Ideas about the Contemporary Role of Photography within Digital Culture and Artistic Practice | Melanie Bühler | Monday, 30.03.2015

What I Talk about When I Talk about Photography

If one thinks about photography in medium-specific terms, digitization actually hasn’t introduced any significant challenges to the essence of the photographic moment. Cameras and iPhones that produce digital photographs still contain optical lenses that record light from which an image is generated.1The lenses of the digital devices presently used may have regressed in terms of quality, as Hito Steyerl argues in her text “Proxy Politics: Signal and Noise,” and consequently the process of creating an image increasingly relies on algorithmic computations based on a network of visually proximate images. Nevertheless, the optical lens continues to be a necessary component in the creation of a photographic image, despite Steyerl’s convincing argument that algorithms co-write the photographic image by comparing it to already existing images. As such, photography becomes speculative and relational. Hito Steyerl, “Proxy Politics: Signal and Noise,” in e-flux journal #60 (December 2014), What has changed, however, is the process of image creation that directly follows from this moment. Whereas analogue photography registered light on paper and in this way created an image, digital photography translates light into data out of which an image is calculated. In this process of image creation, or visualization, as the British philosopher Peter Osborne would call it,2Peter Osborne, “Infinite Exchange: The Social Ontology of the Photographic Image,” in Philosophy of Photography (London: Verso, 2013), pp. 59-70. lies the difference and potential that digitization has brought to photography. Because it is no longer bound to a physical substrate, the digital format opens itself up to all kinds of non-photographic techniques and presentational forms that the digital as a meta-medium entails. As such, the digital photograph is characterized by “a multiplication of possible forms of visualization.”3Ibid., p. 66.
Most of the images that are part of the social platforms, apps and websites we use daily could be identified as photographs. As such, the photograph has become the most prominent image category online. At the same time, the definition of what a photograph is has become blurrier than ever, as its digital format exposes it to computational processes and tools that expand its properties. This malleability creates an unprecedented fluidity, or a capacity to combine different image formats, to alter images, and to export them in all kinds of different presentational formats. From a medium-specific, technical point of view, it is this potential that makes digital photography different from its analogue predecessor. What we perceive as photographs today are hybrids that point to an outside world registered by an optical lens, as well as the technologies employed to visualize this world, ranging from Instagram filters, Photoshop brushes, 360 degree panoramas, iPhone screens, projections, prints that have been turned into sculptures and so on. Photographs today are thus products whose digital data has mingled with all kinds of applications and whose modes of display abound in a myriad of ways. When we look at a photograph, we look at an amalgam of light that has become data, data that has been layered with code, code that has been transformed by software, an image that has been visualized and formatted on (touch) screens and that may or may not be printed on any number of physical materials.
Anne de Vries, Image Transfers – Apple, Pear and Banana, 2012 print on photo paper, 160 x 70 cm © Anne de Vries
One artwork that deals with this layered reality of the photographic image, as a hybrid bundle of code and light, visualization and software, devices and objects is Anne de Vries’s Image Transfers – Apple, Pear and Banana. The digital print shows a photograph of three pieces of fruit on a white background: a banana, an apple, and a pear. Overlaid onto the image is a text listing the infrastructure – the stores, devices, and software – employed to produce the image. As such, the work makes explicit the computational and material steps that the data captured by the optical lens has undergone until finding its moment of visualization as a print on the wall.
Anne de Vries, Image Transfers – Apple, Pear and Banana, 2012, print on photo paper, 160 x 70 cm © Anne de Vries
In doing so, this work introduces the photographic image as a set of processes that rely on an array of devices both analogue and digital. Aside from pointing to the geography of the economic system in which these processes are embedded (each device is listed with the location of its production), it becomes clear that a picture of three pieces of fruit requires an elaborate infrastructure, resulting in an image that is informed by the decisions the artist has taken, the software used and the devices employed. This becomes evident against the backdrop of a photographic image, which, if not overwritten with the informational layer, would simply be a photographic print on glossy paper.
The variety and ease with which an image can be transformed and applied to all kinds of different materials as a result of its digital nature is exemplified in the works of many other contemporary artists. Reflecting on the importance of photography online, photography is often taken as a starting point in the works of artists interested in Internet culture. Pictures of birds are turned into photographic sculptures and photographs of pillows into stickers that are applied to phonebooks, to name two examples of works by the Amsterdam-based artists Katja Novitskova and Bruno Zhu.
Bruno Zhu, Resting with Three Pillows 10.- each, 2014, digital print on PVC sticker, phonebook, 46 x 29,7 cm © Zhu
The pictorial networked universe that largely consists of digital photographs – the hybrid forms that I have tried to describe – are thus presented in a multiplicity of formats in exhibition and gallery spaces. Through a diverse series of visualizations, these photographs become removed from the moment of image capture, which serves as little more than an obscured reference point in a chain of post-production processes and online contexts the photographs have since been exposed to. As such, these works mark one moment of visualization, in having carefully chosen one particular presentation format for a specific setting. The recognition that these moments of visualization will again be photographed and thus fed back into an ever-evolving chain of heterogeneous visualizations is part of the conceptual framework these works open up.
Katja Novitskova, Innate Disposition, 2012, digital print plastic cutout displays © Katja Novitskova
Computational processes thus expand the field of photography by opening it up to a series of processes that result in a multiplicity of image variations derived from an initial moment of capture. How these visualizations relate to each other and how value is generated as part of the resulting visual organism will be the topic of my next blog post.
DIS magazine, “Competing Images: Art vs. People”, 2012, model in front of Katja Novitskova’s Innate Disposition;