Digital Image in Photographic Culture: Algorithmic photography and the crisis of representation

Photo made of digital tiles

Photo mosaic algorithm



This chapter seems like a denser read than some of the other recommendations to date and as a result this feels like an initial response as I am sure it will warrant re-reading in future. It is thought provoking in terms of exploring how we regard the digital photograph and the paradigms that have shaped our relationship to photographs.

What is being offered to the viewer of Titanic is life reduced to a sequence of frozen moments: bound to the world of emerging technological complexity, but ultimately detached from expressivity and spontaneity.(Rubinstein & Sluis, 2013: 23)

Rubenstein and Sluis (2013) draw comparisons between the photographic records in the scene of Titanic and those in Memento. In one, Titanic, the photographs are placed in such a way as to represent a linear life, in the other they carry multiple narratives and temporalities.

But Leonard has also created his own clues with what Esther M. Sternberg dubs “a meticulous artificial memory system”. His main problem is his confusion of photographs with objects. Whatever their status as tangible things, they are primarily vessels of information that carries little in the way of inalienable factual weight, despite the assertion in the tattoo that reads “CAMERA NEVER LIES”. (North, 2009)

This raises the interesting notion of the photograph facing in two directions at the same time. It is concerned with both the objects and subjects it captures as well as pointing ‘towards photography’s own conditions of manufacturing.’(Rubinstein & Sluis, 2013: 25)

This brings to the fore a discussion of the influence of Cartesian thought, at the time of mind/body split, images move from metaphorical and aesthetic to rational and objective truth. Something that Memento clearly plays with in its narrative structure. This positions photography as an ‘offshoot of objectivity and empiricism.’ and in doing so it seems to me to place it within a positivist paradigm and realist ontology, something that I have never accorded to photography and something I feel has always been in question even before digital.

…photographs are first and foremost bound to the world itself rather than to cultural systems (Rubinstein & Sluis, 2013: 25)

The chapter seems to challenge this relationship and belief as it moves towards algorithmic processes and data. Now we have a process that serve to create images that for the most part (but not always) create pictures that look like what we know as ‘photographs.’


North, D. (2009). Memento: “The Camera Never Lies”.   Retrieved 1st November 2017, from

Rubinstein, D., & Sluis, K. (2013). The Digital Image in Photographic Culture. The photographic image in digital culture, 22-40.


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.