Photography is Dead! Long Live Photography!

‘Photography’s Afterlife’, Photography Is Dead! Long Live Photography!, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, 23 July – 10 November 1996. ISBN 1 875632 47 6, pp 22-25

Let’s get one thing straight. The dawn of the digital age will not mean the death of photography, any more than the birth of photography meant the end of painting—despite the painter Paul Delaroche’s headline grabbing proclamation in 1839 that “from today painting is dead”. Particular inventions do not suddenly drop from the sky and kill off entire visual mediums, like a meteor might kill off dinosaurs. But although photography has not yet met its apocalypse, without a doubt it is currently going through the most profound and radical transformation of its history. Digital imaging and manipulation technologies, various new interactive and immersive technologies, the newly developed ability to package and disseminate multimedia, and the thickening of the telecommunications system into a global web, have all transformed photography so fundamentally that we have to admit that we are witnessing both the death, and the simultaneous rebirth, of the medium.

We cannot speak about these new technologies without also speaking of the cultural practices with which they are imbricated. For instance new technological tools always coexist with old habits of use. Certain aspects of old cultural practices come to be seen, in retrospect, as having always contained prior forms of supposedly new modes of perception. And everything is ultimately determined by the bottom line politics of industrial production and consumption. For these reasons it is impossible to analyse the transformation in photography without acknowledging the sutures of social structure which always bind future technologies to past cultural forms.

Today’s ‘new’ digitally manipulative, immersive, and interactive technologies have many historical precedents. For example theatrical phantasmagorias and the early ‘cinema of attractions’ delighted nineteenth century crowds by testing their scopic credulity against elaborate technological displays of visual illusion. The massively popular ‘spirit’ photographs of the early twentieth century gave grieving relatives the convincing illusion that they were surrounded by the virtual presences and of their deceased loved ones. The sophisticated avant-garde experiments of the Russian Constructivists expanded the conventional perspectival point of view of the photograph and developed new spatially enveloping ways of presenting images in elaborate interactive architectural environments. And the darkroom techniques of the Surrealist photographers generated liquid, ‘convulsive’ images of morphing bodies in non-cartesian spaces.

Photography has always been more or less open to such darkroom ‘fakery’ and other kinds of manipulation. But to point to this in order to play down the present transformation of photography is to be in danger of missing the point about digitisation. From the moment of photography’s invention the fascination of the medium was that, for the first time, the world was not only being represented by the photographer, but also automatically representing itself. The photograph was optically and chemically caused by the real, and was therefore always intrinsically ‘laminated’ to it. The photograph gave us a direct optical transcription of a prior scene. It gave us palpable contact with real bodies. And it gave us the ‘there then’ of the past within the ‘here now’ of the present. Despite the strong non-realist current that has always flowed through photography, up until now each and every photograph’s normative ontological status was based on its indexical relationship to the real.

The relative liquidity of the photographic image has always been in deviation from this solid core of indexicality. The sense of the normative function of the realist photograph is implied in the very words used to describe variations from it—manipulation, fakery, etc. Paradoxically, even the most extreme non-realist photographic image called upon a residual indexicality for its underlying power. No matter how warped the conventional photograph became, the trace of its ultimate origin in the real still gave it a unique corporeal and temporal charge.

It is possible now to speak of the death of photography because this central indexical core, the ontological basis of the image, has become irrevocably softened. The transformation of an optical and chemical image into a data and pixel image has finally prised apart the previously necessary lamination of the photograph to its anterior optical reality. This lamination may still exist in some instances, but it is not necessary, nor is it any longer the central norm around which relative degrees of deviance are permitted.

For example an image like the Time magazine cover “The New Face of America” is still indexical—it was made by morphing together in statistical proportion the photographed faces of various ethnic models to create a single portrait. The seamless, accumulative montage-face represents a national ethnic census both statistically and visually. (A technique, incidentally, which can be traced back, through the computer artist Nancy Burson, to the composite portraiture of the nineteenth century English eugenicist Francis Galton) This photograph does not represent a single anterior reality—a particular woman—but it does still corporeally index a panoptic, genographic ‘sur-reality’—the new face of America.

Images such as this give us an inkling of the way in which, in the future, photography’s indexicality will become more attenuated, certainly, but also more fluid. Recently many artists have experimented with the exhilarating possibilities offered by the digital motility of the photograph’s content, and the pixelated lubricity of its surface. It is increasingly becoming easier, and more common, for photographs to be morphed together to form navigable panoramas; opened up spatially to invite us deep into their VRML interiors; fractured into a myriad hyper-linked shards; selectively enhanced in their salient details; or stretched beyond their rectangular boundaries to distend themselves through space and time.

Digitisation has entered the very flesh of the photographic process. Every newspaper photograph routinely goes through a digital imaging program such as Photoshop before it reaches the presses. However, even with that knowledge, I still habitually ‘believe my eyes’ when I open my morning newspaper. Now it is the protocols of journalism and the context of the newspaper, rather than the ontology of the medium, upon which my faith must ultimately rest. Hence there is good reason for the fuss created when newspapers are occasionally discovered manipulating their photographs. When they are caught egregiously darkening the only lightly negroid skin of O. J. Simpson, or giving demonic eyes to Port Arthur’s Martin Bryant, they are forced to immediately apologise and dissemble profusely. They must shore up any potential leakage of the denotational power of their reportage photographs, even as they tentatively experiment with the illustrative possibilities of the liquescent digital image.

Until now the normative photograph has been scenographic—it was a prosceniumed stage presenting a miniature theatre of the real to our monocular viewpoint. But it is possible to imagine a time when this kind of photograph becomes just one category within a larger set of liquescent, though still indexical, images. Rather than being the current representational norm against which visual deviance is measured, the scenographic photograph will become a ‘limit case’ with special functions and powers. In the future such traditional photographs, with their precious but delicate connection to a particular fragments of the real and precise moments in time, will need to be protected and valorised—carefully quarantined against digital infection by strict contextual protocols.

So even as some photographers are experimenting with the newly liquescent image, others are re-affirming their allegience to the scenographically stable photograph. For instance the State Library of New South Wale’s recent exhibition Photo Documentary: Recent Images of Everyday Life passionately argues for the continued prime importance of the conventional photograph on the grounds that it is the best way of granting future viewers an accurate and reliable window back onto the present. This raises an interesting, but for the moment unanswerable, question. After the rebirth of photography into the digital age, will posterity come to know the present as intimately and as accurately by the nature of our image manipulations and morphs, as by our selective scenographic realities?

The dominant metaphor for the normative photograph has always been the window. (The first ever photograph was taken from one.) Photography has been our window on the world, and our window on the past. But significantly there are few windows in Photography is Dead!, Long Live Photography! —virtually no images mounted in a conventional mat board and frame, and not one image behind a pane of glass. In this exhibition’s version of the long post-mortem life of photography it appears that the scenographic photograph will no longer reign supreme.

The artist photographers chosen for this exhibition have responded in a particular way to the displacement of the scenographic from the centre of their medium and the photograph’s liquid dispersal throughout cyberspace. They show an almost obsessional compensatory concern for the materiality of their images. Each artist gives their photographs a style-conscious, post-industrial facture. For instance Geoff Kleem glues billboard images directly onto the walls of the gallery; Julie Rrap’s ink jet images are printed onto working window blinds; Fiona Macdonald’s photographs are mounted in thick rubber frames; Felicia Kan’s Cibachromes are pinned to curl under their own weight, whilst Anne Zahalka’s are mounted in light boxes, and Rosemary Laing’s are intrinsically bonded onto aluminium or acrylic sheets; Bill Henson’s prints are cut, torn and gaffer-taped back together again onto marine ply; Merilyn Fairskye’s transparencies double themselves by throwing their shadow on the wall; Fiona Macdonald weaves her historical copy photographs together; and so on.

These artists fetishise a particular type of indeterminate materiality—neither hand crafted texture, nor standardised technical substrate. Their images are not transparent like a window or subjectively reflective like a mirror, rather they tend towards a sticky, or sometimes vaporous, opacity. They are either abstract or oneiric, hyperreal or unfamiliar, overtly posed or melodramatically enacted. What, exactly, they are photographs of is also indeterminate. Are they photographs of anterior realities?—in which case those realities are usually unavailable or unfamiliar to the naked eye. Are they photographs of other photographs?—in which case they denote an anterior genre of depiction before they denote any specific anterior reality. Or are they simply photographs of themselves?—aesthetic images of their own material existence.

In this exhibition the photograph is (often literally) laminated to a fabricated technical ensemble, rather than a scenographic reality. These technical ensembles give equal material weight to both the architectonic deployment of the photograph as an object in the gallery space, and the indexical presence of the photograph as an image in the viewer’s phenomenological apperception. These artists have largely abandoned photography’s now deposed scenographic transcription—they do not see the need to either quarantine or valorise it. But they remain deeply enamoured of photography’s persistent consanguinity with the real—which they deliberately amplify into a hybrid physical and optical presence.

Photography is now dispersing in all directions before our eyes. These artists are following one line of flow: the photograph as image corpus, as a persistent bodying forth of the real, even into the newly liquescent, virtual world of the image.

Martyn Jolly

June 1996

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