A Digital Menace

by Professor Anne Marsh


Rosalind Krauss has termed the current era the ‘the post-medium age’ where the boundaries between disciplines is so blurred that the aesthetic qualities of the medium have been annihilated.1 She argues that photography plays a major role in postmodernism because it “restructures the conditions of the other arts”,2 however, she laments the loss of the aesthetic medium.3 According to Krauss, in response to this situation, the artist is now compelled to revisit the medium, to analyse the aesthetic conditions of the medium from within. In photography this would entail a return to the indexical qualities of the medium and an engagement with time as it is captured in the photographic process. But how does this theoretical impulse impact on the digital and how seductive is the demise of the original, the time-based, the essential?

The digital age brings with it the potential to manipulate and invent images in new ways. The meeting of art and science within mechanical and digital forms of representation produces a discourse that is rich and multi-layered. Although many histories of the mechanical/digital image are grounded in the progress of technology as a means of analysing modes and styles, it is not the technology in itself that is captivating. It is the way in which technologies are used by people that gives the technology presence and meaning.

Many critics and theorists have suggested that digitalisation has dealt a death blow to photography because it annihilates the analogue and indexical qualities of the medium.4 These qualities were supposed to anchor photography to reality, following the principles of the recursive ideology of enlightenment: the promise of a scientific medium, an objective truth. Although there are many instances where photography is utilised in this way (forensic evidence, anthropology, eugenics, medical diagnosis) many of these practices have been criticised and their would-be neutral status as scientific evidence has been questioned. It is also important to note that composite and trick photography has a long history stretching back to the 1850s where images were manipulated and ghosts, and later, fairies regularly appeared in photographs.5

The notion of the camera as a dumb witness persists in the service of science. Micro cameras probe the body and allow physicians to see inside visceral tracts; cameras enter the intestines, the lungs and the valves of the heart. In the not too distant future these cameras will be assisted by bots: little artificial intelligence devices that will be able to make minor, and eventually major, repairs inside the body. But this use of the camera as a diagnostic tool has a dubious past. Charcot's photographs of hysterics in the nineteenth century were said then to be diagnostic evidence, however, a stream of scholarship has unsettled this claim and pointed out that the women performed their symptoms to meet medicine's historical expectations of female hysteria.6 Of course this is different from the ultrasound camera or the endoscope today but even these witness photographs transferred directly from the body to the screen need to be interpreted by a physician. These images, which are still open for misinterpretation, may well represent the essential medium of photography - here as the camera travels through the body there is little room for manoeuvre, even this tiny, probing camera is an invasive rather than a dumb witness. Reassessments of the histories of photography persistently demonstrate that intervention in the process is paramount - to get a good picture one mediates the image, which mediates the world.

The critical panic associated with the digitalisation of photography is concerned with the demise of the authenticity of the image. Digital means of reproduction are seen to destabilise the medium because there is no longer any certainty that the image has its genesis in the real world (the thing in front of the camera). This is said to rob photography of its essential indexical quality and open the door for thousands of fake images. The pronouncement of the death of photography is, in Jean Baudrillard's terms, predicated on the procession of the simulacra.7 As Geoffrey Batchen notes, people fear that they will no longer be able to tell the original from the simulation and this, in turn, gives rise to the terror of an 'artificial nature' where things collapse into signs.8

Any attempt to define the pared-down essence of photography seems doomed to failure. Historically, modernist photographers argued that art photography needed to separate itself from the commercial market - to distance itself from documentary, advertising and photojournalism - and sought to establish the essential formal qualities of the medium, yet their plan failed to contain photography as an artistic territory. Throughout the modernist period, artists have crossed the borders between art photography and other photographies. Many photographers operated across art, fashion, advertising and documentary modes. It is this multi-valent language which is photography, a language which crosses borders, that invigorated the medium. This is as true today as it was in 1973 - before the art boom in photography - when Susan Sontag argued that ‘all art aspires to the condition of photography’.9

Mechanisms, technologies, programs, instruments and software are all tools that have been designed to do particular tasks, however, in the hands of the human operator, machines and computer programs are often used differently. The camera obscura, for example, was said to be designed to reproduce perspectival space, a one-point perspective which positioned the subject/spectator at the centre of the viewing experience and presented an objective window onto the world.10 However, in the hands of the operator, it became a popular theatrical device. People would gather together inside the camera to watch the world upside down. Although many historians have underlined the ways in which the camera obscura isolated the viewer and objectified vision,11 it was also an entertaining pastime for those who could afford it.12

Old technologies are resurfacing in contemporary practice. Doug Spowart and Victoria Cooper's road show of the Australian bush is made with a camera obscura that is a car (Car Camera Image: Following a Red Truck for 5 minutes 2003). This moving camera does produce perspectival images but the pictures are soft and fuzzy and the scenes appear other worldly as if they could be pictures from a dream or a scifi movie. Other artists have resurrected pinhole cameras and become enchanted by the imagery that can be produced with toy cameras. Christopher Koller used a plastic Diana camera to make his Winter Gardens series (1998). This accounts for the soft focus and the orange spots which give the photographs a dream-like quality.

Patrick Pound uses his mobile phone to take details of pictures from the newspaper which he then blows up as museum-size prints (Soft Real Estate Model 2006). Modernist photographers concerned with light and shade, sharp focus and the dramatics available through camera angles may be irritated by these 'bad' pictures. Rosalind Krauss, wanting to return to the conceptual and epistemological essentials of the medium, may well be aggravated by such flagrant amateurism. But Pound's photographs are about photography. They address the visual flux of the glance and present images that we see with the blink of an eye - details that usually escape consciousness, things we probably wouldn't remember. The grainy black and white photographs are found images and have aspects in common with conceptual art.

Photograms are valued by the art market for their status as originals. Anne Ferran's photograms of women's clothing explore the absent body and point to a feminist engagement with history. Numerous other artists engage with old technologies at a time when photoshop allows for seamless manipulations of pictures. We may well ask, what is it that makes these old technologies seductive today? Such works appear to represent a return to divergent forms of the medium, and to the irrefutable referent, the index of the real.

Cameras in all shapes and forms are seductive instruments. One way or another they engage the operator as a sort of voyeur but there has always been the potential to stretch the limits and capacities of the instrument. Anyone who has seriously thought about what it is to take a photograph will know that there are infinite possibilities. If one is not ensconced in a particular theory or a dogmatic practice driven by rules and recursive structures then the possibilities of bending and extending the medium of photography are endless.

Susan Fereday investigates the photographic medium in relation to the metaphors that accrue to photography and the ephemeral substance of the image itself. In Roland Barthes' terms she is interested in the apparent presence of the object in photography - in fact, its guaranteed absence - and the illusory nature of its resemblance to the real.13 Fereday probes the improbable and plays with photography's founding metaphors. In a recent work, (Wail, 2006-7), she recycles confidential client notes as thousands of tiny papier mach balls, threaded together as a hanging curtain that shows the image of William Henry Fox Talbot's first photograph (Latticed Window at Lacock Abbey, 1835). The work foregrounds the digital metaphors that were inherent at analogue photography's naissance. The curtain of balls suggest a virtual grid, a screen that appears and disappears before the viewer's gaze, as it engages a threshold of beliefs. Fereday is interested in photography's relation to the unseen - things once there but not now, things latent and not yet apparent. She explores photography as an elusive as well as an illusive medium - one that opens up dialogues about absence and presence, memory and forgetting, time and its becoming.

The time of essential mediums is over in a formal sense. The digital and electronic media disperse the concept of the medium. Each new media is predicated on the past but looks to the future, to new possibilities, new means of production and distribution. There is no going back to the medium as a discrete entity but it is apparent throughout digital photography and lens-based practice that artists are looking to the past as much as to the future. Toy cameras and old technologies are often combined with digital means of presentation.

The scanner, arguably a fairly mundane piece of equipment, is the tool that is used the most in photo-based production. The scanner allows artists to scan almost anything (now even three dimensional objects can be copied in three dimensions) and to create enormous digital files which then allow the artist to print at scales unimaginable to the photographers of the 1970s. It also allows for the picture to be printed on virtually any surface. There's nothing magical about a scanner, it's essentially a lens-less copier with its own light source. But at this time, it's probably the most important conduit in the chain of production.14

As a medium, photography is multifarious and it has infiltrated almost every art form. It has seduced the contemporary visual world because it is the signifying surface of global capital and the vehicle for constructing private and public memories. It is everywhere but no where in particular.15 In the art world and beyond photography has captured our imaginations: we dream in photographic terms, we live our memories in pictures and circulate these on screens. Photography is a fetish, a small memento, tied to memory and belonging; it is an index of the real, a document, a piece of evidence; it is a slice of time. But it is also a spectacle, it looms large throughout society in advertising and fashion. It is both art and science. It is avant-garde and mainstream. It is ordinary and perverse. It is dangerous and seductive. It is a visual virus inside every other medium. The current concerns about the status of photography as a discrete medium are partisan and not of interest to a large public who have embraced photography. The real issue - the one traditional art history would prefer not to encounter - is that photography has dispensed with the essence of its own medium and in infiltrating all of the other mediums it has questioned the very notion of medium specificity. The rise of photography as a dominant and ubiquitous art form at the end of the twentieth century will probably go down in history as a major shift that changed exhibition practice and market forces. The challenge for artists will be to keep the photographic on edge and not to let it slip into spectacle for its own sake. Those artists who understand and interrogate the cultural uses of photography will continue to provide us with imagery that will excite the imagination and the intellect.

ENDNOTES

1 Rosalind Krauss, ' . . . And Then Turn Away? An Essay on James Coleman' , October, no. 81, 1997, p. 5.

2 Rosalind Krauss, 'A Voyage on the North Sea' : Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition London: Thames and Hudson, 1991, p. 48.

3 Rosalind Krauss, '. . . And Then Turn Away? An Essay on James Coleman', p. 5.

4 See for example Anne-Marie Willis, 'Digitalisation and the Living Death of Photography', in Philip Hayward (ed.), Culture. Technology and Creativity in the Late Twentieth Century, London: John Libby, 1990, pp. 197-208; Fred Ritchin, 'Photojournalism in the Age of Computers', in Carol Squiers (ed.), The Critical Image: Essays on Contemporary Photography, Seattle: Bay Press, 1990, pp. 28-37 and William J. Mitchell, The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post- Photographic Era', Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

5 Composite photography was practiced by art photographers in the 1850s and 1860s; the Surrealists regularly manipulated images and there have been many photographic hoaxes that have created sensations throughout the history of photography. See Anne Marsh, The Darkroom: Photography and the Theatre of Desire, South Yarra: Macmillan, 2003, pp. 140-150 and 157-176; Joe Cooper, The Case of the Cottingley Fairies, London: Simon & Schuster, 1997; Martyn Jolly, Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography, Melbourne: The Miegunyah Press, 2006 and Clément Chéroux, Andreas Fisher et. el. The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005 (first published in French 2004).

6 See Sigrid Schade, 'Charcot and the Spectacle of the Hysterical Body: The 'Pathos Formula' as an Aesthetic Staging of Psychiatric Discourse - A Blind Spot in the Reception of Warburg', Art History, vol. 18, no. 4, December 1995, pp. 499-517; Rhona Justice-Malloy, 'Charcot and the Theatre of Hysteria', Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 28, Spring 1995, pp. 133-138 and Georges Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salptrire, trans. Alisa Hartz, Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2003.

7 Jean Baudrillard, 'The Precession of the Simulacra' (trans. Paul Foss and Paul Patton), Art and Text, no. 11, Spring 1998, pp. 3-47.

8 Geoffrey Batchen, Each Wild Idea: Writing Photography History, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2001, p. 129.

9 Susan Sontag, On Photography, Middlesex: Penguin, 1973, p. 149.

10 For a lucid analysis of cameras and observation see Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge Massachuetts: MIT Press, 1990.

11 Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer, p. 38-41.

12 Anne Marsh, The Darkroom, pp. 27-32.

13 See Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard, London: Fontana 1984, pp. 4-7, 82-85 and 111-117.

14 It is interesting to note that scanners are increasingly becoming the central tool for many scientific applications of photography. Scanners are used on-site instead of cameras in fieldwork such as geology, anthropology, forensics. This is precisely because scanners are lens-less and include their own light source, as well as offering incredible detail in large files.

15 Geoffrey Batchen says that we have entered into a post-photography era  leaving the photographic everywhere but nowhere in particular , seeBurning with Desire: The Conception of Photography, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1997, p. 216


 

About Anne Marsh

Professor Anne Marsh's research areas include: photography, performance art, feminism, postmodernism and psychoanalysis. Anne is Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne's Victorian College of the Arts.

About Anne Marsh

Anne is Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne's Victorian College of the Arts. Professor Anne Marsh's research areas include:

Photography, Performance Art, Feminism and Postmodernism.

Latest Projects

Doing Feminism / Sharing the WorldUpdate Updated 31 Jul 2017

Address

Professor Anne Marsh
Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts & Melbourne Conservatorium of Music
The University of Melbourne
234 St Kilda Road
SOUTHBANK VICTORIA AUSTRALIA 3006

Events