Photography theory, the academic study of photography is an emerging field of knowledge. It is emerging for so long, one starts to wonder if the quality of not being fully visible is central to photography, and if photography theory is destined to be in perpetual state of emergence. Could it be that the study of photography is elusive because everywhere photography is taken for granted as an odorless, tasteless, transparent medium available on demand to quench the need for data, information, entertainment and stimulation. Despite the efforts of the theorists of photography to complicate it, to problematise and contaminate it, photography for most part remains innocent and pure.
THE THREAT OF THE DIGITAL
With the advent of digital photography we were told that the age of innocence is over. The special relationship between photography and truth is broken, the evidential quality of the photographic image exposed as a modernist illusion. The digital image called photographs’ bluff – and we will never trust a photograph again to show us “what was then” because the photograph can be manipulated so easily. It was like waiting for the millennium bug to strike – any day, any minute all systems will collapse and we will enter the age of photographic apocalypse in which photographic evidence will loose its power.
But time passed, digital photography became ubiquitous to the point that traffic wardens on the streets of London carry a camera to take pictures of illegally parked cars (when we will see an exhibition of these images?) but the secret handshake between photography and truth was never stronger. A parking ticket I received this week has a digital picture of my car on it; was it manipulated to add a double yellow line? No one will ever question that. Just as no one will question the truth of CCTV footage or photographs uploaded to photo sharing websites from mobile phones and computers throughout the world. This at a time when it was never easier to manipulate a photograph. The knowledge of photoshop is as widespread as the knowledge of word processing, and anyone with a computer at home could easily pick up the basic skills required for distorting, manipulating and combining photographs.
From time to time, we are hearing about some manipulated images passed for true likenesses, and a newspaper editor here and a photojournalist there are forced to resign for over zealous use of the cloning stamp and the layer mask. But the fact that these stories are widely reported and discussed goes at least some way to prove that in the mass, photographs are seen as reliable, informative and straight.
So what then, was this digital revolution all about? digital photography did not compromise the indexical relationship of photography to truth anymore than it brought about the death of photography.
A MESSAGE WITHOUT A CODE
Roland Barthes’ most famous statement about photography “a message without a code” seems to imply that the analogue photograph, being an analogon, a perfect copy of the real, does not require decoding. This makes the photograph significantly different from other cultural messages. To appreciate the difference, we need to understand the basic way in which all messages work. A message is information passed from A (transmitter) to B (receiver) through (C) transmission medium. The transmitter codes the message in a way which allows it to travel through the transmission medium towards the receiver, who on receiving the message decodes it in order to extract the information from the message. Thus, the airwaves (transmission medium) carry radio waves (coded information) from the broadcaster (transmitter) to the kitchen radio (receiver). The voice of the broadcaster is coded by the transmitter into an electromagnetic wave and then decoded by the receiver to recreate the voice. In the case of photography, there is no coding and decoding – the message remains true to the source throughout the transaction: the light that strikes the photographic film creates an analogon – a perfect copy – of the subject in front of the camera and all subsequent prints from the negative carry the analogon through.
Some were quick to take issue with Barthes’ famous statement, Umberto Eco, in “Critique of the Image” observes that “an image possesses none of the properties of the object represented”. It is true that a photograph represents some of the conditions of perception i.e. a photograph resembles the object, but it is only a partial resemblance, which depends on our ability to “read” the photograph. “the theory of the photo as a analogue of reality has been abandoned even by those who once upheld it – we know that it is necessary to be trained to recognise the photographic image”. [Eco U. Critique of the Image in Thinking Photography, Burgin V. (ed) (1982) p. 34].
THE ADVENTURE OF THE DANCING MEN
The photographic image has a resemblance to the object it represents, and this prevents us from reading it as a code which requires decoding. In Sherlock Holmes’ “The adventure of the dancing men” there is a cryptogram that looks like this:
Upon examining these markings the Victorian detective says:
“At first sight it would appear to be some childish prank. It consists of a number of absurd little figures dancing across the paper upon which they are drawn. Why should you attribute any importance to so grotesque an object?”
The secret of this cryptogram is in the fact that it does not look like a cryptogram at all, but rather like a childish prank. What appears like a innocent scribble does not call for decoding, and so the message remains hidden.
A photograph is akin to the dancing men cryptogram: it does not look like a code because its resemblance to an object is obvious. Satisfied by this resemblance we are ready to accept the photograph as a analogon, without trying to see if there is another, more sinister message lurking behind the obvious resemblance.
THE PARADOX OF THE POSTMODERN SUNSET
For Barthes, the photographic image, like any other sign, is made of two levels of signification: the denoted message and the connoted message. The denoted message is the analogon, and the connoted message is the cultural message which develops from interpreting the image according to cultural conventions. Barthes sees this as a paradox: how can a cultural meaning develop from “a message without a code”, from a direct resemblance of an object. Cultural meaning is connected to products of culture: writing, theater, art – these products of culture call for interpretation, critique and evaluation of meaning. But a photograph is an analogon – a direct representation of an object, it is so similar to the object it represents that it can not be seen as a product of culture. think about a magnificent sunset that you view from your window, does it make sense to ask if it a postmodern sunset, or perhaps a surrealist one? the question seems misplaced, because the sunset is not a work of art invested with meaning. Now, if instead of looking through your window you were looking at a paining of a sunset, then the question would have a very real meaning. A painting of a sunset can be surreal, abstract, even postmodern. What Barthes tells us is that a photograph is like a view from the window, it just shows us what is there, but at the same time, the photograph creates a cultural meaning – we discuss photographs in the same way we discuss art and literature trying to interrogate their meaning. The paradox of photography is that the cultural meaning develops from a representation of an object, not from an interpretation. In other words, the paradox of photography is that belongs to nature and culture at one and the same time.
THE FRAME AS CODE
But is this really a paradox as Barthes suggests? for the paradox to be real, we have to be certain that at its base, the photograph is a “message without a code” – a direct reflection of an object. It is easy to see how problematic this statement is. If we compare a photograph to the object it represents we will notice similarities between the object and its representation, but we will also immediately notice the differences. And the most significant difference will be that the photograph has edges and outside the edges the photograph is no more, while the object is within an edgeless, infinite field. there is no frame around an object, and the photograph will always be framed by its edges. It is interesting to note here that some photographers love looking for naturally occurring frames to include in their photographs: door frames, arches, tree branches, anything to create a frame around the subject, as if by including a frame within the image the frame of the photograph will become more natural, and less a sign of the artificiality of the image. The edge of the photographic image disturbs the analogon, and is the first sign that we look at an artifice – a cultural product as opposed to a natural one. By seeing the edge of the image we understand that it is not the object. In that sense, the edge is part of the code that tells us that this is a photograph. So even if a photograph is a message without a code, there is still a code that tells us that it is a photograph.
THE CASE OF THE APPLE
But perhaps the answer to the paradox is in the assumption that what we see in the photograph is a representation of an object. As I write this there is an apple on my desk. Looking at it reminds me how hungry I am, and that it is the last apple brought to work today and I think that time have come to eat it. Would I have the same thoughts if instead of an apple I had in front of me a photograph of an apple? I probably would not think about eating the photograph. A photograph of an apple might remind me instead of the Apple logo, or of the story of Adam and Eve and the tree of knowledge, it might make me think of other pictures of fruit I am familiar with, of still life paintings, or of the apple in the painting of Magritte, of an advertising campaign for a healthy lifestyle, of seduction and of fitness. In short, the photograph of an apple is not pointing in the direction of a real apple, instead it points in the direction of the cultural references that I associate with apples. The photograph is not a representation of an object, it is a representation of an idea.
DIGITAL TO THE RESCUE
When digital photography first appeared it seemed that the paradox of photography will be at last resolved. The digital image is stored in a binary code – it is therefore not a “message without a code” anymore, but a coded message like language. The digital image is not an analogon, i.e. direct representation of an object, because a code is used to store the information captured by the light sensitive device, and the representation of the object will only happen after this binary code is decoded by appropriate software.
THE QUESTION OF HUMAN DIGNITY
The digital image brings a solution to the paradox of photography because it is a coded message, it is therefore mediated, cultural and not spontaneous and natural. but coded by whom? Who makes the code of the digital image? The binary code is the basic operating syntax of the computer. Computers are artificial brains, that store, process and edit data as a binary code. What does it mean to have an artificial brain? Men were creating artificial limbs for millennia – a stone hammer is an artificial fist, it imitates the work of the hand. A radio is an artificial voice, it projects voice over long distances. Until the arrival of computers, the human brain stored and processed memories, this ability to store and pass memories to future generations it what makes humans unique, in the words of Wilem Flusser this is the “human dignity”. But now, that these tasks are delegated to the artificial brain of the computer we are left with the question: What is left of human dignity? and what does it mean to be human?
So the paradox of photography can be solved, but at a high price, at the price of loosing the very essence of the human being as a creature that stores and passes on memories.