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

7 comment(s)
Joanna Fiduccia
Posted 24.03.2013 at 20:22

Thank you for these thoughts, Sophie. I find myself unsure whether I might not fall on the side of your student after all. Williams’s “lessons” here seem deliberately hoary, keyed to a technology (and industry structure) that has been surpassed although, importantly, not discarded. Like the codicil to his exhibition at Gisela Capitain, a black-and-white hay bale, the analogue apparatus has been repurposed as an image, or “look,” on one hand, and. a component in a larger production process, on the other—an expanded apparatus, or “assisted camera,” in the words of photographer Lucas Blalock. For artists like Blalock, a younger generation of photographers working today, many of whom wear Williams’s influence on their sleeve, there hasn’t been a shift from the analog to the digital. Rather, the latter has absorbed the former. It follows that exposing the apparatus’s program today must go beyond imaging the camera, to making visible the very post-production practices that seem self-evident to a viewership perfectly fluent in these technologies. In this sense, I read Williams’s Leçons neither as a rejection of digital technology nor as an instance of the camera unmasking its program, but as a kind of apophatic gesture to the digital and analogue program as it stands today. A recognition, that is, that such a program can’t be inverted like a glove, that we cannot see the insides of something composed of only surfaces.

Sophie Berrebi
Posted 27.03.2013 at 10:35

Thanks Joanna for this thought-provoking response, which raises many questions I would like to think about further.
It is true that Williams is often thought of as an artist's artist ( very much like Moulène in fact) and that there is a lot to learn from the way in which younger artists absorb his 'lessons'.
I would like to think more about this idea that the digital has absorbed the analogue. How would do you think this works out in the practice of artists who deliberately continue to use only analogue - Zoe Leonard for example - Sally Mann the last time I looked, and so on.
What examples would you give of 'making visible post-production practices'?
Also, just to avoid misunderstanding, I am not sure what sense of the word 'hoary' you are using : overused or old-fashioned- a subtle but important distinction.
my best,

Joanna Fiduccia
Posted 31.03.2013 at 00:08

I think it’s tempting to say that artists like Leonard are actively resisting the digital onslaught, but from what I know about her practice, Leonard is not terribly interested in drawing that line in the sand. Analogue is a formal decision, or one grounded in technical familiarity. Of course, as the production of film and photographic paper slows, these decisions are beginning to lose their innocence—at least so far as the market goes.
I would say, though, that photographers still working solely with an analogue apparatus are well aware that their work will be circulated digitally. There are still those works that radically privilege viewing in the flesh—the extraordinary oeuvre of Jochen Lempert, for example—but image-making to greater and lesser degrees now has to acknowledge its digital life. In this way, analogue photographers like Eileen Quinlan or Jessica Eaton are perhaps not so distant from “assisted apparatus” photographers like Blalock, Sam Falls, Mariah Robertson.
There is certainly something stale about didactics for an Exakta—but now that I’m looking at Williams’s exhibition again, I need to revise my thoughts. These photographs seem clearly to be channeling Apple’s advertising idiom—the crisp contours, the white ground, the isolated fingers delicately manipulating the device, and so on. Everything old is new again.

megan driscoll
Posted 26.03.2013 at 19:29

This may be somewhat sideways to the conversation here, but Sophie, your comments about Apple products reinstating the "impenetrable black box," and Joanna, your comment about how "the analogue apparatus has been repurposed as an image, or 'look,'" has me thinking about the kind of analogue nostalgia that seems to want to reassert a very specific element of film photography: the accident. I'm thinking primarily of the trendiness of tools like Lomography and Holga cameras, which insist on taking the "vintage" aesthetic trend in photographic images - see the popularity of what I've personally deemed the "70s filter" in Instagram, for example - and returning it to the apparatus, and a very unpredictable, and thus somewhat haplessly impenetrable, one at that. This seems to not simply be a resistance to the appearance of the digital, but to its control, and a desire for the haze and blurs and near-misses of the beautiful accident (in the words of one band, a desire to "worship the glitch"). We can see the predecessor for this resistance to technical superiority in the early New York School, or later in many of the Boston School photographers, and this same urge seems to be part of what is driving some people away from the digital and toward the analogue and its particular "look."

Andrea Gyorody
Posted 02.04.2013 at 14:37

After reading your post, Sophie, and all of the subsequent comments, I'm having the same reaction I typically have in response to these doomsday analogue vs. digital discussions. There seems to be the assumption that in the mass exodus from analogue technology, we are losing something monumental. I would agree that analogue photographs often possess a richness and sometimes a depth that appears to be absent from digital photography. But I think that the nostalgia for analogue has less to do with image quality (or ontology) and more to do with the end of an era of photographic history--no longer must professional photographers spend hours in a darkroom carefully developing images that they have not yet seen, and no longer do amateur photographers treat their film rolls as precious possessions, carefully taken out of the camera at the end of a family vacation and handed over to the photomat operator to be turned into prints that will be lovingly inscribed, mailed to friends, or pasted into a scrapbook. The photograph as an object has changed (to some extent disappeared), and we’ve lost a certain romanticism in the process.

But as for photography as a program: I want to propose that, in fact, we've gained something in the move to digital. I am not well-versed in Flusser's writing, but based on what you've written above, Sophie, the "program" is a kind of Foucaultian means of social control, of which we are often unaware. (We are unaware, that is, that there is a particular program—or set of conventions—that guides both the production of photographic images and the ways in which we read them.) Insofar as that program extends to all images and pictures, it is to some degree inescapable. But with specific regard to photography, the move to digital has meant that our capturing and viewing of photographs is precisely through the confines of an actual program, whether Instagram, iPhoto, Photoshop, Facebook, Tumblr, etc. etc. Each of these programs presents a set menu of possibilities for photo capture, manipulation, and viewing. Rather than representing an “impenetrable black box,” these applications lay bare what the “program” is. Now more than ever, photographic manipulation is both democratically available (anyone can do it) and, even when done masterfully, often recognizable as such—all of which means, in my mind, that the “myth of the transparency of the photography” has been exposed, not revived. The same could not be said for the darkroom manipulations that dominate the analogue history of photography. (I can distinctly remember my shock in an undergraduate photo history course when the professor showed us early photographs of San Francisco’s Chinatown, in which the photographer had carefully burnished out any signs of modernity so that the Chinese appeared as exotic—and out of place and time—as possible.) What may be troubling or at least perplexing is that so many people seem to delight in the artificiality of Instagram-filtered photos, posting them with glee and a sense of artistic achievement even though everyone who sees them knows exactly how they came to be. (Which has lead to another irksome, reactionary trend: posting photos along with the hashtag "nofilter," to proclaim that your unedited photo was so good that it didn't need any help from Instagram.) All of this leads me to think about virtuality and simulacra, with echoes of Jameson and Baudrillard… but that’s for another discussion, I think.

Carol Yinghua Lu
Posted 07.04.2013 at 05:29

Reading about the many changes photography has undergone as described and discussed in many of the blog entries on this website, we can not help but think of one of the things that might remain unchanged of the layered system behind the technological possibility of photography is the human ambition imbedded in the invention of such a tool as photography, the human desire and ambition to conquer, possess and capture the world in picture. We can almost say that the moment photography was created, its spiritual mission and aspiration was already accomplished, the possibility to depict the track of human activities.

When the cumbersome machine was dragged around the world at the beginning of its invention alongside horses, ships, cannons and trains, the camera was performing exactly the same task as what we expect of it today, when each of us has one in hand built in our phones and is capable of photographing anything we see, to capture, own, describe and preserve an experience. Such an experience is often fleeting, individual and can not be repeated. It is what happens in front of whoever is holding the camera and is whatever is happening elsewhere.

Mack Wheeler
Posted 23.05.2013 at 23:55

Media philosopher Vilém Flusser proposed a revolutionary new way of thinking about photography. An analysis of the medium in terms of aesthetics, science and politics provided him with new ways of understanding both the cultural crises of the past and the new social forms nascent within them. Flusser showed how the transformation of textual into visual culture (from the linearity of history into the two-dimensionality of magic) and of industrial into post-industrial society (from work into leisure) went hand in hand, and how photography allows us to read and interpret these changes with particular clarity.

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