Metabolism of Photographic Truth in the Digital Age

From digi, Volume 1, Number 3. Hong Kong Arts Council, 1994

“I’m not interested in truth, only my own reality.”—Carlo Uva “Lo, there shall be more stars as telescopes get more and more perfect.” —Gustave Flaubert “The only reason to make a photograph is to see what something looks like as a photograph.” —Garry Winogrand We want to believe that photographs record real events. Every photograph, even the most inconsequential snapshot, gains value in the culture as time passes. The further time takes us from the moment recorded, the more meaningful the image becomes as an artifact of history. A notion caught in the past becomes present and tangible in the retention of its image. Cultural perspective gleaned from an old family album evolves in value as a subjective experience when information caught in the light of the past is interpreted by conditions found in the present. This fact is underlined by the rage to collect historical material in photographic form. Snapshot albums, cartes de visite, even nostalgic albums from the late 60’s are swept up by collectors working flea markets, antique stores and attics. The reason for this flurry of activity is a need to hold on to some subjective image of our fleeting past—a relic.


Interpretation is what a person derives from a set of representative values, forms or ideas in the image. The origin of these codes, their meaning and their context are easily lost or distorted by the context in which the image is witnessed. Hence, all photographic witness has a kind of built-in fallacy: there can be no sure interpretation since all the messages have been reduced to the ethereal film of light suspended in a two-dimensional plane. Any evidence revealed by the codes is based only on its likeness to something we already know. The facts and circumstances of origin become less important—even forgotten—as the aura of the image gains sway. Its collectability is a matter not only of its rarity, but also of how its codes recapture our idealizations and notions of the past. The image gains new value subjectively as its symbolic message becomes accepted as universal and its metaphors become the archetypal codes of the memory. In more innocent times, we validated the photograph, if only for convenience and reassurance, by saying that it was worth a thousand words. We convinced ourselves that the real-world subject, caught in the light of the sensitive photographic grains, conveyed messages and codes indistinguishable from fact—the negative was irrefutable as an original. Photographic proof stood when words—even a thousand of them—failed. The unique seamlessness of the colloidal suspension held us captive to the belief in the camera’s faithfulness to the scene. As it is anyway, we suppose that photographs break down into identifiable elements that represent real things, but the elastic and fluid perception we call fantasy allows us to interpret those elements in may ways. Imagery in the “Age of Spectacle” no longer exists only as a record of being, but is the life substance—experience itself.


The digital world tells us unequivocally that not only is there no one-to-one correspondence between the image and the scene, but there is no original. All images are original, malleable and mutable and, perhaps, even more valuable. The issues of witness verification and fact are sublimated as important elements of depiction. It is a given, at present, that a knowledgeable viewer can seamlessly change an image to their own designs through the digital process. This fact relegates the older processes of the photographic traditions to more passive roles as communication vehicles. Photographs are one way signals believed to be stabilized by the taker and permanent in their fixing of the observed object. Our belief in the immutable elegance of the older processes still holds us in awe. The object of the photograph itself is a kind of relic of a history when we still believed in the objectivity of the camera. Nevertheless, the ability to change things digitally shows us that there can be inherent discrepancies in any image that looks objective on the surface whether made by the camera or the computer.


In digital depiction, nothing is suspended long enough to create an aura. There are no relics as all images can be changed. (Hence, the lack of acceptance of “Computer Art” that is only superficially stabilized.) The viewer is not held captive or confronted by the authority of a one-way artery of pseudo-objective representation. The response allowed by the digital signal metabolizes truth in a constant and evolving flow of real-world communications. The viewer can not only make choices, but can actually change the choice put before him.


My colleague, Douglas Davis, noted in a recent article that the fictions of the master and the copy are now—like lovers folded together in ecstasy—so intertwined that it is impossible to say where one begins and the other ends.1There is no celibate negative. As Davis notes, the critic Walter Benjamin predicted this inevitable collapse by assuming that the aura of the original would also be eclipsed. Benjamin missed the ironic twist that the spread of mechanical reproduction might give an analog object of the past more value. As the image is dispersed, its popularity grows and, consequently, the demand for it (e.g., Ansel Adams’ Moon Rise). He did not foresee the popularization and the collectability of the photograph. There is today a cult of cognoscenti moving a new commodity, a new industry, intertwining galleries, collectors and museums in sometimes suspect intercourse which gives a skewed value to the object, heroic status to the maker and an aura of originality in the production, while obscuring the inherent accessibility of the image and its discourse.


But, concurrently, if the aura of the image is diminished, the healthy exchange of image information infused by the interactive digital signal gives witness and the act of observation a richer if more complex meaning. A given perspective can be examined from more than one vantage point. The single authority of the photograph (or representation) is not solely given credence by the maker; the gallery, the newspaper or the network—all are answerable. In the digital realm, the truth lies in a dialogue which raises questions from observations taken and observations given. Meaning is gained in the continual and equal relationship of the image maker, the audience, and the subject reversing their roles in an ongoing flow, metabolized by the computer in the arterial network of communications. Connecting, collaborating, cross-referencing and collaging allow us to extrapolate from both subjective an objective material to an exchange of more heightened enlightenment. Consciousness begins as a stream of potentially chaotic input from without. Ideas of things and events in the world were never copies of external reality, but rather the outcome of an interactional process within the subject, in which ideas underwent operations of fusion, fading inhibition and blending with other previous or simultaneously occurring ideas or presentations. The mind does not reflect truth but extracts it from an ongoing process involving the collision and merging of ideas. —John FredrichHerbad, 18242 Contemporary consciousness is enhanced digitally as we take information and image into our own personal realm of creation. We are able to examine any supposed fact with deeper reference and arrange it in an order, sequence or time space that accommodates better our personal ability to comprehend. Some fear digitalization because of its potential for deceptive manipulation. Its greater potential lies in giving us means to deconstruct and reconstruct all elements of art and perception—image, sound and text. This ability makes for unique and singular activity that enables all to be creative; to interpret as we must; to make our own verification that is as original as the senders/receivers we are. We can be more self reliant in our means to gain knowledge. We are further along the way to the democratization of the media. We embraced photography from the beginning because it offered such potential.


The relationship of the lens-recorded image to how we have historically perceived it becomes, as William Mitchell in the Reconfigured Eye indicates, more an issue of illustration than of reportageŠ[Viewers] will be aware that they can no longer distinguish between genuine image and the one that is manipulated, even as news photographers and editors resist the temptation of electronic manipulation, as they are likely to do [with standards, ethical conduct and encrypted codes]. The credibility of all reproduced images will be challenged by a less naïve, more provocative receiver. “In short, photographs will not seem as real as they once did.”3 And thus, the analogued camera-made image will become even more a collectible object; the object maintaining the aura of the original hoarded, sold, collected, prized because it survives. As John Szarkowski, former curator of the Museum of Modern Art, puts it, the subject becomes an artifact of culture with a distinctive air all its own. As now established, what one sees in a photograph is only one kind of representative reality; moreover, we know the image posits a subjective notion of history. At this point in the evolution of the recorded lens-made image, the growth of pure photographic seeing is clearly in question. It may become an artistic mannerism. At this moment in history, we are agitated by the compromise necessitated by accepting the subjective objective natures of the representations that are about us. The trouble lies in our not being sure of ourselves enough to distinguish between them—authorities (the cognoscenti) too, have proven to be suspect. Even those who study ocular phenomena scientifically (psychologists, physicists, physiologists et al) are quiet clear that how the world looks to us is a remarkable achievement calling for constant reexamination. No single explanation can account for what we think we can see in something we call reality. The human senses are always in conflict. This same conflict is brought to our understanding of photography and the merit of the photograph as a telling object.


Jonathan Crary notes that the cybernetic realm is one where abstract visual and linguistic elements coincide, consume, circulate and exchange globally.4 The position of the observer in the real world is that of an image gatherer enabled by the digital response. We exist in a kind of graphic observatory that equalizes our ability to look at the broad scope of possibilities. At the same time, it allows us to isolate and select. As we constantly reexamine our own experience in relation to others, we expand our understanding. Rather than viewing as mass media consumers, we are now in an age of mass image customization. We receive and disseminate equally what our needs and whims dictate. Our unique personal universe expands in the new digital observatory. Photography, now, is part of the imagery ecosystem composing the real and the unreal, a collage that the computer serves both to assemble and to navigate through. Figuring out how to balance our urge to examine the world in the stable analog way, (as in looking at the aesthetic and formal qualities of the photograph) while mastering the digital interdisciplinary and multi-media production that contains that same image, is the question of critical cultural study. The viewers of all imagery must be active and educated to intervene.


By our intervention in the image, we are made aware of the plasticity of our universe. It is a space where there is no separation between representation and reality. We must be agile enough to accept the fact that experience is assembled from the image and the reality it represents. The meaning of the experience is only as useful as the cods or orders we extract from the whole picture, somewhat in the manner of examination allowed by a telescope. As we are better educated about the complex realm of the digital world interacting upon real experience, we understand that there is something called actual and virtual reality. They are two separate but interacting horizons calling for development of a more optimum multi-optical mind set—that is, an ability to elastically float between one reality and the other. Our perception will have to use the computer as its lens/observatory to navigate us not only between spatial and temporal proximities, but also between spaces of objective and subjective representation. The computer observatory gives us the means for examining an isolated form (or photograph?) from which we can devise a specific context which is more directly related to our own personalized systems of organization. Having analyzed these forms, they can subsequently be put back into a given space with our own logic, establishing the truth of our own unique experience. But perhaps our personal one only! We can know only what we know! How the world looks to us will be all the more remarkable and confounding as the cybernetics of the computer world calls for constant vigilance, illumination and psychological development. As human experience expands, so too has the technology we have made. It now expands us beyond our immediate, temporal existence. In his classic article Big Optics, Paul Virilio states, Let us remember briefly that there is no real existence in this world—in the real world of sensory perception—except by the delusory device provided by the egocentrism of the live presence, that is, the existence of a real body living here and now.5


Recently, The New York Times reported that studies at Harvard revealed a remarkable discovery of how the brain works.6 Researchers found that the brain uses the same normal pathways for seeing objects as it does for imagining them—only it uses them in reverse. The discovery once again challenges the validity of eyewitness accounts. The imagined object, at least to the observer’s brain, is every bit as real as the one that is seen. Thus, we are presented with an even more confused relationship between imagination and reality. Luckily, it seems that in most of us the input to our cognitive thinking is more from the eye and is still stronger that that of the imagination’s. In the course of consciousness and its development in cyberspace, the reverse may be conditioned to be the case. We can no longer accept that imagery only records but must comprehend that the virtual world is valid circumstance. Marvin Minsky says that in virtual reality “experience will be fulfilling as it satisfies a certain longing for unattainable feeling.”7 The act of image collaging allows you to indulge yourself in a realm of here-to-fore unimaginable, unseeable relationships. Verification in a tangible object like the photograph is necessary in order to maintain the semblance of old truths. Is it perhaps a dysfunctional process? We are now in the Age of Enabled Image Handling.