3. The Opacity of Photography
Published: 21.03.2013
in the series What Remains of the Photographic beyond Photography
Previous Next

One of my students recently declared she believed there was nothing to learn from Flusser’s writings on photography. For her, digital technology expanded the possibilities of photography well beyond what Flusser described as the pre-defined program contained within the camera apparatus. The same went for the idea of the impenetrability of the “black box,” which seemed ludicrous in today’s context of widely shared technical astuteness and the infinite possibilities offered by photo-editing software. If Flusser’s work certainly appears dated in some ways, as Walead Beshty suggested in one of his posts on this blog, discussing the 1986 essay “The Photograph as Post-Industrial Object,” other texts, notably the lectures given in Arles in 1984 that were later re-worked into the book Towards a Philosophy of Photography, are still well worth reading. Indeed, if anything, the near obsolescence of analogue cameras, the disappearance of the unique, specific device replaced by ubiquitous gadgets, only re-instates the idea of the impenetrable black box – for instance as materialized by Apple products that are destined never to be opened and pulled apart. As for Flusser’s notion of a pre-determined program, this might have a sobering effect on those who constantly snap pictures on mobile phones and instantly circulate them on social media, a practice that threatens to re-instate the myth of transparency of the photograph and the seemingly infinite possibilities of recording the world. Perhaps it is in fact the obsolescence of Flusser’s writing on a technological level that makes those lectures all the more compelling, not only to writers but also to artists working with photography.

[caption id="attachment_1236" align="alignnone" width="320"]Christopher Williams, Polaroid 660 (promotional non functional) with completely transparent plastic housing (29223) CHRISTOPHER WILLIAMS
Polaroid 660 (promotional non functional)
with completely transparent plastic housing.
Produced for promotional use for display and
demonstration purposes.
Lens: 116mm f/11, single-element plastic
Automatic focus; uses Polaroid Sonar AF system.
Minimu focus: 3ft.
Electronic shutter: range 1/4 - 1/200 sec.
programmed automatic exposure syytem;
built-in electronic flash, with automatic flash,
exposure for all pictures.
Camera was introduced 1981 with an original
product price of 95$ and worked with the
Polaroid 600 Film family which all have the
following characteristics in common:
ASA 600 film speed, self-developing,
packaged 10 prints to a pack including a
self-contained battery to power camera.
Actual image area: 3 1/8“ x 3 1/8“ (7.9 x 7.9 cm)
Fotostudio Axel Gnad, Düsseldorf,
February 09, 2009
2009
Archival Pigment Print
85,5 x 93,5 cm (framed)
Courtesy Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne[/caption]

A case in point would be the work of American artist Christopher Williams, who in his ongoing project entitled For Example: Dix-Huit Leçons Sur La Société Industrielle (2003 to present) creates a series of images that develop an iconographic program relating, in his own words, to “the restructuring of cultural life in the postwar era and in particular the Americanization of European popular culture.” This loose theme is what holds together an apparently heterogeneous ensemble of pictures that include chocolate bars and rubber tires, shower screens, socks, and photographic equipment. Yet what also brings the images together is the way in which they involve or make reference to specific forms and techniques of industrial photography. In this respect, Williams’ practice recalls Flusser’s vision of the camera memory as a device “programmed by people employed in a photo industry, (…). But those people have, in their turn, elaborated that program in a dialogue with the industrial program, which is a memory that contains a vast amount of virtual camera programs. The program of the photo industry is, in its turn, programmed by people who are elaborating the economic, cultural, political and ideological program of a society.” 1Vilém Flusser, “First Lecture on February 23, 1984: Photo Production. Ecole de la Photographie, Arles.” In English. Flusser Studies, 10 – November 2010 / Double Issue. Online journal http://www.flusserstudies.net/pag/archive10.htm. Retrieved 20 March 2013. Flusser here makes a case for the way in which photography, far from reproducing natural vision, should instead be understood as the result of a layered system, which, circle after circle, determines conventions of reading that ensure the homogeneity and legibility of photographic documents. The vision of photography that he outlines is that of conventional photography as it exists in professional, industrial, and scientific forms, and is perpetuated by professional, industrial, or scientific institutions. As he explores these different circles, Williams simultaneously exposes their limits by creating (analogue) photographs that, upon closer inspection, are improper for commercial use. His pictures exhibit awkward shadows, unsightly blemishes on a model’s ankle, dirty feet, and ill-fitting clothing samples that disturb gazes accustomed to flawless, digitally corrected or produced images and force viewers to slow down to take those pictures in. So is the case of other photographs from the series that depict photo cameras: teased and prodded in his current exhibition in Cologne, and sliced open in earlier images evoking diagrams found in user’s manuals. Such photographs that teasingly depict and dissect the black boxes, “force [the] apparatus,” we might say along with Flusser, “to somehow invert its program like a glove, and have it produce that which is unexpected from the point of view of the program.” In these photographs, Williams plays the analogue against the digital and using the resources of the photography industry (for instance working sometimes with commercial studios), he makes pictures that do not comply with their aesthetic and commercial conventions.

If it is possible to read Christopher Williams’s For Example: 18 leçons sur la société industrielle as an exploration of the industrial program of the camera apparatus as much, if not more than as an iconographic program on the visual culture of the Cold War era, and his images of cameras as teasers of black boxing, then what does his elaborate practice of analogue photography purposefully rejecting digital technology say about the shift from the analogue to the digital?

Cancel reply