From the Past: Perspectives on the Future

The Imaging Revolution, speech at Ohio University Athens, 1986

When I left college as an English and journalism major, and turned away from those disciplines in order to pursue my passion, photography; I had the self-deluding idea that I could make coherent my personal and private thoughts within the scope of the visual language of the print and communicate them more effectively than I could as a desk-bound writer. I thought that photography offered an independent and equally valuable means of communication that would save me from ever having to write another academic critique.

So here I am, twenty years later, after two weeks of anxiety, trying to prepare this paper, doing just what I set out NOT to do: addressing a monumental change in visual communication with words. Unfortunately, photography in its alternative organization doesn’t substitute for language. Had I some photographs of my own, made with the new electronic technology, believe me, I would attempt to dazzle or subvert you rather than pontificate herein. I am envious of those who have managed to organize themselves in such a manner as to integrate their creative photography with the current technologies. I am sure they will inherit the earth irrespective of their vision. Nevertheless, I suspect I am like most photographers of my generation: I am caught in some sort of cultural lag or gap between knowledge and application, not sure of how to apply the new imagery imaginatively.

Again back in ’67, I witnessed the media’s first generation gap. Marshall McLuhan was the prophet of the moment, a spokesman for the first media revolution. The medium had not only become the message, but it has also become, vis-à-vis his kind of analysis, self-reflective. McLuhan stated that “It is impossible to understand social and cultural changes without a knowledge of the workings of media.”1 McLuhan and other theorists who came before him, like the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, and the German critic Walter Benjamin, created a “critical mass”—a consciousness that has shaped our perception of the medium and, as a consequence, has become a message about which future image consumers and makers need to be educated. (“I probably need not remind you of the frequency in post-modern art of images made as media comment that owe a debt to the dictates of semiotics and appropriation prescribed in the writings of these critical minds.”)

The revolution in media thought brought to consciousness by McLuhan was concurrent with the evolution of electronic technology which gave it a universal presence and allowed it to invade every social and moral issue from the Vietnam War to the sexual revolution. The electronic media made itself inseparable from any happening. The event was the recording of itself. McLuhan warned that there was no more substance as it was changed too fast by the media. Thus, “if one approaches his environment,” this all too pervasive “social drama, with fixed an unchangeable point of view,” one was doomed to a “witless and repetitive response to the unperceived.”2 McLuhan also warned that by bringing the disparate together, technology and its environment would break old barriers and erase old categories making private thoughts no longer possible. The electronic gossip column was unforgiving. However, McLuhan did envision a remedial control made possible through education in how the media works. The positive message was that the collective workings of the media might indeed bring us together and change the social fabric if we accept its democratizing properties.

It was an exciting time to be a media student. I was in Chicago when the post 1960’s promised us great change. As a young photographer, I stood with a hoard of other journalists recording the message of an equally young Jesse Jackson as he confronted the last great American demi-god, Richard C. Daly in His Honor’s own office. I remember little of the content of the discussion, but I am in vivid recollection of being coaxed by Mr. Jackson’s charismatic gestures to frame him under a gold leaf portrait of George Washington. The disappointment was that neither other journalists nor I caught the essence of the moment in the symbolic pictures subsequently reproduced in Chicago’s newspapers. No, the essence remained in the events that allowed the image to be made. At the time, I had no thoughts of these matters. I was caught in a tunnel vision, making what I assumed was a great picture. That the confrontation had occurred for the camera was no accident! I was an unwitting accomplice to media hypnosis with no memory of the issues behind the event. The image I made had a latent and important message of change. A revolution did take place in Chicago—the Daly machine was overthrown following the mayor’s death; Chicago elected a black Mayor named Washington, and today, Mr. Jackson seeks to have his visage framed not below the portrait of George Washington but beside it.

Ironically, despite all the media interference during the period, not much really changed. The poor of the city are just as poor, if not more so; the middle class is moving out, and the liberals who once battled the forces of Mayor Daly aside Lake Michigan are longing for “the city that works.” (All this is not to cast aspersions on Mr. Jackson but to change the cliché “a picture subverts a thousand words.” Mr. Jackson uses his image well and because he does, he may indeed be the most attuned and appropriate candidate in a media dominated culture.) Maybe we have come together; faces have changed; roles have reversed, and images have been switched, but it is because the media just keeps consuming the message with no evaluation of content.

What I am leading to is a caution that we not forget the promise and failures of this earlier period as we now embrace the 90’s and this second technological revolution. We might enter this period better educated, but we must not be so enamoured of our hardware that we forget the issues that make for a true cultural revolution in how we use it. Also, we must try not to be caught up in our own rhetoric, in the kind of critical hegemony which obfuscates the possibility of unselfconscious creative experimentation and expressive interchange possible in using the new visual technology at hand.

We can be conscientious. Remembering that the imperatives of our media-manic culture co-opt our very activity in these present discussions, we must know that to what ends they lead are largely determined by cuts and edits and how and where our thoughts will reappear.

Most of us who are audience, the so-called “product household,” the consumer, the consumed of technology, are paralyzed by the collective force of technological information change and exchange. The electronic image is an all-pervasive, impenetrable impersonal structure that lacks not personality, but soul. As Roland Barthes expresses it, “Technology makes us passive in our ability to effect positive values in our lives.”3 No matter how real and instant the image, whether made with a 20″ by 24” Polaroid or an electron beam, it hides an encoded message and thus is manipulative by character, despite the best intentions.

My photograph made in 1969 of Jesse Jackson tells us little about the real facts (if there are any) of his encounter with Mayor Daly. It is only an idea of an ideal that furthers a mythology. The technological pretense of the photo/electronic image to realism masks further that which fabricates itself. There are too many Damocles swords hanging over the headiness of image evolution in this new age—a scenario of someone else’s control that gives us only the choice between a fixed set of messages and the random act of selecting them. However, the artificial intelligence seer, Marvin Minsky of MIT, suggests that the imagination offers a third alternative, one called freedom of will which lies beyond the constraint between the fixed and the random.4 Freedom of will may also be a fabricated state of mind—an illusion; but it is one that allows us to act as opposed to being acted upon.

It is here as images makers and consumers that our education begins anew. As photographers, we can abandon our old ways of thinking about the authority of the image—its cloak of truth and uniqueness. Maintaining this investiture in the image’s authority makes photography a precious commodity and disavows the inherent properties of duplication, reproduction and interaction that should be allowed to run more freely. In understanding the artificial restraints we impose on photography and other visual images, we educate ourselves against what McLuhan called “Media Fallout” by challenging the structure and thereby allowing for change. The reader has the right to interpret and, in effect, create the work of art, argues critic, Stanley Fish. The imagination becomes active through continuous engagement in the critical dialogue, through recreating the work and by joining and breaking with other interpretive communicatives.5

Anxiety is heard in many spheres of criticism that react against the portent of the electronic message. Educators like New York University’s Professor of Media Ecology, Neil Postman, fear that television has nullified our logical and cognitive processes. They maintain that pictures have no thesis as they are only analogues whose level of abstraction is concrete and invariable.6 John Baudrillard charges that the simulation technology so obscures reality that we no longer repress anything, which is why our culture is close to the sphere of psychosis.7 In a new novel, Swiss author Friedrich Durrenmalt sees an ironic twist to this psychosis. He defines contemporary man as one who would suffer from meaninglessness if he were not constantly under observation.8 Hence, our preoccupation with stardom!

In the field of photography, I hear image makers complaining about he loss of the individuality in their work to the new simulation technology, that their (romanticized) role is demeaned. Battles over copyright laws, resale of work, alterations of originals, model releases, and authenticity are growing in frequency and may possibly even impede the application of the technology. But, the root of all this anxiety may be, again as McLuhan put it, “in great part the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools—with yesterday’s concepts.”9

While I resent the use of the term “post-modern” because, based on current creative output, the implication is that change is no longer possible, the post-modern age offers us the opportunity to interact personally with the media. The phantom image can be demasked by imaginative play at our own workstations. Interpretation can breakdown its aloofness and change content. If, as Clement Greenberg says, “modernism used the characteristic methods of the discipline not to subvert it but to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence,” than the possibilities of any feedback to check its authority are lessened. Each previous image system has forced us to respond to impenetrable logic and dictates.

But, post-modern, new-tech expression offers the audience/creator the alternative to collapse boundaries between the media and to open up communications from one image to the next. Modernism may have run its gamut because there may be nothing more we think we can say anew. But, if we can break apart the messages which were both previously and currently being beamed, we have the means of de-mystifying the image and detaching it from its aloof atmosphere; we combat our passivity and provoke change.

I hear the photographers’ fears of losing the primacy of their images as they become manipulated by the Sytex machine and random foreign users into something distorted from and other than their originals. I counter that technology is democratizing the process, that the photographer can just as easily alter the images back again, change them even further, separate their parts, reassemble them with other messages and disseminate them once more through their own electronic publishing systems. Information need not be in exclusive hands. We must not resist technology. We can evolve with it, accepting the revolution and the power it offers us as creative people. “Reproduction emancipates photography,” as Walter Benjamin wrote, “from a parasitical dependence on ritual.” There is no longer a one-way flow of information in this tech-age of simulation.10

We have been in a classic double bind in which we are told that we have all sorts of technological consumer resources but no license to use them to subvert authority. Likewise, we are told all to frequently by institutional bureaucracies that we do not know enough about the system to argue with it. But, this second revolution will make it more and more difficult to sequester information. We have the opportunity to educate ourselves. Mr. Jackson’s scene in the Mayor’s office, the voices and background data; all are on tape and will be recallable with relatively instantaneous speed as well as scrutinized at the whim of any oppositional voice in his or her own private time frame. Intelligence can now be mechanized without limit and, as such, can also be decoded! The photograph of Mr. Jackson is no longer just the result of a series of actions that will remain unchallenged. Rather, it can now be acted upon by the creative decoder to reveal evolving patterns of information and misinformation.

It has been said that human vision is the historical product of making pictures and, also, that we have more memory than is discernable in language. We continually change our language and make new snapshots in order to grasp the essence of our experience. The mind too is apparently changing constantly in its makeup of smaller minds. Edward Fridkin of M.I.T. is a spokesman for the revolutionary idea that the universe might be something other than energy and matter, something more fundamental like binary units of information that, in their ceaseless repetition and transference, create energy and matter. Thus, we do become what we behold. “Science and its laws become only like statistical laws as those that govern the letters on this page, they are accidental, without real explanation and have little to do with the meaning,” and what I am trying to say.11

We have now crossed over from the realm of science to the metaphysical, but in so doing, we have allowed for choices. To Fridkin, a physical reality and an idea may be similar, and consequently, the realm of the computer intelligence may be more interesting and tractable than the real world. Our re-education centers on learning to accept these considerations

In the new digital world, images are numbers! The computer is a conceptual structure that challenges us to react and interact in a hyper-real world. The computer acts as a virtual camera that is allographic. (The conventional camera is only an analogous means of recording information whose mimetic response implies reality.) The computer, on the other hand, is indirect, a discontinuous process of information which does not work as a mirror of reality and is, thus, disanalogous to its source because it has been formalized in a logical system for abstracting, manipulating and transporting information. “Digital information is formalized, discrete and choppy. Discontinuity is inherent in the information system and is part of its successful operation not its breakdown.”12

The computer is aloof from the real world, dealing only with numbers that have no direct reality quotient. It is this kind of hygienic aloofness that enables our imagination to roam free. All we need to do is to interface with the digital information and we can reconstruct it in any form we choose.

Yes, from this day on, photography is DEAD! At least it ceases to exist as we know it—a seemingly reliable trace element, a reference to a direct experience. The reference is no longer needed; inference is all that is required. Many conservative voices in the photography audience will cry, “How will we ever know truth?” Well, did we ever? There is nothing new about prevaricating photographs. We have always been able to manipulate them. The semiologist reminds us that photographs are only signs. We are no less in danger than we were before if our education focuses on what these signs infer as well as on what they are.

We will probably share the feeling of loss as the magic alchemy of film and chemicals give way to laser jets and electronic impulses. The romance of the photographer trekking out to find new vistas, (a tenacious allure of photography left from the 19th century) will have to give way to discovery in the mind. The ritual exercise of stopping action has dominated our thinking and education about photography with something of the heavy-handed dogma of institutionalized modernism. Oddly, photographers react to being called voyeurs but are reluctant to give up the direct experience of looking. Computer imagery is hygienic as it puts its mathematical logic between us and the experience of snapping pictures and asks that the tunnel vision of the mirrored image now scan instead. Photographers have entered a conceptual age where leaning how to see in the real world is best accomplished by practicing in the imaginary world. The manipulated image of the computer may extend the range of our ability to see, to know. We will learn by experiencing the paradox of disparate things juxtaposed.

Accordingly, as educators, we will need to teach backwards from the creative experience in order to understand cause in so-called real world events. The flight simulator is an example in point. We might check the pilot’s error by being in effect all backseat drivers with our simulator attached to our airline seat. Or imagine, if you will, a holographic self-portrait completely computer generated by its maker who puts him or herself on the analyst’s couch and is allowed in three dimensions to manipulate his or her own interactive analysis to follow any imagined scenario. This patient can be preparing for the future by seeing and reacting in the imaginary past. We can not predict the future, but we can practice how it might unfold.

The meaning of things, to paraphrase the critic Paul DeMan, will be passed on intexturally from one body of information to another.13 Hence, the New Vision and its education call for breaking down the curricula of one or more disciplines and moving from mode of expression to another in an interdisciplinary approach. So, where do we stand as photographers, and why are we here today discussing this image revolution with the word “photography” at the head? Because photography’s first 150 years is over, it is resurrected in the interdisciplinary interchange that is the mandate of this revolution. Sometime in the process, my original image of Jesse Jackson under the portrait of George Washington has to be scanned as a primary matrix. Perhaps it will interact with a current image of Mr. Jackson through the hands of a Nancy Burson who will reveal something previously unseen about the candidate. The camera was the first device capable of cataloging large amounts of information quickly—an early computer. As a form of vision (whether in video, film or still photography), it remains the interconnector of the new media language. I believe students know more about what they see than what they hear or read. I believe they understand signs of the photograph but may not be able to express their knowledge in the linear logic of the present language system. By starting with the image, breaking it down into easily nameable parts, then interchanging them with other images, it may be that learning skills can be taught backwards, and the media generation gap can be overcome. Photography is the obvious jumping-off place for an interdisciplinary approach to education in the second revolution. Anyone who can take a picture can massage it and create anew. Marvin Minsky stresses that “the educational system of the future must be concerned with how we learn rather than with the acquiring of specific skills.”14,/h5>

The challenge here is for educators, industry and media alike to take the emphasis off development and the use of technology to further replicate the control systems now in place and to instead, put the emphasis on the means by which this pluralistic technology can be used in the creative learning process. This requires a dialogue between the maker and the audience and the audience that becomes maker. This dialogue, in being allowed to break the symbol and reorganize it, is education in the civil defense against media fallout.


Finally, a few thoughts about our contemporary art culture which may help to ease some of the problems that we inevitably face in this period of transition, brought about by the technological revolution. Those of us who have been hypnotized by the modernist imperative may have found ourselves resistant to the post modern artist’s cool attempts to intervene in the media message. Many of you probably share with me some sense of the current failure and redundancy of this act abounding in the galleries. Much of it is glib and smug in its pretense to creative individuality. I need not say perhaps that Marcel Duchamp, Moholy Nagy and others had conceptualized over 50 years ago much of the current gallery dialogue. What is unfortunate is that the art world works on the production of commodities that in and of themselves are often quite meaningless and speak primarily to an elite and to those who are already converted. It is often an insular world of buying, trading and indeed manipulating not unlike its Wall Street cousin. The new vision enabled by the technology revolution is one that empowers others to be creative. It is the creative accomplishment of the collective not of the individual ego that will ultimately deserve the patrimony of our culture.

1 Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage (New York: Bantam Books, 1967) 8. 2 McLuhan and Fiore, 10. 3 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981) 85-87. 4 Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind (New York: Touchstone, 1986) 306. 5 Stanley E. Fish, "Interpreting the Variourum," Debating Texts, (ed.) Rick Rylance (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987) 155-171. 6 Neil Postman, "The Teaching of the Media Culture," American Media and Mass Culture, (ed.) Donald LaZere (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987) 421. 7 Jean Baudrillard, "Simulations," New York: Semiotext (e), 1983: 152.