causal relationship between storage and display’ suggesting that ‘the digital image cannot be fully understood through the premises of indexicality and ocular-centrism as its final appearance is the result of computation rather than the direct agency of light.’
I would argue against this and suggest that the choice of material to capture an analogue image and then the choices of chemicals to fix the image is as infinite as the algorithms that can be constructed to manipulate the digital code. I illustrate this by reference to Matthew Brandt’s process in which he captures an image in an analogue way and then uses material from the subject as part of his processing. For example he takes an image of waterfalls and uses water from those falls to fix the image. This can take from minutes to months for the chemicals to have their effect. The effect is usually stunningly beautiful as the chemicals from the location do their work. Nobody would suggest this is a true representation of what he saw when he took the shot but equally others could suggest it is a fair representation of what is there at the location
Bazin references photography’s ‘transference of reality from the thing to its representation.’ (Bazin 2004:13-14) and Rubinstein and Sluis suggest the view he is offering cements ‘the rational human agent as the sole author of the image’. They then refer to the ‘algorithmic image’ which they suggest is ‘malleable and non indexical as it became computational and programmable.’ Further they argue ‘photography’s diffusion in to general computing is that it is no longer clear ‘where’ the image is’. If this logic is to be applied the same question must be asked of the image in the analogue process.
Continuing their line of thought Rubinstein and Sluis suggest ‘the networked image is undecidable, as opposed to immaterial or indeterminate because the latter implies nothingness and absence, while the former names the incomplete and unresolved.’ If this logic is sound it is equally applicable to the analogue image and all the choices made of materials and chemicals to capture the image.
As with the conversation with my granddaughter we are well in to linguistic, definitional and ontological constructs as we seek to link photographs and photography to ‘reality.’ It is important because we want to understand the level of meaning we are bringing to what we are doing with our work.
I do agree with Rubinstein and Sluis that ‘it is not the subject who masters technology, but technology that produces the cultural and linguistic forms that construct subjectivity.’ The debate on what best represents reality will go on and on.
In my own work I want to explore all forms of representation that arise from my own existence and intention. As Colberg (2014) says ‘(I photograph, therefore I am) photographs are intimately tied to authorship: photographs are essentially reconfirming their maker’s (author’s) presence one picture at a time…..the existence of a photograph provides proof that someone felt the need to reconfirm her or his presence.’ So I will be the author of my work and create a narrative with an intent that it be of interest to other people and make a difference.
For my project this means breaking reality down in to forms that I experience and putting them back together in the form of an image. I will do this by exploring me, me and other and me and the world and seek the real goal of everything in reality being connected. There is no separation other than the uses that word is applied to.
Rossack, E.(2011). Algorithmic Culture:Beyond the photofilm divide, in Between Stillness and Motion: Film, photography, Algorithm. Amsterdam. Amsterdam University Press.
Rubinstein, D & Sluis, K Algorithmic Photography and the crisis of representation in The Digital Image in Photographic Culture.
Bazin, A. (2004) What is Cinema. Trans. H.Gray. Berkely. CA:Universty of California Press.