MA in Photography, Falmouth University, Research & Reading
Michelle Henning in her paper given at the Urban Encounters/Cartographies Conference at Tate Britain (figure 1) on 11th November, which I attended (and subsequently obtained the paper), tabled the notion that we, in the current age, draw too large a distinction between digital and pre-digital depiction (what we now call analogue) in her paper entitled “Optical Transformations: Between the Analogue and the Digital We are Here, but Where are You?”
She launches by stating that “I want to challenge some of the assumptions about the pre-digital image that new theories of the digital re-circulate. I am going to argue that in order to draw a sharp distinction between a digital networked visual culture and earlier forms of visual culture, theorists of the digital have been too selective about the characteristics of pre-digital photography that they emphasize”.
She notes that theorists “argue that the digital image is not principally visual, that it is also a surface manifestation of data, determined by specific algorithms, invisible to the observer of the image. As a consequence, it is argued, we have moved beyond representation and this constitutes a significant break between analogue-chemical photography and digital photography”.
She challenges this “I suggest that the notion that we have moved beyond representation is based on a specific understanding of representation and of its role in photography — which involves, first of all, the idea that an analogue-chemical photograph was organised around resemblance and perspective, and that it was dependent for its meaning on its status as an analogue trace. While this is true of certain kinds of photographic practices, it is not invariably or essentially the case. More worryingly, digital image theorists sometimes repeat ideas about photographs that photography theorists might have thought had already been quashed. For example, William Mitchell writes “Images in the post-photographic era can no longer be guaranteed as visual truth — or even as signifiers with stable meaning and value” – the problematic part of the sentence is that “no longer” – as if photographs had ever been guaranteed truths, or had stable, incontestable meanings”
“In my view, theories of the digital have a tendency to exaggerate the break between digital and analogue and to assume that all photography prior to the digital image can be lumped together as one medium, one technology and one set of practices. I want to give some perspective, to temper a little this notion of a dramatic historical rupture, and to complicate the notion of photographic representation”.
Figure 2; John Gutmann’s, We Are Here But Where Are You? taken in San Francisco, in either 1936 or 1937.
Henning continues “This is a photograph that almost completely erases itself as photograph and presents itself as just a text or surface to be read”.
“Guttmann is attentive toward the grain of the wood, but the boards are not just scrawled on but stabbed, burned or shot, peppered with tiny marks. …..the whole surface is the result of human activity. And yet, there is no-one and almost no-thing in this image: “We are here” it says, but no-one is visible. The question “where are you”? is clearly written for the absent addressees, Sophie and Mae, but it also implicates “you”, the reader-viewer, raising the question of where you (or Gutmann ) are standing. We are given a date that Sophie and Mae were present but, at the point when the photograph is taken and at the point when it is being viewed, they are gone. The photograph is not simply a trace of the past, but a trace of a trace of the past: and while we can safely assume the message is no longer still “live” eighty years later, it is unclear whether it was already a dead letter, a defunct piece of communication at the point when Gutmann took the photograph”.
“We find ourselves now in a period where “the vast mound of documentation seemed to have buried reality rather than to have clarified it” as TV Reed (puts it in the review of 1930’s practice). Digital culture theorists point to what else this process of incessant documentation is producing — they suggest what is at stake here is not what is depicted but what happens in the process of taking and circulating the image, what kind of data is being accrued and exchanged. This is important, but to take our eye off representation, to abandon the visual as mere surface manifestation, is to develop another blind-spot, this time towards the making and reading of nuanced and complex representations of our own reality. In opening one secret passage, we might take care not to close another”
In summary, Henning pleads for an appreciation of the representation in the context of the plethora of image making; not to loose one of the main causes of photography in the world of data making.
Figure 2, sourced from http://www.artnet.com/artists/john-gutmann/we-are-here-but-where-are-you-san-francisco-HfcaIkrSE6Xgu6A5iSrbAw2 accessed 19.11.2017
Programme of the symposium at Tate Britian http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/conference/urban-encounters-2017-cartographies accessed 19.11.2017