Ideas about the Contemporary Role of Photography within Digital Culture and Artistic Practice | Melanie Bühler | Wednesday, 08.04.2015

Online Image Behavior, Where Photographs Live Today

Whereas the relation between reality and representation was a key concern of classical photography, now, as photography has become digital, the focus has shifted from this single relation to a multiplicity of relations that extend from a photograph. Value is no longer primarily derived from the special relation between the object in front of the lens and the way it is depicted in the photograph, but it is generated by the multiplicities of image visualizations and variations branching off from the initial moment of capture.1Part of this value is also accrued through the generation of metadata. This is the central point of Katrina Sluis and Daniel Rubinstein’s paper titled “Notes on the Margins of Metadata; Concerning the Undecidability of the Digital Image.” In this article, the authors claim that meaning and consequently value is not generated “through indexicality or representation but through the aggregation and topologies of data.” Daniel Rubinstein and Katrina Sluis (2013) “Notes on the Margins of Metadata; Concerning the Undecidability of the Digital Image,” Photographies 6 (1), pp. 151–158. When uploaded, as the artist Kari Altmann aptly describes this process, “the image might aim to move more anonymously in a swarm of similar content. At this point it becomes a lure for a larger framework, either the platform the content is being hosted on, or the trope holding that swarm together.”2Kari Altmann, “Soft Brand Abstracts: Closer Than Ever Before,” in No Internet, No Art. A Lunch Bytes Anthology (Amsterdam: Onomatopee, forthcoming June 2015), p. 250.
Digital images thus exist through a set of relations either referring to a platform and its content, or connecting to a trope, a visual genre, etc. In any case, the image does not exist as a single unit; it is part of a “swarm.” By being spread, adapted, modified and re-contextualized, photographs distributed online build a structure of references that is embedded in the DNA of the image. Within this process, affect—being emotionally legible and alluding to a specific feeling—plays a key role as a relational force through which images circulate and lodge themselves in our collective unconscious. It is important to mention that within the multiplicity of visualizations derived from an initial photograph, this photograph does not have any special place. The question of the original is no longer relevant. What is relevant is that the image is distributed and can be placed within a certain set of other images, since patterns are emerging that connect images and create distinct relations; these may or may not be platform specific.
Kari Altmann, the artist quoted above, is someone who has worked with the idea of image swarms and grouping online content in distinct aggregations whose legibility follows very specific sets of logic. Assembling images on different platforms, such as Facebook pages, Tumblrs and her own websites, the artist creates networks of images, each with its own lure, rhythm and structure. Accessible online, they allude to specific aesthetics, digital trends and complex memes. Meaning becomes distributed over a group of images. Atmospheres unfold as one scrolls through these assemblages, and patterns start to emerge.
The series Hhellblauu for instance, one of the first projects conceived by the artist, was arranged around a specific shade of light blue employed and instrumentalized in the context of an iconography of future-oriented technology and digital simulation.
Kari Altmann, Hhellblauu, screenshot, 2008–2010
Kari Altmann, Hhellblauu, screenshot, 2008–2010.
Another image feed that Altmann has created is assembled around a feeling and an aesthetic originally evoked by TV ads featuring saturated, luxury HD images in a subdued color range. The trope has its core in the quality of these highly reworked images that come with a distinct color palette of softly merging tones. Titled Ttoshibaa: 10,000 Impressions (2009–ongoing), this work is shown as a layered environment on a webpage that one can move through. The work is also hosted on a Tumblr and a Facebook page. By uploading the images to these platforms, Altmann thus explicitly places them in the “social” space of widely used image sharing sites, emphasizing the openness of the process of assembling her findings and the participatory act of working online.
Kari Altmann, Ttoshibaa: 10,000 Impressions, 2009–ongoing
Kari Altmann, Ttoshibaa: 10,000 Impressions, 2009–ongoing
The openness of the process suggested by the platforms that the artist employs is juxtaposed with the subtle legibility of the patterns that hold the images together and the specificity of the cultural codes that they address. Another project by Altmann R-U-IN?S (2009–ongoing) explicitly addresses this tension in its title.3See:

R-U-IN?S reads as “Are you in?” as well as “Ruins.” (Altmann has worked on this project since 2009 and has collaborated with other contributors and artists, such as Sebastian Moyano, Iain Ball, Emily Jones, Sam Hancocks and Matteo Giordano.4Kari Altmann herself frames it as a collaboration with an evolving cast/crew/network of contributors, users, supporters, and trolls, see: Apart from its online presence, it has also resulted in various exhibitions, a publication, blog posts, spreads in magazines, etc.) The title points, on one hand, to the content of the feed, which is centered on the theme of deterioration. On the other, it is a call to add to the project, starting with the question: are you in? Can you relate to what’s there, and are you ready to contribute?
This is a central aspect of online content in a broader scope, as the evolution of an online image is dependent on gaining visual capital, which occurs only when an image is spread and shared. As such, it relies on the labor invested and the interest taken in it by others. Of course this has been the case since the introduction of mass media; the circulation of content was always dependent on the interest of an audience. With the rise of digital technologies and the internet, however, image production and distribution have been radically accelerated and individualized. In the age of social networks, not only news agencies, magazines and TV stations have the power to circulate and adapt images, but so does anybody with access to a computer with an internet connection. Moreover, the tools to re-work images have become accessible, widespread and user-friendly. Through image altering software like Photoshop, and also platforms such as Instagram, images have become easy to manipulate, personalize and re-insert in online image streams.
If one applies this logic to the artwork in the age of networked technologies, the buzz of the re-blog has, according to David Joselit, replaced its aura: “the status of being everywhere at once rather than belonging to a single place . . . now produces value for and through images.”5David Joselit, After Art (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012), p. 16. Modulation and adaptation are key forces within these processes and help the image and its various visualizations to continue to live in and move through online image platforms. As part of these processes, images are not only re-configured on the level of pictorial content, but also increasingly on the level of linguistic contextualization. Through changes applied to and accumulated in the metadata of an image (tags, number of views, ratings, etc.) images are modified in ways that don’t necessarily need to affect their aesthetics but impact the ways in which they engage with other content online, in which they are identified, made searchable and retrieved.6Daniel Rubinstein and Katrina Sluis, “Notes on the Margins of Metadata; Concerning the Undecidability of the Digital Image,” Photographies 6 (1). pp. 151–158..
A whole industry has evolved around image production and software tools that aim to sell the kind of creative labor performed through image alterations. Aiming for what the New York based artist Michael Bell-Smith calls “ready-made affect” software applications offered by Photoshop, Final Cut Pro and After Effects have developed image-alteration tools that are able to emulate effects first introduced as visual tropes and styles in the traditions of photography and film. As such, they are able to trigger certain feelings and link to specific expectations. These applications have effectively created an inventive toolbox aiming to generate the kind of rapid emotional response necessary for images to proliferate across the web.7Michael Bell-Smith describes this as follows: “Like with the Ken Burns Effect, most of the so-called creative industry (creative industry) is only concerned with affect (affect)—what the audience gets from the experience. It’s all about achieving some look or feeling as quickly and cheaply as possible because you’re on the clock and time is money. So there is a whole secondary industry that’s been growing around this software, selling templates, stock footage, plug-ins, add-ons, and tutorials on how to get a certain look. They’re selling ready-made affect.” “Ready-Made Affect and Leaving a Mark: Interview with Michael Bell-Smith. Michael Bell-Smith and Melanie Bühler” in No Internet, No Art. A Lunch Bytes Anthology, (Onomatopee, forthcoming June 2015), p.
The shift from the single image to a set of image relations is key to an understanding of digital photography today. In the blog posts that follow I will argue that even though this shift has occurred, the contemporary photographic image in all its networked modularity is still treated as a classic analog image in the sense that specific aspects of indexical relations—harking back to concepts like objectivity, immediacy and truth—continue to inform how we interact with images, what we expect from them and how they are performed. In specific ways, as I will argue, the idea of a special, direct relation between that which is depicted and the object in front of the lens continues to live on, even though it is clear that this relation has been affected by filters, manipulations, software applications, tags, etc. Indexicality, in this sense, has diffused into a set of expectations and rules connected to certain image genres as they have evolved within online culture. The relation to the index has become paradoxical: images are desired and consumed for what they index and their proximity and “truthfulness” relative to what they depict, yet at the same time value is generated through their move away from their “photographic truth” as based on correspondence. This paradoxical relation will be the topic of my next blog posts.