Optimising Photography

This is the essay I presented at the Image Nineteen Photography Symposium on the 26th of February 2014 at The Herbert Art Gallery, in Coventry.

Imagine technology as a train that constantly moves forward, as time does, according to our perception. Photography is a product of technology, in this example acting as a single coach, which is inherently synced with its direction, and shares many of its attributes. In order to understand how photography has taken it’s current form and attempt to think of a possible future we have to trace its origin, and course in time.

The principal concept of photography is situated in the camera obscura, where light enters a hole, travels through a darkened room, and projects onto a vertical plane. The second concept arising from the evolution of photography, replacing human actions, is Automation. Upon these concepts we have built the photographic apparatus. From the late 19th century chemical processes, like the daguerreotype and the dry plates, to the early 20th century mechanical automation, such as the aperture and the shutter. New processes were inspired by older ones, as a means of efficiency. A great example is advancing from plate to film photography. The photographic film still used light sensitive chemicals, but was more flexible, lighter and did not require skills nor training to make photographs. According to Bruno Latour is “a fundamental alteration of the relationships between the photographer, camera and subject”.

The culmination of these new technologies and skills took the form of the 35mm camera. Another example, is the instant film used in Polaroid cameras. The recording medium itself contained the chemicals for developing and fixing the photograph, without any human intervention.

The invention of the digital image sensor, has essentially replaced the film, in the same manner film did for its predecessor. In the words of Amanda Griscom;
“When new media descend upon a culture they do not eradicate the influence of their antecedents, but reposition and supplement them.”
Martin Hand defines the digital camera as the “embodiment of over a century’s worth of photographic practice and knowledge, aesthetic conventions and expectations of specific genres.”

Processes are transformed into actions; digital filters, which can be applied onto an image with a single click or a hand gesture. The simplicity of use only signifies the complexity of automation underlying their operation. Even though new media do not eradicate their precedents, digital imaging has become the dominant visual medium, signified by the intensive development of consumer-level cameras. Michelle Henning states that “the technology of the digital camera is being constructed as a replacement of analog/chemical technologies instead of an alternative technology with its own specificity.”

In his attempt to remain neutral on the impact of digital technology, Lev Manovich, states that “the digital image tears apart everything associated with the culture of photography, but the same time solidifies, glorifies and immortalise the photographic.

I have come to believe that the demise of photography is a cultural notion, which has failed because it lacks to define the term photography. If photography is not over, then it must have transcended in new forms. It is clear that the medium continues to evolve on the principles of automation, making it more convenient, accessible, while requiring less knowledge from its users.

It might be the Kodak Brownie that popularised the medium, but it was the digital camera that democratised it.

A photograph’s existence in the new environment is immaterial. The digitally produced image is no longer a result of chemical reactions fixed on paper, but the conversion of light into electric current, symbolised by numerical code, visualised on a grid of pixels. A photograph is no longer a physical object bound by the laws of gravity, but millions of picture elements dictated by those of electricity. The nature of this environment has given opportunity for the photograph to exist beyond the boundaries of its frame. The digital image is a collection of numbers in virtual boxes. Unlike the analogue photograph, they contain more than a representation of reality.

They hold non-visual data vital to the existence of an image. These are also known as metadata. They are responsible for making the photograph compatible with the computational environment. There is a variety of metadata input fields as, time of acquisition; or the geographical location. Other describe attributes of the object, that is the image, while other of the physical and virtual environment it was generated in. Metadata is information embedded within the object, but not the image. They serve as a mediator between humans and computers. Therefore becoming a semantic layer, enhancing the meaning of the visual layer.

The semantic layer is structured as such, that both humans and computers understand. It is a very strict language that does not leave room for alternative interpretations. The way I perceive it is as if we are adapting to the computer, rather than the opposite. Our relationship with the virtual environment is achieved through semantics and simulations, think of your personal computer.

Fred Ritchin notices that “we are given terms from nature and from the utilitarian everyday – as in windows, desktop, folder, file, the web; to describe an environment of inferior sensorial capacity.”

The rise of the world wide web expanded the reach of computation, connecting anything that is digital, enabling us, the operators, to communicate in more ways than the pre-internet media allowed. Since the photograph has transcended to its new form, it is compatible with the network.

Marshall Mcluhan thought of the media as the extensions of man. He believed that “any extension, whether of skin, hand, or foot, affects the whole psychic and social complex.”

Science-fiction author Cory Doctorow describes cars, airplanes, and the buildings we inhabit, “as computers we put our bodies into.”

Undeniably computers are becoming extensions of our own bodies that mediate our thoughts and actions. It is estimated a billion smartphones were sold just in 2013. These devices are connected and see the world through cameras. We use them to keep our memories, tell stories, search the internet, communicate with those we care. With them at hand we can extract fragments from the physical space, while bring to life experiences off the virtual.

Though cameras; are attached to any and every physical object. We use cameras in buildings and transportation for security, satellites and telescopes for observations, but also surveillance; we use cameras for military purposes by attaching them on robots and drones.

We train computers to analyse images and act on our behalf. Increasingly we rely on vast amount of digital imagery to tell us the truth, or show us the way.

“The direct observation of visible phenomena gives way to a tele-observation in which the observer has no immediate contact with the observed reality.” (Paul Virilio)

By examining in depth the nature of the photographic apparatus, it has been clear to me that its evolution didn’t give us just more ways to create images, but expanded our biological capabilities. We have certainly gained greater understanding of our current environment but only through the artificial construct. Therefore, this does not only raise questions relevant to the future of photography, but also the future of humanity in a mediated environment.

A recording of the presentation (08:37):

Slides (with attribution):

alternative download link:

List of references:

Mcluhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. London: Routledge

Newhall, B. (1982) The History of Photography : From 1839 to The Present. London: Secker & Warburg

Latour B. (1992) ‘Where are the Missing Masses, Sociology of a Few Mundane Artefacts’. Shaping Technology-Building Society. Studies in Sociotechnical Change Wiebe Bijker and John Law (editors), MIT Press, Cambridge Mass. pp. 225-259

Griscom, A. (1996) Trends of Anarchy and Hierarchy: Comparing the Cultural Repercussions of Print and Digital Media. [online] Thesis (Honors). Rhode Island: Brown University <http://www.cyberartsweb.org/cpace/infotech/asg/contents.html> [09 January 2014]

Malcolm, D. (2000) Daguerre (1787–1851) and the Invention of Photography in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, [online] available from <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/dagu/hd_dagu.htm> [12 February 2014]

Manovich, L. (2001) The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Mass. ; London: MIT Press

Kember, S. (2003) ‘The Shadow Object’: Photography and Realism in The Photography Reader. ed. by Wells, L. ; London: Routledge

Manovich, L. (2003) The Paradoxes of Digital Photography in The Photography Reader. ed. by Wells, L. ; London: Routledge

Peres, M. (2007) The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography: Digital Imaging, Theory and Applications, History, and Science. Amsterdam; London: Elsevier/Focal Press

Ritchin, F. (2009) After Photography. New York; London: W.W. Norton

San Fransisco MoMA (2010) Is Photography Over: Day One, Part Two [online] available from <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6bhvkWe8bzU> [12 February 2014]

Lister, M. (2011) ‘Photography In The Age Of Electronic Imaging’ in The New Media and Technocultures Reader. ed. by Giddings, S., Lister, M. Abingdon ; New York: Routledge

Bridle, J. (2011) The New Aesthetic: Waving at the Machines [online] available from <http://booktwo.org/notebook/waving-at-machines>, video at <http://vimeo.com/32976928> [12 February 2014]

Hand, M. (2012) Ubiquitous Photography [Digital Media And Societies Series]. Cambridge: Polity Press

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