Guest blogger Rodrigo H. ٠ Photographic Imaging and its Ontological Status After the Information Revolution ٠

A New Type of Engineering

As philosopher Luciano Floridi[1] pointed out, over the last decades it has become evident that Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) “have made the creation, management, and utilization of information, communication, and computational resources vital issues, not only in our understanding of the world and of our interactions with it, but also in our self-assessment and identity”[p. 12, 1]. In short, they have sparked a revolution whose long-term consequences might rival those brought by Copernicus, Darwin and Freud; in the sense that our epistemological edifice, slowly but effectively, has begun to undertake profound and irreversible transformations.

ICTs brought forward a new type of architecture and engineering for which there is still no philosophical term or category, simply because they have subverted our very own criterion for existence. I am referring to software and digital artifacts of the like.

These systems exist at a particular level of abstraction, for they are not bound by the same material constraints the large majority of the objects we identify as concrete are. Moreover, they are not as ethereal as an idea or a concept, provided that (a) we can readily perceive them and, (b) despite their intangibility, we can interact with them, at least indirectly.

Information and Communication Technologies are “radically transforming devices,” since their workings have material consequences in our world. Therefore, they are “not merely re-engineering” it, “but actually re-ontologizing it,” that is, ”fundamentally transforming its intrinsic nature”[p.16, 1].

The Post-Photographic Discourse

Amidst this context, the photographic image, our ‘contemporary visual paradigm,’[2] along with the majority of our modern modes of representation, have been directly or indirectly transfigured into digital signals. This circumstance provoked a considerable amount of distress amongst certain circles dedicated to the study of Photography. The consistency of the arguments wielded and predictions formulated by this trend of thought has made it possible to refer to it as the ’post-photographic discourse.’

A common object of discussion within this current is ‘the death of photography’ and the tradition it sustains at the hands of “new photographic simulation technologies,”[p.109, 3] i.e.: digital photography. The preferred argument to sustain the former assertion is the impossibility of granting a digitally generated image the full status of an indexical sign, provided that it is not a trace, not a ‘sign of reality’ but more or less a “sign of signs”[p.140, 3].

For the post-photographic discourse the ‘plausibility’ of photography as a medium —and as a proof of its referent’s existence— has “always rested on its unique indexical relation to the world”[p. 139, 3]. Hence, its substitution for a method incapable of bearing this defining trace would put an end to over 150 years of imaging tradition.

In addition, it is possible for digital images to have no origin, because —allegedly— they can be summoned out of thin computation; therefore, ‘fake’ photographs could be presented as ‘real’ ones[p. 129, 3]. Thus, instead of being an inevitable trace of the medium, under the digital paradigm, reality becomes nothing more than ‘an effect’[2] which can be achieved through data manipulation.

Being incapable of establishing a distinction between fake and real photographic images would eventually lead potential observers to disregard photography as a proxy for objectivity and truth. By the same token, its authority as document would inevitably dwindle and humanity could experience a gradual ‘loss of historicity’[4].

Following this train of thought to its logical conclusion shows that the impossibility of distinguishing original from simulation actually means being incapable of separating truth from falsehood; this would inevitably lead to a dangerous ethical crisis, the type that breeds the horrors and madness humanity experiences each time we allow our moral compass to go berserk.

But the emergence of digital imaging has yet another potentially dreadful consequence according to the post-photographic discourse. Namely, that by turning representations into undifferentiated data could effectively blur the distinctions between thing & sign, nature & culture and, most importantly: human and machine. If everything were effectively translated into series of “one sign and its absence, 1 and 0,”[p. 18, 5] our entire world and culture would end up being reduced to an undifferentiated ‘artificial nature’[p. 129, 3].

A Heterogeneous Technology

However ominous and moving the former arguments may seem, it is difficult to agree with them, for it is hardly feasible that our entire moral and ethical edifice could crumble down with the abdication of a single semantic category invented by a 19th century semiotician who happened to vaguely associate it to a representation technology that began to be perfected around the same decade he was born. Not only would this reveal our ethical apparatus as feeble, but it would also mean that photographic representation predates and, therefore, is an inescapable prerequisite for distinguishing truth from lies.

Evidently, this portrayal of the so-called post-photographic arguments has been somewhat harsh. But the straw-man strategy was deliberately adopted to show how entrenched photographic representation has become within our cultural references, and how anxious we feel by the prospects of subjecting it to a profound epistemological change. Even to the point of assuming that thousands of years of philosophical assumptions could be banished by the consequences of a single technological shift.

Provided that Photography has never been one single technology —for if it were, calotype would still be a mainstream technique and we would not be having this discussion— but instead, a large collection of them, a mere change in imaging technology would definitely “not, in and of itself, cause the disappearance of the photograph and the culture it sustains”[p. 140, 3].

Radical as they truly are, the developments brought on by ICTs could hardly do away with photographic representation, largely because these technologies are the main reason why our contemporary visual paradigm revolves around this particular kind of image. However, what effectively has been modified is our understanding of Photography as a medium.

Whether we like it or not, our categories are transient placeholders established by convention, and not concrete entities held in place by any natural law. What we refer to as the ‘photographic medium’ is one of such placeholders, and it is precisely the pertinence of its use to characterize Photography what has been called into question with the emergence and widespread presence of digital imaging.

The history of photographic representation is not monolithic; it is a story of technological overlapping, where new procedures have constantly been developed and almost immediately have been forced to compete amongst themselves in an evolutionary-like fashion, with entire ‘branches’ having shorter or longer spans of existence. A process that is far from having slowed down.

Since hardly anything can exist in a vacuum, it is obvious that with the former technical progresses and disruptions also came social, economical and epistemological transformations that many times influenced their emergence, but whom were also their very consequence. As Friedrich Kittler points out when citing Nietzsche: “our tools are always working on our thoughts”[p. 199, 5], but we should add that this is a two-way road.

As photographic methods became more systematic and their use was normalized (in the ample sense of the word), photographic objects came to be regarded as the paramount conveyors of objective and realistic representation, due to their mimetic qualities, but also to a certain amount of ignorance and superstition concerning their origin, which, in some cases, was described as a process where Nature inscribed itself.
These ontological concerns are evident in the writings of Talbot[6] who, after perfecting the calotype and obtaining more stable images, still struggled to “explain the nature of their conjuring”[p. 132, 3]; not being fully able to grasp what those ”lingering presences,“ those ”spectral traces of an object no longer fully present”[3] actually were.

These are more or less the same questions that dominate contemporary discussions on Photography, making it difficult to state exactly what the so-called photographic medium is. For we have not decided if photographs are objects in themselves, actual windows to a by-gone world and time, or mere-two dimensional meaningful surfaces where we project our anxieties and through which we communicate our knowledge of the world. Needless to say, during the last few decades these same concerns have served as the discursive foundations for most of the meanderings surrounding Photography as an artistic medium and object.

The Indexicality Argument

The more esoteric beliefs about photography are rooted in 19th Century’s pre-modern conception of physics and chemistry. But the notion of a photographic medium and its specific ‘language’ has its origins in the modernist conception of aesthetic practices. Behind the traces we assume as inherent to photographic representation, in particular its authority as an objective document, lie the modernist episteme and its idealistic conception of both certainty and categorization, which resulted in photography’s mission as an objective account of the world and its objects, and barely anything more.

This view was effectively contested with the theoretical upheaval initiated by the post-modern critique. But once it became clear that photography could —and actually, most of the time was— manipulated, and that there is no such thing as an absolutely objective phenomenological account of the world, the photographic medium and its institutions found themselves in need of a justifying argument to fill the void left when the hopes for a purely ‘straight’ representation of the world were abandoned. And the answer came in the form of indexicality: the esoteric set of beliefs that support the notion of photographs as traces, as symptoms of reality, as ’fingerprints’ if you will.

Indexicality does away with mimesis as Photography’s defining virtue (because rather than guarding off illusions, iconicity is more likely to cause them) privileging the belief that a photographic image’s testimonial power lies not in its ability to resemble its referent, but in turning its existence into an indisputable fact: somebody or something necessarily had to appear before the camera[7]. Here, photographic realism came to reside, as a trace, and indexicality became the last stronghold for objectivity and truth. Until ‘digital photography’ came along, that is.

Digital imaging cannot claim to be indexical, for it is not a trace, an inscription or an imprint of the world into a surface. Digital images are representations not constrained by materiality; they do not degrade —although they can certainly be corrupted and easily erased too— nor do they succumb to damage as a negative or an analogue photograph does. At a fundamental level, digital images do not exist under the same terms as analogue photographic images, because they share the same unmapped ontological place as software and other digital artifacts.

Photography is Visualization

Under (our) modern metaphysics, the same ones that sustain most of the claims held by the post-photographic discourse, analogue photographs ‘touch’ reality, they are objects with a physical tangible presence in history. Whereas a digital image, no matter how well it mimics the photographic ‘look’, will continue to be an abstraction made up of ‘signs of signs’[p. 140, 3], a seemingly awkward visualization of data whose origin can always be contested.

But as it turns out, analogue photography is also visualization, albeit of a different species. According to Vilém Flusser’s description, photography is the first technical image[8], that is, a third degree abstraction by virtue of being the indirect product of applied scientific concepts, which, rudimentary speaking, consist of systematized knowledge trying to explain and predict natural phenomena.

In other words, photographs are visual renderings of electromagnetic waves by means of a continuous analogous quantity. In this case, photosensitive silver halide crystals of irregular shapes and sizes randomly disposed onto a sheet of cellulose, which is then submitted to a series of chemical processes. The result is meaningful visual data that, after centuries of exposure to artificial perspective, we interpret as a remarkably accurate figurative bidimensional representation of a tridimensional real-life event.

A Mathematical Distance

By making visible a previously invisible abstraction through an algorithm born out of scientific ingenuity, photographs and their digital counterparts can be rightly referred as visualizations; after all, both convey information about the world in a similar fashion. Nevertheless, at a fundamental level there is a considerable gap, which sets apart one technical image from the other.

The difference between analogue an digital photographic images is mathematical, meaning the first kind has been effectively quantized into discrete computable values —it has been ‘translated’ into numbers— while the second remains tied to a time-varying continuous signal which can be quantified only in approximate terms.

Digital imaging depends on the exact processing of numerical data, which means it can be treated in terms of pure abstraction; it can be manipulated through algorithms and functions, as an objective quantity, as pure Information.

Digital imaging belongs to the same ontological plane as software and digital artifacts of the like. From here it follows that adequately grasping the inner workings of digital imaging requires having at least a vague notion of the logic behind computational processes, in other words: acquiring a new kind of literacy.

Without this computational literacy[p. 130, 9] our digital artifacts will continue to be unfathomable black boxes and, as Kittler reportedly commented[p. xv, 5], ‘media science’ will remain simple ‘media history’ as long as cultural critics “know higher mathematics only from hearsay”.

However, it is fair to say that being computationally literate does not necessarily entail being a polymath, or even being proficient in programming languages. It means having a notion of how the intrinsic logic and procedures for data handling work, it means to be able to approach TICs and the cultural artifacts they produce beyond a glittering Graphic User Interface (GUI).

Being computationally literate entails discerning that despite its appearance as a “high-frequency and low-content” concept that “permeates our ordinary language without attracting much attention”[p. 8, 10], information actually constitutes the driving force behind our everyday activities, playing a “key role in the ways we have come to understand, model, and transform reality”[p. 40, 11].

If digital imaging is essentially a means to visualize information through data recollection and computation, to approach it wielding the same conceptual battery we use to describe analogue photography seems, at the very least, anachronistic.

The anxiousness present in the post-photographic discourse seems to be a direct consequence of the dwindling adequacy of our analytical tools. For anxiety is a fear whose exact origin we cannot pinpoint, a fear of the unknown. The inability of our categories to offer an adequate account of how digital cultural artifacts work has made us fearful because we cannot understand any given phenomenon if we can’t formulate a satisfactory description of it[p. 447, 9].

To do so, perhaps we should reflect on how dramatically our tools have changed over the last decades, and how our thoughts have been overrun by their workings. Perhaps, instead of entrenching on our traditional categories, we should start to build new ones, not cemented on fear or suspiciousness, but on a new informed imagination.

  • Floridi, Luciano. 2010. Information: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Ribalta, Jorge. 2008. “Molecular Documents: Photography in the Post-Photographic Era, or How Not to be Trapped into False Dilemmas.” In The Meaning of Photography, edited by Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson, 179–193. Massachusetts: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute / Yale University Press.

  • Batchen, Geoffrey. 2000. Each Wild Idea: Writing, Photography, History. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

  • Doane, Mary Ann. 2008. “Indexicality and the Concept of Medium Specificity.” In The Meaning of Photography, edited by Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson, 3–14. Massachusetts: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute / Yale University Press.

  • Kittler, Friedrich A. 1999. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Edited by Timothy Lenoir and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Writing Science. California: Stanford University Press. Original edition, 1986.

  • Talbot, William Henry Fox. 2010. “The Pencil of Nature.” In, ed Martin Schub. London: Project Gutemberg. eBook.

  • Barthes, Roland. 2004. La cámara lúcida. Barcelona: Paidós Comunicación. Original edition, 1980.

  • Flusser, Vilém. 2006. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Translated by Anthony Mathews. London: Reaktion Books. Original edition, 1983. Reprint, 3d.

  • Carvalhais, Miguel. 2010. “Towards a Model For Artificial Aesthetics. Contributions to the Study of Creative Practices in Procedural and Computational Systems.” PhD, Faculdade de Belas-Artes, Universidade do Porto.

  • Adriaans, Pieter, and Johan van Benthem. 2008. “Introduction: Information is What Information Does.” In Handbook of The Philosophy of Science: Philosophy of Information, edited by Pieter Adriaans and Johan van Benthem, 8–29. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

  • Floridi, Luciano. 2004. “Information.” In The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Computing and Information, edited by Luciano Floridi, 40–61. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

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