“A photograph without space and time”. Functions, Values and Messages of the “generated-through software photograph” (GSP)

Research Paper (undergraduate) 2011 23 Pages

Art - Photography and Film



Garry Winogrand was one of the last masters of so called modern photography. A photojournalist and art photographer, using a Leica reflex camera loaded with a 28mm lens and a TriX 400 iso film, he rose to fame for his street pictures taken extensively across the United States, and across several foreign countries. Winogrand began his entanglement with photography in the 1950s. He created numerous images and produced five published monographs before his death in 1984. One of his famous quotes summarizes his perceptions about photography, as follows:

“A work of art is that thing whose form and content are organic to the tools and materials that made it. Still photography is a chemical, mechanical process. Literal description or the illusion of literal description is what the tools and materials of still photography do better than any other graphic medium. A still photograph is the illusion of a literal description of how a camera saw a piece of time and space. Understanding this, one can postulate the following theorem: Anything and all things are photographable. A photograph can only look like how the camera saw what was photographed. Or, how the camera saw the piece of time and space is responsible for how the photograph looks. ….I like to think of photographing as a two-way act of respect. Respect for the medium, by letting it do what it does best, describe. And respect for the subject, by describing as it is. A photograph must be responsible to both.” (Garry Winogrand, Austin Texas, 1974, photograpy quotes.com, 2011)

Since then, a lot has changed. We are experiencing a shift in traditional ways of displaying and producing photographs. On the one hand, photographs are now displayed via projectors, digital frames, digital family albums, blogs, and massively on web sites. On the other hand, photographs are now produced with digital cameras, or are generated-through-software without the use of a camera (GSPs; Computer generated images and composites; digitally manipulated images). Winogrand’s condensed statement concerns the function and the value of photography as a medium and as a process; the relationship between the photographer and his medium; and the photographic image as a product of representation. In other words, it concerns the relationship between artistic expression and image interpretation. Winogrand’s thoughts though are not standing alone, but echo scholarly works, which , in short, concern the following in terms of the power, the value and the function of the photographic image, under “Modernity”: Photographers’ vision/perspectives and practices (Witkovsky, 2007); the value of reproducibility, the copy and its “aura”, originality and authenticity (Benjamin, 1970); the value of the copy and its relationship between reality, representation and truth; the meaning of the mechanically reproduced photograph (Barthes ,1977) ; and the relationship between man and the apparatus (Flusser, 2001).

Although Winogrand’s questions to the - “how”, “what, “why”, and “who” photographs - remain current the answers to them have changed, since there are nuances in the form, and in the content of a photographic work of art. New tools and materials are now “organic” to its making, and still photography is no longer a chemical, mechanical process. After the advent of the GSP, a photographic work of art may not be a literal depiction of what a camera saw at a particular point in time and space, and as a result, with GSPs, not all things are photographable. These realizations inevitably bring up nuances, new dynamics, in the relationship between artistic expression and image interpretation.

In this paper , I analyze how the generated-through-software photograph, GSP, has changed the functions, the values and the meanings/messages assigned today to photographs, and how these renegotiate the relationship between artistic expression and image interpretation . In doing so, I ask the following questions: How does the GSP changes the vision/perspectives and practices of its producers? How does it affect the relationship between photographers and the camera (apparatus)? How does the GSP affect the value of photographic reproduction and how does it relate to reality, representation and truth? How should the meaning, message of the GSP be interpreted and what discursive tensions do these nuances trigger in society?

I start by reviewing the works of Benjamin, Barthes, Pierce, Flusser, on how photographic images were perceived in the age of mechanical reproduction, in order to identify arguments that need to be revisited in the new context of digital imaging. I then, present the new technological features of the generated-through-software photograph and the new functions, values and messages these features create. Engaging Baudrillard, Jameson and Manovich, I argue that the photographic image is no longer a product made of “space and time” and a medium, which was designed to capture reality bearing the memory of what once stood in front of the photographic lens. That new ways of coding and decoding messages are introduced when reading “digital objects” (Manovich, 2001) beyond the axiom signifier = signified (1=1), establishing new relationships between man and the apparatus, and between reality, representation, and truth. Finally, I employ semiotics to “read” GSPs in order to overturn the semiotic process itself, and show that new ways of coding and decoding messages negotiate new methods of image interpretation, as new conceptual and linguistic dynamics are being established by the relationship between viewer and the GSP.

Functions, values, meanings, and messages in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Photography offered an ideal medium to depict the various aspects of modernity. Itself an industrial product the image had an inherent resonance with the “New” that many advocates of modernization and various movements such as Futurism, Bauhaus, central Europe Avant Garde and Constructivism welcomed (Witkovsky, 2007). New vision/perspectives and practices, the value of reproducibility and its relationship between reality representation and truth, the meaning of the mechanically reproduced, and the relationship between man and the apparatus, were in short the subjects of discourse in modernity.

New vision demanded new perspectives. Abandoning the classic Renaissance perspective, inherited from painting, photographers were searching for new points of view. “The eye of the worm”; wide angle view from the bottom, and “the eye of the bird”; wide angle aerial perspective, were used in the quest for new possibilities (Below images, Alexander Rodtchenco, Moscow House of photography www.mdf.ru/english/search/authors/ rodtchenco/).

In terms of practices, the term photomontage was “coined to convey the ascendancy of the photographic in so many branches of art and communication” (Witkovsky, 2007). It entailed in abrupt juxtaposition of images, and along with the negation of the “Renaissance space” assisted in constructing ambiguous meanings in the work of art. (Below image Alexander Rodtchenco, Moscow House of photography).

In 1935, Walter Benjamin developed his aesthetic theory: “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, which mapped the origin of reproducibility from antiquity to modernity, from crafts to photography and film. He argued that originality is dependent on the works’ “aura” (Benjamin, 1970): an esoteric radiation, an electrical wave, the breath or the gesture of the work’s creator surrounding an object, which could be recognized or felt by the viewer, when encountering the work of art. The unique value in such a work of art had, for Benjamin, its basis in inspiration coming from rituals, such as religion or the occult of beauty. Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art for him was supposed to be lacking that element of aura, which was also a prerequisite to the concept of authenticity. For the photographic negative Benjamin argued that there is no point in trying to find an authentic print, as one can make any number of prints out of it, questioning in that sense the authority of the object. Since authenticity of the aura could not be copied, Benjamin suggested that historical testimony and the authority of truth were inextricably affected by the mechanical reproduction of the work of art. The celebration or the aphorism in that suggestion is that the absence of historical testimony makes way for polysemic ambiguity in the interpretation of work of art, and that inherently debases art from artistic expression to a political expression. (ie. political expression would make the work of art an instrument of politics).

The meaning /message of the mechanical reproduced image, the analog photograph, was deduced by familiarizing oneself (creator and viewer) with a coded language of representation. A meta-language of signifiers, descriptive elements of the image, and signifieds, connoted elements of the image. Photographers used this language and its signifying procedures (trick effects, pose, objects, photogenia, aestheticism, and syntax) in order to orchestrate a rhetoric of meaning, as defined by Barthes. “A paradoxical message carrying: a coded symbolic message charged with possible meanings, and a non-coded iconic one always referred to a continuous past” (Barthes, 1977). In other words, that object was photographed at that space and time in the past. All meanings were classified axiomatically in what Barthes calls a “historical grammar of connotations” (Barthes, 1977).

With regards to reality representation, and truth in the mechanically produced work, what is represented, or whatever element is included in a photographic composition, is an index (i.e. the object was before the camera in physical presence during its production) which has its reference in a vocabulary of meanings. “Indexical quality” (Pierce, 1932) means the technological and scientific virtue of the camera to create an index and a symbol that can act as a surrogate of reality and the faith associated with the notion that this surrogate represents the truth. This was based on the assumption that photographed means “recorded as existed,” and in turn, recorded means once stood before the camera to be photographed. The act of shooting, itself, certifies both the existence of the photographer and the subject. The cultural authority/function of the medium is not only to replicate but to replace reality with its index, as a proof for the existence of a photographer and a subject.

As I mentioned, the authority/function of the medium to replace reality with its idol was a proof of the existence of a photographer and a subject. Thus, the medium between man and the apparatus was a prerequisite for the production, the coding and decoding of the meaning. With regards to the schema: operator, apparatus and meaning, Flusser argued that the factor interposed between the image and its meaning is the camera the black box and the man using it. What occurred during this passage through was that the factor remained hidden. The coding process of technical images occurred inside the camera, and every critique of technical images was to be concentrated on the "whitening" of the interior of that black box (Flusser, 2000) – or, in other words the critique was dependent upon a realization on the operator’s intentions and craftsmanship.

The above arguments are revisited in my observations on the new functions, values, and messages of the GSP.

Functions, and Values of the “generated-through- software photograph” (GSP).

Photography has changed. Since new tools and materials are now organic to the making of a photographic work of art, it can no longer be a literal depiction of what a camera saw at a particular point in time and space. The GSP is a photograph “without space and time”. In this section, I present its functions and its values.

With regards to vision/perspectives, GSPs follow the look of video games: “Isometric axonometric instead of linear” (Sturken Cartwright 2009). Isometric perspective means equal in measure, and is a point of view that visually represents three-dimensional objects in two dimensions. The space is flattened within the frame without creating a sense of depth, thus there is a complete rejection of Renaissance space, begun by Modernity that has now been surpassed through conventions of virtuality. For example, the photograph below was made by generating pixels graphics through Terragen Software (image from the series “Landscapes Without Memory” by Joan Fontcuberta ,artnews org http://www.artnews.org/gallery.php?i= 1792&exi="24630" ).

Isometric, axonometric instead of linear perspective fosters a pseudo three-dimensional space and revolutionizes the making of worldviews. As soon as one hits an internet search engine, a remote satellite digital image of the earth (satellite view through Google maps) appears with just a double click of the index finger. Almost ironically, the index finger (or indexicality as mentioned), used to point or even to state position of one standing still, is now used to gain access and touring over simulated landscapes. Just a double click opens a window to a global point of view, a “supreme view,” a simulated, isometric, axonometric “eye of God”, perspective.This function inevitably creates the following discursive tension in society. On the one hand, a global digital image is, in terms of utility, the ultimate example of technological and scientific human competence in the fields of information, communications and global relations. Punt states that “such images have the elegance of pure scholarship, a mathematic of sight” (Cubitt, 1998). In his book “Digital Aesthetics, Cubit notes: “Like high-speed photography, infrared, microscopic aerial perspectives form a powerful homology of the scientific observer’s instrumental reality and spatial detachment” (Cubitt, 1998). This unavoidably leads to the conclusion that on the one hand space detachment, one of Benjamin’s aphorisms, has now become valuable and in terms of utility, the “shocking” aerial view has become operational and undisputable. There is the constitution of a scientific authority, as information becomes synonymous with knowledge and is used as a powerful weapon against agnosticism or religion. On the other hand in connection with my previous assertions on reproducibility and truth, on the value of the copy, and on non-auratic representation, Google Map’s authority of scientific truth is linked with the production, usage and interpretation of digital photographs.

Looking briefly at how the software works, the software simply utilizes HTML code that algorithmically “orders” digital images to scroll in and out of an 128x128 images grid to create a simulated satellite photographed version of actual space. The question that emerges through this realization is: What if that grid of images contains GSPs and non factual, auratic, photographs? Is that function changing the value of the copy, and the relationship between representation and truth? Certainly yes, because “who”,” how”, and “for what reason” this scientific observation, and this mathematic of sight is being exercised fundamentally shifts the discourse from the sphere of artistic expression and image interpretation to power and politics, exactly as Benjamin had foreseen. It is actually no coincidence that digital images and videos are now used excessively in military warfare, as strategic weapons within the context of tactical and psychological operations. Military warfare is the execution of national or political authority, thus it constitutes a great venue in which this political rhetoric is considered valuable, legit, and acceptable by society. (ie especially when it addresses issues like global or national security).



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Title: “A photograph without space and time”. Functions, Values and Messages of the “generated-through software photograph” (GSP)