Processing | Sean Cubitt | Monday, 09.01.2017

Image + After I: Photography as Print and as Scientific Instrument

There is a well-known theory on the left concerning British history known as the Nairn-Anderson thesis named after two of its protagonists. Tom Nairn and Perry Anderson traced the peculiarities of the British state to the failure of the country to complete its revolution. Perhaps something similar has to be said about photography. At many points in its history, photography has been on the brink of revolutionising the very concept of the image; and yet the old still maintains its place – like the British monarchy.1The original texts, much reflected on and developed later, were Tom Nairn, “The British Political Elite”, New Left Review 23 (1964) and Perry Anderson, “Origins of the Present Crisis”, New Left Review 23 (1964).

It is already banal to say that photography and cinema are dead, and that digital media have superseded them, and done away with their once privileged allegiance to realism. There is at least one good argument to make in support of this thesis. If perhaps photography and cinematography were the defining media of the early and mid 20th century, the media that define us now are spreadsheets, databases and geographical information systems. Visualisations of proto-data media (accountancy and files) appeared in the late 18th and early 19th centuries with William Playfair's Commercial and Political Atlas and Statistical Breviary and rapidly established themselves as the dominant media: the media of domination that they remain to this day. The photographic image had its day in the sun as the objective recorder of phenomena. Today the unique event is only one instance in a vast sea of data whose visualisations overwhelm the evidence of a single moment.

Chart of the National Debt of England, from William Playfair: The Commercial and Political Atlas, 1801 (3rd ed.) (29900)Chart of the National Debt of England, from William Playfair: The Commercial and Political Atlas, 1801 (3rd ed.)

And yet this story is not in the end as convincing in detail as it is in the large scale. It is true that data visualisation – graphs, charts, diagrams – convince us more than the potentially mendacious photograph or film. It is true that we can trace their origins in a history of graphic arts. But there are reasons to believe that photography, as a variant on the same history of printmaking, has much in common with data visualisation, and that data visualisation in turn has much to do with the history of light processing. The older cousin, cartography, after all, was born in a history of pencils and printmaking.

-graphy is a much over-used suffix. The graphic is seductive because it evokes both writing (autograph, monograph) and drawing (graphic arts, Fox Talbot's 'Pencil of Nature'). A phonograph 'writes' music, a photograph 'draws' nature. More half-forgotten technologies (pantograph, spirograph, mimeograph) oscillate between the poles of writing and drawing, as do a number of scientific instruments (seismograph, spectrograph, hydrograph). What this proliferation of graphies tells us is that the confusion concerns not a collapsing distinction between writing and drawing – though it contains that – so much as a change in the idea of agency: of who is doing the writing or drawing. These various graphings are no longer done by humans but by non-human others, sound and seismicity, spectra and light.

There is a deep consistency between photography and scientific instruments: at least as much as there is between photographic practice and artistic traditions of representation, or indeed the continuity between perspective and lens design that formed the heart of apparatus theory in the 1970s.

The interest of these matters comes from two themes in media history, both of which throw light on the peculiarities of 21st century photography and imaging more generally. The first is the issue of the index and indexicality, which will be the focus of a later post. The second is the matter of data visualisation.

There are many reasons to consider data visualisation as the first truly new form of visual culture to arise since the Renaissance, as a new symbolic form, to employ Cassirer and Panofsky's weighty term. Cartography is as old as perspective, and equally deserving of the massy name of symbolic form. It feeds into and across the visual cultures of the last five hundred years, including both perspective (think of Vermeer's maps hung on the walls behind quiet girls playing the virginal) and photography (Edward Steichen's Family of Man exhibition at MOMA New York in 1955 which articulated photography and geography). But cartography belongs with perspective because of the agency involved. Even if the one-who-knows of cartography is in some respects the God's eye view that sees from heaven, so too is perspective in its theological origins, where the sacred geometry of the vanishing point established, as in cartography, the identity of the divine and the ideal human as subjects who see, subjects for whom the world displays itself.

The ideal, universal human who sees, and around whom the world organises itself as seen, bestrides both the religious fantasies and the realist depictions that converge in a single system of perspectival vision in Caravaggio's low-lifes and Dürer's calm allegories, baroque ceilings and the beginnings of scientific illustration. Data visualisation shares with photography the principle that something other than god or that demi-god, Man, do both the seeing and the rendering of things seen. Photography, and cinematography after it, belong to the story of the world making itself visible to someone or something who is neither the ideal Man nor the demiurge of Creation. Like every other graphy, photography works on the principle of scientific instruments, especially those of the 19th century, where the world inscribes itself, without god or man.

What can be learned by treating photography as a scientific instrument? After all, there are many reasons instead to consider it as a product of the history of printmaking. Media historians – pre-eminently Innis and McLuhan – have been entranced with the history of writing. And why not? Writing is synonymous with history. When we speak of pre-history, we speak of the period from which there are no written texts. Innis categorised the 'bias' of communication by distinguishing slow but permanent records (clay tablets, stone-carved classics) from fast but impermanent ones (papyrus and scrolls). The former encouraged temple-based and hierarchical societies with deep roots in place; the latter expansive maritime empires like those of Greece and Rome. But both orders were based on written commands and reports.

Printing for McLuhan was the breakthrough that enabled modernity. Its linearity and repetitions encouraged reason, science, reformation, democracy (or at least republicanism) and capitalism. He was less interested in the change from scrolls to pages, which surely impacted on the shape of thinking, and, as a primarily literary scholar, even less interested in the impact of the printing press on visual communication.

The printed word had a pretty immediate impact. The visual equivalent of McLuhan's linearity and repetition would not become apparent until the late 19th century, when Fox Talbot pioneered half-tone printing from photographic plates.

Earlier printing had used hand-cut shading and later techniques to provide texture with less labour by scouring the printing plate or using stones to reduce that labour and provide a more random scatter of spots for the ink to cling to. Half-tone too initially used random textures from woven cloth, but soon moved to a system of crossing lines to produce a more formal grid. This morphology would pass into telegraph ('wire') photography and thence to television, both using scanned rows of dots. Digital screens formalise these rows into an even more rigid grid. But long before these columns and rows, grids of longitude and latitude in cartographic prints, the diagrams and tables of late Renaissance and early Baroque writers like Ramon Llull and Paracelsus, and the practice of ruling rows and columns in account books and ledgers, established the grid as the hallmark of modernity.

And yet our histories of proto- and post-photographic media lack the imprint of scientific thinking, and scientific instruments, or the system of recording their results in tables. We do not look for predecessors in the first log tables drawn up within a few years of John Napier's publication of his logarithmic method in 1614. Yet the same grid that provides the base logic functions of computers and powers their printed and screen displays has become invisible, so deeply has its ubiquity worn in. This of course is the tell-tale sign of ideology at work.