On the Death of Photography – or, here we go again

No photography symbol

…whereas photography still claims some sort of objectivity, digital imaging is an overtly fictional process. (Batchen, 1999a: 211)

I was involved with the independent photography sector at a time when there were many community darkrooms across the country and there was much talk of cultural democracy. The overriding aim was putting the means of production and representation in the hands of as many people as possible. As digital appeared on the horizon it was generally seen with suspicion and concerns were expressed about the death of photography as we knew it, it was certainly the death knell for all those darkrooms.

What is key here is ‘as we knew it,’ it seems when artforms reach these tipping points it is more about adapting and re-inventing than it is about demise. After all the death of painting was felt to be the obvious consequence of the introduction of photography yet it is still going strong.

I think this is acknowledged in Fontcuberta’s ‘Pandora’s Camera’.

The digital image no longer shares the essential functions of a photography committed to authenticating experience, but its tremendous impact is still based on simulating membership of a pre-digital photographic culture, even though that culture has fallen into abeyance. (Fontcuberta, 2014: 61)

It seems to me that this surfaces a question, as outlined by Fontcuberta, about ontology and epistemology. As someone who comes from a social constructionist perspective the positivistic notion of photography revealing reality and a singular truth always sat uncomfortably. If this is now being challenged by the recognition of multiple realities then for me this does not spell a death, more a rebirth. I also find it curious in that I am not convinced photography ever occupied the singular position of authenticating experience, has it not always held multiple positions?

Batchen suggests that this existential crisis is brought about by two anxieties closely related to issues of truth:

  • The impact of widespread computer imaging processes that create issues around differentiating ‘fake’ from ‘real’
  • We are moving into an age where old distinctions that differentiated originals from simulations are evaporating

So photography is faced with two apparent crises, one technological (the introduction of computerized images) and one epistemological (having to do with broader changes in ethics, knowledge, and culture). (Batchen, 1999b: 10)

Digitisation certainly allows for increasingly sophisticated means of manipulation but it is the case that photographs have always been manipulated in some form, ‘ the production of any and every photograph involves practices of intervention and manipulation of some kind or other.’ (Batchen, 1999b: 18)

Barthes had long since questioned the association of the photograph with reality, it is not an exact replication but it does have a relationship with materiality. I do accept that in terms of computer visualisation there need be no such relationship, the image can be created solely within the computer. What the various scholars seem to suggest is that the future of photography is obviously connected to its past and present, ‘the modern person is, in other words, a being produced within the interstices of a continual negotiation of virtual and real.’ (Batchen, 2002: 173)

Photography’s passing must necessarily entail the inscription of another way of seeing – and of being. (Batchen, 1999b: 22)

References and citations:

Batchen, G. (1999a). Burning with desire: The conception of photography: Mit Press.

Batchen, G. (1999b). Ectoplasm: photography in the digital age. Over Exposed: Essays on Contemporary Photography. New York: WW Norton & Co, 9-23.

Batchen, G. (2002). Each wild idea: writing, photography, history: MIT Press.

Fontcuberta, J. (2014). Pandora’s camera: Photogr@ phy after photography: Mack.