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Appearance and Reality

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The Ontology of Photography: From Analogue To Digital

Peter Benson on why digital photos aren’t reliable records of anything.

André Bazin (1918-58) was the greatest film critic of his generation. As Editor of the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma he encouraged young writers such as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer, who would later become film-makers themselves, creating the French New Wave of the 1960s. In 1945 Bazin wrote an essay entitled ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ (English translation available in What is Cinema?, Vol 1, 1967). ‘Ontology’ is that branch of philosophy concerned with the study of being, and of the different kinds of being that entities might have, so to discuss the ontological status of photography is to consider what particular kind of thing a photograph is.

Bazin declared that the invention of photography was “the most important event in the history of the plastic arts [because] it has freed Western painting… from its obsession with realism and allowed it to recover its aesthetic autonomy” (p.16). This is not an unusual claim. Bazin cites Cézanne and Picasso as obvious examples of painters whose careers began during the early years of photography, and who initiated modern art with its less literal means of depicting the world. However, the reasons Bazin gives for this liberating effect on painting are striking. Previously, he suggests, “painting was torn between two ambitions: one … the expression of spiritual reality wherein the symbol transcended its model; the other … the duplication of the world outside.” (What is Cinema? p.11.) Photography took the burden of this second task away from painting – not, however, because it was better at showing the world as it is. The precise depictions found in the best oil paintings were superior to the blurred black and white of early photography. But “no matter how fuzzy, distorted, or discoloured… the image may be, it shares, by virtue of the very process of its becoming, the being of the model.” (p.14, my emphasis): photography is “a mechanical reproduction in the making of which man plays no part” (p.12), which means “we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced… [there is a] transference of reality from the thing to the reproduction” (p.13, my emphasis).

This is why Bazin uses the word ‘ontology’ in the title of his article: in photography, an aspect of the being of the objects is transferred to the image. By way of analogy, Bazin refers to the Turin Shroud. A diminishing number of people believe this to be the actual sheet in which the body of Christ was laid in the tomb, and that the dried blood stains which outline a human face and figure on the cloth provide an immediate depiction of the physiognomy of Christ. In fact, scientific tests on the material of the Shroud have indicated that it does not date back to the time of Christ. But if it were indeed what it purports to be, it would be easy to see why for believers it would have some share in the sacredness of Christ, and why its image would be contemplated with greater devotion than even the finest paintings of Jesus, drawn from the imaginations of the best artists; there would be a transference of reality from Christ to the Shroud.

Bazin’s thoughts have been echoed by several subsequent writers on the nature of photography, including Susan Sontag (On Photography, 1977) and Roland Barthes (Camera Lucida, 1980). Indeed, on the very first page, Barthes writes of the book’s genesis that he “was overcome by an ‘ontological’ desire: I wanted to learn at all costs what photography was ‘in itself’.” To satisfy himself on this issue, he turned to the philosophical method of phenomenology, making use of its terminology, and writing his book (as its dedication page declares), “In homage to L’Imaginaire by Jean-Paul Sartre.” L’Imaginaire was an early book by Sartre, published in 1940, in which he applied the ideas of Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, to an investigation of different kinds of images, including photographs.

Sartre writes that a photograph, “if it is simply perceived, appears to me as a paper rectangle of a special quality and colour, with shades and clear spots distributed in a certain way. If I perceive that photograph as ‘photo of a man standing on steps’, the neutral phenomenon is necessarily already of a different structure: a different intention animates it.” (‘The Imaginary’, p.19, my emphasis.) This is a classic phenomenological description of an object. For phenomenology, every conscious experience has intentionality, which simply means that it is directed at something. However, as Robert Sokolowski writes in Introduction to Phenomenology, p.12, (2000), “For phenomenology, intentionality is highly differentiated. There are different kinds of intending, correlated with different kinds of objects. For example, we carry out perceptual intentions when we see an ordinary material object, but we must intend pictorially when we see a photograph… taking something as a picture is different from taking something as a simple object.” This is what Sartre meant in his example too.

Barthes, in following the traditional approach of phenomenological enquiry, seeks to give a more precise characterization of the intentionality that is involved both in perceiving a photograph, and perceiving it as a photograph. His eventual conclusion is that the very essence of perceiving something as a photograph can be summed up in the phrase ‘that-has-been’: “In photography,” he writes, “I can never deny that the thing has been there” (p.76 – his emphasis). By contrast “no painted portrait… could compel me to believe its referent had really existed (p.77 – my emphasis). Hence “This-has-been; for anyone who holds a photograph in his hand, here is a fundamental belief… nothing can undo unless you prove to me that the image is not a photograph.” (p.107.)

In phenomenology analyses such as these are believed to contribute to the fundamental goal of ontology, the categorization of all the kinds of ways that things exist. A considerable number of objections could be raised about the entire phenomenological project. Indeed, it is particularly surprising for Barthes to be adopting this method, given that he belonged to that 1950s generation of French thinkers whose careers mostly began by turning away from the phenomenological approach to philosophy then dominant in Europe. Barthes’ close contemporaries Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault were explicit about their anti-phenomenological stance: Derrida’s first writings were criticisms of Husserl’s approach to language; and Foucault, having at first attempted a phenomenological description of madness, abandoned this approach in order to focus upon the discourses through which madness is described. This turn towards an investigation of language blended with the growing influence of linguistic structuralism, which Barthes applied to such fields as the study of fashion. Yet, when in his final book he sought to understand the nature of images, Barthes turned back to phenomenology, evidently finding in it an illuminating approach to the problem.

It is not my intention here either to defend or attack the phenomenological method. Instead, I want to point out that Barthes’ phenomenological characterization of photography as ‘that-has-been’ would have seemed perfectly reasonable when he made it in 1980. It was entirely in line with the views that had been expressed earlier by Sartre, Bazin, and Sontag. However, a major transformation of the medium of photography was about to occur, which would alter the underlying assumptions made by all these writers.

The Digital Revolution

The first digital camera was invented in 1988, but it was not until 1997 that such cameras could be bought by the public. Even then they were very expensive at first. As is the way with electronic devices, the price rapidly declined, until today the cheapest, most widely available, and most-used cameras are all digital. In the space of a few years, the mechanics of photography, which had remained roughly similar for over a hundred years, underwent a massive alteration. This obliges us to reconsider the ontology of photography, to see if the analyses of Bazin, Sartre, Sontag, and Barthes remain true.

I can remember the precise moment when the magnitude of the analogue-to-digital change became apparent to me. I had been browsing through a magazine when my eye was caught by a photograph of a new building near the banks of the Thames – a strikingly modernist structure, gleaming with glass yet elegantly sculptural in shape. I immediately wanted to look at the building in situ, so that I could view it from all angles and decide if it was, indeed, as handsome as its picture suggested. From the picture, I could guess roughly where it was, and the likely nearest tube station. However, before I put on my shoes to set off on this expedition, I read the accompanying article. This told me that I was looking at a proposed building, for which planning permission had not yet been granted. Not a single foundation stone had yet been laid.

‘Artists’ impressions’ of architectural proposals have always been common, of course. But in the past they have usually taken the form of drawings or coloured sketches. However, no matter how closely I looked at this picture (and I was soon studying it through a magnifying glass), it remained indistinguishable from any other photograph in the magazine. Pictorial illusions, faked images, and superimpositions have also been produced since the earliest days of photography. One need only think of the Victorian passion for images of ghosts – most of which, to a modern eye, are obvious double exposures. Such trickery can always be detected by close scrutiny of the finished photograph, or of the original negative. But as I pondered the modern digital fabrication of the building, it became clearer to me that no such scrutiny, however close, could reveal the image’s fictional nature.

Two images – one of a real location besides the Thames, the other of a non-existent building – had been combined by a computer programme which would have arranged the relevant pixels appropriately. A pixel is no more than a dab of a particular colour. A digital photo is formed from a grid of perhaps millions of pixels. The colour of each separate pixel is coded by a number, and this array of numbers is saved as a digital file. An image-manipulation programme such as Photoshop can alter any pixel in any way at the will of the programmer. This basically changes one digital array of numbers into another. One implication of this is spelled out by William J. Mitchell in his book The Reconfigured Eye (1992). In digital photography, he writes, “There is simply no equivalent of the permanently archived, physically unique photographic negative. Image files are ephemeral, can be copied and transmitted virtually instantly and cannot be examined (as photographic negatives can) for physical evidence of tampering. The only difference between an original file and a copy is the tag recording time and date of creation – and that can easily be changed. Image files therefore leave no trail, and it is often impossible to establish with certainty the provenance of a digital image.” (p.51.)

Remember the conclusion of Barthes’ phenomenological investigation of photography: “This-has-been; for anyone who holds a photograph in his hand, here is a fundamental belief… nothing can undo, unless you prove to me that the image is not a photograph.” By this definition, I believe that it’s clear that a digital photograph is not a photograph, at least not in Barthes’ sense of the word. This denunciation applies not only to faked images like the one I saw in the magazine, but to any digital image, since its necessary connection to the real thing photographed has been severed and replaced by its connection with a string of 0s and 1s stored in a computer file. William Mitchell concludes his book by declaring, “Today, as we enter the post-photographic era, we must face once again the ineradicable fragility of our ontological distinctions between the imaginary and the real.” (p.225.)

The Proliferation of Simulacra

If digital images are ontologically not photographs in the traditional sense, then what is their ontological status – what kind of thing are they? Happily, there is already an appropriate word for entities of this kind. They are simulacra.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the earliest meaning of the word ‘Simulacrum’, dating back to the Sixteenth Century: “a material image, made as a representation of some deity, person, or thing.” Clearly, unlike a true photograph, such an image does not guarantee the existence of the entity it represents (one need only think about the variety of possible deities). The dictionary adds as a secondary definition, that a simulacrum is “Something having merely the form or appearance of a certain thing, without possessing its substance or proper qualities.” This would also set a simulacrum apart from traditional photographs, which, as we have seen, share to some degree the being of their source: simularcra can be copied, reproduced, multiplied or modified without necessarily having any relation to a reality separate from themselves in what they represent.

In recent years the word ‘simulacra’ has been given renewed use in the writings of Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007), who was himself a photographer. His photos have been exhibited in art galleries and used as cover illustrations for several of his books. He also wrote a number of essays specifically about photography. In one of these he writes:

“The [analogue] photo is not an image in real time. It retains the moment of the negative, the suspense of the negative, that slight time-lag which allows the image to exist before the world – or the object – disappears into the image, which they could not do in the [digital] computer-generated image, where the real has already disappeared. The photo preserves the moment of disappearance and thus the charm of the real, like that of a previous life.” (The Perfect Crime, p.86.)

Back in Philosophy Now Issue 80, Matt Randle wrote about this very same essay. But in my view, Randle failed to fully recognize the nature of the ontological question Baudrillard is addressing. The distinction between analogue and digital photography should help to make this question clearer. The crucial confusion which Baudrillard believes to be exacerbated in the modern world is not that between images and reality, as Randle suggests: it is, rather, between images of reality and self-sufficient simulacra. He expresses this distinction in his book Fatal Strategies (1983) as follows: “The real does not efface itself in favour of the imaginary; it effaces itself in favour of the more real than real: the hyperreal. The truer than the true: this is simulation [the domain of simulacra].” (p.11.)

Because the digital image has no umbilical connection to the real of the kind Barthes discussed for photographs, but only a connection to a string of 0s and 1s in computer code, it has therefore arrived at the final phase of Baudrillard’s “successive phases of the image:

  • It is the reflection of a profound reality;
  • It masks and denatures a profound reality;
  • It masks the absence of a profound reality;
  • It has no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum.”

(Simulacra and Simulation, 1981, p.6.)

A notable feature of Baudrillard’s writings is the large number of allusions to, and echoes of, other writers. This gives his texts the quality of having many layers of meaning below the surface. For this reason they require careful and repeated reading. For example, in this passage about the ‘phases of the image’, there is a deliberate echo of a very famous passage in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols (1889). Under the heading ‘How the Real World at last became a Myth’, Nietzsche outlines the entire history of Western philosophy in a page and a half! Philosophers began, he suggests, by believing that true reality could only be attained by rigorous thought and discipline – as in Plato’s story of the cave dwellers who must struggle towards the sunlight of the real world. By the time of Kant, however, such ultimate reality (i.e. the nature of things ‘in themselves’) came to be regarded as unknowable, and philosophy becomes an exercise in mapping the limits to our claims to knowledge. By Nietzsche’s time, the very idea of a ‘real world’ hidden from us had been largely abandoned. But, says Nietzsche, if there is no ‘real world’, there can be no ‘apparent world’ either, the very contrast between them having disappeared. Nietzsche conceived his own philosophy as a response to this cultural situation he characterized as ‘nihilism’.

Baudrillard is a thinker very much in the Nietzschean tradition. He sought to provide us with guidebooks to our contemporary nihilistic world – a world made up of surfaces without depth and proliferating simulacra, which are not copies of reality but self-sustaining fictions. These features of our surrounding culture inexorably and involuntarily alter our sense of what does and what does not count as reality, and of the various categories to which things can be assigned. That is to say, our culture alters our ontology.

As we have seen, from a phenomenological perspective, analogue photographs form a distinctive category of objects. To see a picture as a photograph is to locate it within this category. Digital photography creates a different category. To see something as a digital image is to locate it within the category of simulacra. Furthermore, the proliferation of digital images blurs and confuses the distinction between these two domains. We are never quite sure what kind of image we are seeing. And it is in this sense that digital photography contributes to our ontological uncertainty – to a shaky and unclear sense of reality.

The proliferation of simulacra was well underway before the invention of digital photography. Indeed, Simulacra and Simulation was first published in 1981, before the invention of digital cameras. In an acknowledgement of its prescience, a copy of the book can be glimpsed in Keanu Reeves’ apartment in The Matrix (1999) – a film whose startling imagery would have been impossible without the use of digital manipulation. Although The Matrix has frequently been discussed by philosophers for its dramatization of the epistemological question ‘How do we know what is real?’, less attention has been paid to the way the visual technologies used by the filmmakers have altered our ontological categories.

The film’s dialogue borrows the memorable phrase ‘the desert of the real’ from Simulacra and Simulation. As Baudrillard explains, simulacra are generated “by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map… it is the map that precedes the territory. It is the real… whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are… ours. The desert of the real itself.” (p.1.) Increasingly, we are surrounded, not by windows onto distant areas of reality with documentary validity, but by a shifting labyrinth of fictional views, as if we are indeed locked into a matrix, without the benefit of a red pill to release us. Nietzsche’s prediction of the disappearance of any distinction between reality and appearance is fulfilled in Baudrillard’s desert of hyperreality. We should be concerned about the steady replacement of traditional photography by digital images before the final vestiges of reality vanish.

Artistic Strategies

Is there anything to be done about this situation? Baudrillard’s own writings are pervaded by a gloomy acceptance of apocalyptic doom. But among visual artists there remain some strategies of resistance.

Film-maker Tacita Dean was chosen by the Tate Modern gallery in London for their prestigious Turbine Hall commission for 2011. Dean works exclusively with analogue film, refusing any digital modification to her images. She has written eloquently about her artistic activity:

“My relationship to film begins at the moment of shooting, and ends in the moment of projection. Along the way, there are several stages of magical transformation that imbue the work with varying layers of intensity. This is why the film image is different from the digital image: it is not [photographic] emulsion versus pixels, or light versus electronics, but something deeper – something to do with poetry.”

(The Guardian, 22 Feb 2011)

Note the parallel between these comments and those of Baudrillard quoted earlier from The Perfect Crime, that the analogue image “retains the moment of the negative, the suspense of the negative, that slight time-lag.” Baudrillard is here referring both to the technology of analogue film (with a negative image preceding a positive print) and to the Hegelian notion of the ‘moment of the negative’ being the source of creative transformation without which reality remains inert.

In the field of still photography, another artist responding to these concerns is the great American photographer Sally Mann. Far from making use of the latest miracles of technology, Sally Mann takes her pictures using Nineteenth Century cameras, or at least reconstructions of these (the originals are mostly in museums by now). These large wooden contraptions are heavy and awkward to move – the antithesis of modern pocket-sized digital cameras. The images are formed on glass plates, often requiring exposures of several minutes. For some pictures (notably the landscape photographs in her book Deep South, 1998) she used the ‘wet collodian’ process, in which the photographic plate has to be coated with a viscous chemical liquid before exposure. It is exceptionally difficult to get an even spread of the liquid, and the resulting images often have features resulting, not from the real landscape, but from the unevenness of the photographic chemicals. Far from rejecting these plates as ‘faulty’, Mann delights in these unpredictable effects.

Just as the images take time to be imprinted on the photographic plates, so they require time and patience to be appreciated by the viewer. Looking at them is a process through which different layers of the image are slowly distinguished. One begins to separate the chemical unevenness from the undulations of the undergrowth; the fogginess of the image from the mistiness of the scene. This separation, which is impossible in a digital image, is encouraged by the analogue photograph. There is a sensation of looking into the image, searching it to see more as it slowly reveals itself. By blocking the immediate accessibility of the world, Mann gives the places in her pictures a resistance to our eyes, so that we are aware of a reality unwilling to disclose itself completely. Many of the settings are drenched in the history of the American South – some, for example, are the sites of Civil War battles – so the pictures embody a depth of time as well as space. In images such as these the world acquires a restored depth. Mann’s work constitutes one admirable form of resistance to the nihilism and superficiality of the modern world.

© Peter Benson 2013

Peter Benson studied philosophy at Cambridge University, and a simulacrum of him has been seen working at a library in London.


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