2. Seeing Machines
Published: 13.03.2014
in the series Is Photography Over?
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In my last blog post, I sketched out some of the ways that traditional photography theory and practice seems to be at a standstill. Contemporary revolutions in photography, from omnipresent digital picture-taking to the advent of hundred-billion image repositories have prompted some practitioners, theorists, and critics to ask whether “photography” (at least as it was once understood) “is over.” I noted that the question has arrived at an ironic time – how could photography be “over” at the exact moment in history that it has achieved an unprecedented ubiquity? The reason is actually fairly obvious – “photography,” as it has been traditionally understood in theory and practice, has undergone a transition – it has become something else, something that’s difficult to make sense of within the existing analytic framework.  To me, it seems that to begin charting a course forward, we have to develop an expanded definition of what we mean when we’re talking about “photography.” With a nod to Paul Virilio, 1 See Paul Virilio’s Vision Machine (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994) and his War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (London: Verso, 1989). I propose a simple definition that has far-reaching consequences: seeing machines.

Seeing machines is an expansive definition of photography. It is intended to encompass the myriad ways that not only humans use technology to “see” the world, but the ways machines see the world for other machines. Seeing machines includes familiar photographic devices and categories like viewfinder cameras and photosensitive films and papers, but quickly moves far beyond that. It embraces everything from iPhones to airport security backscatter-imaging devices, from electro-optical reconnaissance satellites in low-earth orbit, to QR code readers at supermarket checkouts, from border checkpoint facial-recognition surveillance cameras to privatized networks of Automated License Plate Recognition systems, and from military wide-area-airborne-surveillance systems, to the roving cameras on board legions of Google’s Street View” cars.

What’s more, the idea of seeing machines I’m sketching out here isn’t confined to the imaging devices and systems I’ve described in broad strokes. The definition extends to include the images (or data) produced by such imaging systems, the digital metadata associated with those images, as well as additional systems for storage, archiving, search and interpretation (either human or algorithmic). Finally, and crucially, seeing machines encompasses not only imaging systems, search, and storage capacities, it encompasses something a bit more abstract, namely the “styles”  or “practices” of seeing that different imaging systems enable (i.e. the difference between what  a view camera and an automated license-plate reading camera “want” to do and how they see the world differently). 2 Some readers may rightly detect a resonance between my use of the word “machine,” and the Deleuzian one. Crucially, the definition of photography I’m proposing here encompasses imaging devices (“cameras” broadly understood), the data (“images” being one possible manifestation of that data) they produce, and the seeing-practices with which they are enmeshed.

Some may object that this re-framing of photography is too broad, that the framework of seeing machines encompasses so many diverse technologies and practices that it is a meaningless concept. I think that the opposite is the case. If we were talking about seeing machines only a few decades ago, our conversation would have been overwhelmingly confined to what we would now consider analog or film photography and a small range of variations (including moving-image cameras – nearly identical technologically, if not culturally, to still-image photography). If seeing machines seems like an incredibly expansive definition of photography, it is a testament to our historical moment, a moment where imaging, or photography is, literally, everywhere. In other words, the idea of seeing machines helps us to see what photography, as it is actually practiced in the world now, has become. It helps us identify the remarkably diverse roles in society that image-making has come to play. Nonetheless, the implications seem bewildering.

If we accept the notion of photography-as-seeing-machines, it’s obvious that there are few guides to understanding this emerging photographic landscape. Susan Sontag’s seminal work has little to say about the infrared imaging system on a Reaper drone; applying Roland Barthes’ ideas to the billions of images in London’s city-wide surveillance archives would be utterly absurd. Traditional notions from photo theory and visual studies – from Barthes’ “mythologies” to Debord’s “spectacle” and their various derivations – are clearly not up to the task.

Indeed, as we start to explore the notion of seeing machines in upcoming posts, I think it will become apparent that focusing too closely on individual images is entirely to miss the point

4 comment(s)
Claus Gunti
Posted 13.03.2014 at 15:20

Dear colleague,

Thanks a lot for the challenging input on the need for new methodologies to think photographic practices. As a scholar positioned (institutionally and theoretically) between film studies and art history, I interestingly noticed the wide use of the concept of seeing machine or vision apparatus (dispositif in French) in the study of cinema (for several decades now) – a position Virilio is clearly a symptom of – , while photography theory remained caught in various idiosyncrasies. The advent of digital technologies has paradoxically reinforced these dogmatic positions, prohibiting a thorough understanding of their epistemological reach and, more specifically, their scopic regime. As such, the history of cinema could be an interesting model to look into, some analytical positions having envisioned a multitude of aspects of the object “film” (spectatorship, circulation, technical apparatus, etc.), relatively few art historians – most prominently Jonathan Crary – have reflected upon. Maybe the initially commercial status of cinema and its less rigid claim for truth, a position photography theory has often been hindered by, ought to explain this more pragmatic approach (pardon the over-simplicifcation). Furthermore, still photography has often been conceived as a discreet object; in the contemporary context, it can hardly be excluded from a broader understanding including moving images, automated capture and circulation of images, from its management by algorithms and – as you point out – from the visual culture of a viewing subject. I am glad to see that these issues are being taken into account – somehow ironically by an artist and not an academic specialising in photography – and am looking forward to read the upcoming posts.

Nils Plath
Posted 13.03.2014 at 15:35

As we all know, the promise of photography (as well as of film) has long been what was called its indexicality (a term coined by Charles Sanders Pierce), i.e. its ability to capture the so called 'reality' and represent it in its own form, format, (time)frame. This promise–simultaneously a promise for gaining control over the reality of the images–has long turned out to be an illusion (and nonetheless continues to affirm its impact), and has since the early days of photography served as a bone of contention in many controversial discussions. Granted: The frameworks in which current debates take place on these issues of the representational power of photography and the photographs, the pictures and the (iconic) image are not the same as they were decades ago. Largely due (besides the phenomena of digitalization) to the omnipresence of the above mentioned 'seeing machines' (a generic term for very different and singular types of technological inventions whose differences shall not be overlooked when they are being placed into the center of debate). Maybe, as some photo- and media theorists have argued, the 'digital image' does not even exist as such (i.e. as an image), because it only consists of data and therefore does not possess any traits of this indexicality crucial to the image (in its traditional understanding). This would mean juxtaposing the digital to the analog images would not make sense anymore and would be fruitless for the debates from a media-materialistic point of view. Instead, a different approach would then be the answer: to advance a way of thinking about the representational power of pictures in terms based merely on algorithmic logics. Or, be it as a complement or in dissent, one could put the production conditions and distribution channels of pictures under critical scrutiny, analyze them in looking at them very closely, and try to make sense of them in the context of the greater socio-political shifts and movements of the tectonic plates within the various societies around our Globus terrestris.
For a start of further explorations, I'd like to pose just one question to myself: What is a machine? (And how do I get to see it? What do I get to see if I see one?). Which (epistemological) concepts are hidden in the term "machine" used above in conjunction with visual perception, “the sight,” and thus most certainly points of presence? (*)

(*) see Steve Rowell's compelling investigation into the history, geography, and archaeology of global telecommunications: http://www.steverowell.com/index.php/current/points-of-presence/

Mishka Henner
Posted 13.03.2014 at 18:00

If machines are seeing for each other, can we assume that they will one day feel for each other, care for each other, and tell jokes to each other? And if so, are they also likely to develop their own critical and theoretical frameworks for understanding and questioning how they see the world? (That final part is a joke by the way. Can machines tell bad jokes?)

There is another reading of the phrase seeing machines. Instead of machines that see, what about our ability to see the machinery upon which so much of our existence already relies upon? How can we make them visible and what can we learn from seeing them and from learning to see like them?

We can already conceive of the world as a complex and intricate system of man-made circuits running under, between, and around us; From fibre optic cables beneath our feet to WiFi signals filling the surrounding invisible space. Almost everything is coded and lives in a global network of catalogued commodities and logistical operations. How do we even begin to see and represent that reality?

In my own work, I choose to adopt the optics of the drone itself. From a satellite's perspective, the landscapes of our food and energy infrastructures already resemble the circuits and motherboards of the industrial logic that drive them. No ground-based photography can capture those systems as well as the hundreds of satellites operating above us.

Traditional methods of documentary photography (which I think is what we're really discussing here rather than photography as a whole which is infinitely larger in scope and application) are woefully inadequate at representing the new world order. I already gave an example of the limitation of ground-based approaches to representing a couple of subjects but there are many others. In fact, to list all the limitations, we only have to think of the many practical applications photography already serves in all the fields which are not considered Documentary Photography but which utilize photography for documentary purposes every minute of every day. My guess is it’s a world with no auteurs, one where style and the single viewpoint are irrelevent, and where poetry and lyricism are mere follies.

The problem isn’t photography itself, but how narrowly we define it. In that respect, I feel that many of us are still playing catch up with the ways photography is used and developed by industry and by the military. Only now are we beginning to see that the world they’ve shaped looks nothing like the world we thought we lived in.

As an aside, I keep thinking about MH370, the Malaysia Airlines passenger jet that’s disappeared without a trace. Do the machines know its whereabouts? Have they been seeing it this whole time? Or are there limits to their vision?

Andrea Botto
Posted 01.04.2014 at 11:13

The concept of "seeing machines" remembers me Franco Vaccari's "technological unconscious". Vaccari is an italian artist that since the '70 has theorized and practiced the "expositions in real time". The most famous of them was made for the Venice Biennale in 1972.
Unfortunately there is no english translation of his seminal book "Photography and technological unconscious", edited in 1979, but I think it could be really useful to this discussion.


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