Ideas Series: Once a Certain Notion

1. For a while, a certain notion held sway. This notion equated the advent of digital optics with a severing of the anchor that had previously moored the image to some foundation of reality.

Establishing a correspondence between the pixellation of the photograph and a loss of authenticity was a task enthusiastically undertaken by a wide variety of commentators. Each of these could be distinguished, ultimately, by which of the two warring camps – one for and one against – they chose to identify with. In parallel to these discursive skirmishes, and in many cases inspired by them, artistic practice offered its own negotiation of the representational terrain. Was the emergence of digital photography a new dawn in which surface, artifice and sublime invention could be celebrated or did it instead augur the dusk into which reason, truth and trust were rapidly descending?

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I wonder, however, whether this notion is beginning to lose its critical bite, whether, rather than being in some way ontologically opposed to the real, the visibly digital image is, in certain cases, acquiring its own form of authenticity, its own testimonial gravity.

2.  If such a shift in perspective is underway, a contributing factor may be located within other areas of popular media, by which audiences are presented with material whose texture – in terms of apparent grain, stock, colour balance or implied shutter speed – is intended to evoke the operation of previous, less high-resolution technologies. This convention is frequently employed as a device for ‘flash-back’ sequences in fictional work; for a peculiar attempt to register both immediacy and the potential presence of eye-witness (better: camcorder-witness) in dramatic crime reconstructions; and to impart a level of credibility to faked archival footage in the endless parade of documentaries that appear on The History Channel and its peers.

From this angle, jittery black and white images invoke a certain period in time and the sun-drenched saturatation of Super-16, the mottled glare of VHS tape and the strangely muted tones and never-black-blacks of Hi-8 still others. Thus visibly digital images, where the medium’s characteristics are readily discernible, might constitute no more than the latest instalment in the creative association of technology and temporality. Were this to be the case, then that certain notion holds sway once more since this is not the return of the real but rather a staged authenticity which at its very worst offers no more purchase than that to be had from the ‘sepia’ setting that persists – against logic and, I’m sure, desire – in digital camera’s menu settings.

3. I don’t believe, however, that this is the full story, that long exposure to popular media convention alone accounts for changes that might be taking place in the perception of the realness of digital images. On the contrary, it may well be the case that this aesthetic convention itself draws sustenance from a prior association, one that the digital camera, especially the digital camera embedded in a mobile phone, is now inheriting.

Returning to the list of evocative image types offered earlier, it is noticeable that the various anachronous technologies that are supposed to have originated the visual sequences that have been inserted into the main body of work – whether it is a drama, crime reconstruction or documentary – are all technologies which have been equated with amateur image-making or, at least, image-making conducted outside of the confines of professional budgets and expertise.

Perhaps it is here where the realness of the visibly digital image resides. Thus authenticity might no longer be constituted – as it seemed to be in the debates on the digital – according to an invulnerability to manipulation. Instead, authenticity could be engaged with as a function of the image’s discernible absence of those visual features which speak of professionalism – of high-end equipment and of culturally-encoded ideas of good composition. If professionalism renders the successful image transparent, working out any artefacts that betray too boldly the technology through which they were captured and eschewing any overt indications of any human behind the lens, it may also extract that image from the realities of its origins, transporting it to an impersonal place where authenticity has less presence. For the unprofessional image, like the many captured on the digital mobile phones that have migrated to orthodox news media in recent months, technological origins are in plain sight and the results detectably embodied ones.

I remember watching CNN as the obliteration of Fallujah reached its bloody pitch. By this time, most journalists and camera crews had abandoned the city to its devastation yet images were still coming through, caught on mobile phones by ‘unilaterals’ or interpreters-turned-journalists. The images, their resolution resampled for broadcast, certainly left little doubt as to their technical provenance, nor was there ever any ambiguity about the presence of the image-maker as the camera ducked and bobbed, was extended from then hurriedly brought back to a breathing body.

Other, less kinetic images, have been uploaded into the public domain from mobile phone cameras, among the most powerful of which were those captured in the aftermath of the ‘London Bombings’ of the summer of 2005. Both those taken in the immediate chaotic proximity of the detonations and those that represented a city aghast in the hours and days that followed exhibit many of the qualities of the unprofessional image. The two photographs included here, for example, although resampled or re-scanned before their appearance in the higher definition realm of print or broadcast media, nonetheless possess a recognisable texture that means they wear their technical genealogy on their sleeves. More than this, these are resolutely emdodied images. Although they might share elements of their subject-matter with, for example, the shelter drawings of Henry Moore or aspects of their composition with disaster reportage, what renders these photographs different from any potential parallels is the utter lack of distance adopted by the photographers. What, for me, makes these images especially potent is the fact that amidst the blood and dust and smoke and fear for their life, someone took them. Someone who wasn’t paid to be there, someone who couldn’t be certain that either they or their images would ever be seen again yet someone who, although never within the frame, is present through the domestic, digital technology they have employed.

At this point in this short essay, I wanted to offer some speculation on the motivations that may have provoked these images, especially those derived from the confusion closest to the explosions. I can find nothing articulate to say about this; not a single thing that I could commit to print.

4.  As these images – the work of what Wired magazine called the “bush-league shutterbugs with digicams and cellphones … the new proletariat press” – find a more comfortable home within established media, perhaps future motivations might coincide with those that propel the professionals: payment, prestige and personal fulfilment. This might seem to be corroborated by the very recent establishment of the ‘civic media press agency’ Scoopt dedicated to material sourced from mobile phones; and the fact that appeals by legitimate operators in terms like “If you are on the spot when news happens, please send ITN News any images or video you take on your mobile phone” seem less startling than they once did.

This is not to say that mobile technologies of word and image will not have an impact: they already have, in the world of media activism where every political demonstration is now accompanied by its own indie press corps, where each abuse cannot be assured its anonymity. What an assimilation of “user-generated” or “civic” media into mainstream media may do, however, is to rub away some of the authenticity and realness that visibly digital images appear to have. Once such images, with their distinctive “grain” (both as image texture and as the roughness that Roland Barthes attributed to certain song styles) become customary inhabitants of the legitimate image world, then they will have lost some of their arresting difference. Indeed that grain may itself disappear as the resolution and light-sensitivity of mobile phone cameras continue to be enhanced.

Returning to the conceptual coupling which I alluded to in the opening sentences of these remarks, I believe that, for the moment at least, the visibly digital image can no longer be unproblematically associated with the unreal, or even the hyper-real. The gravitational hold of the two images printed here is one that depends as much upon their embodied veracity as it does upon the circumstances they portray. Perhaps the whole category of ‘the digital’, for so long a catchword of the academic take on photography, has itself become untenable as a meaningful marker of difference. Perhaps academics like me need to unlearn our certain notions. [/ms-protect-content]

Published in Photoworks, Issue 5, 2005
Commissioned by Photoworks.

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