Although my practice is not technically rooted in photography, my methods for curating my most recent project ‘The Imaginary Museum’, deal with the impact of photography on the production, collection, and dissemination of art through images. These ideas originally stemmed from the Andre Malraux quote “The history of art is the history of what can be photographed.” This field not only includes the images produced in this manner, but also the material culture of technologies and the networks that facilitate the spread of particular images.
Such ideas of the ‘mimetic’ and ‘viral’, were also discussed by philosopher Vilém Flusser through his ideas of a ‘telematic society’: “His innovative writings theorize -and ultimately embrace- the epochal shift that humanity is undergoing from what he termed “linear thinking” (based on writing) toward a new form of multidimensional, visual thinking embodied by digital culture. For Flusser, these new modes and technologies of communication make possible a society… in which dialogue between people becomes the supreme value.” As such, Vilem Flusser’s book, ‘Towards a Philosophy of Photography’ provides an interesting insight into the various strands of this topic.
Towards a Philosophy of Photography
Flusser introduces the book as a working hypothesis intended to provoke further investigation: “This book is based on the hypothesis that two fundamental turning points can be observed in human culture since its inception. The first, around the middle of the second millennium BC, can be summed up under the heading ‘the invention of linear writing’; the second, the one we are currently experiencing, could be called ‘the invention of technical images’… This hypothesis contains the suspicion that the structure of culture – and therefore existence itself – is undergoing a fundamental change. This book attempts to strengthen this suspicion and, in order to maintain its hypothetical quality, avoids quotations from earlier works on similar themes… Thus the intention of this book is not to defend a thesis but to make a contribution – informed by philosophy – to the debate on the subject of ‘photography’.” (Flusser, 2000, p. 1)
The book is separated into a collection of essays detailing the similarities and differences between traditional and technical images, the definition of the apparatus, the distribution and reception of photographs, and why a philosophy of photography is necessary. The original German text was written in 1983 and the English version was published by Reaktion Books in 2000. However, despite being over 30 years old, the text has proved remarkably prescient in light of the emergence and increasing dominance of digital technologies.
Flusser defines the quality of photography through four concepts: image, apparatus, program, and information: “It is an image created and distributed by photographic apparatus according to a program, an image whose ostensible function is to inform.” (Flusser, 2000, p. 34) He describes the abstraction of the world into two-dimensional space, and the subsequent decoding of these images as fundamental to the process of photography. The process of ‘imagination’ required to project two-dimensional symbols back into four-dimensional space and time also suggests that there is “no such thing as naïve, non-conceptual photography [as] a photograph is an image of concepts.” (Flusser, 2000, p. 15)
Although traditional images (painting) and technical images (photography) are defined respectively as pre-historical and post-historical (Flusser, 2000, p. 4), they both require the viewer to understand the image as symbolic rather than objective. As Flusser describes “with traditional images, we recognize easily that we are dealing with symbols. A painter, for example, is interposed between them and their meaning… If we wish to decipher such images, we must decode the coding process which has occurred “in the head” of the painter. With technical images, however the matter is not that simple. It is true that, here also, a factor is interposed between the image and its meaning, in this case a camera and the [person] using it… The factor is the black box.” (Flusser, 2000, p. 5)
The theoretical nature of photography is particularly apparent in the use of black-and-white photographs, where the images are abstracted and the colours removed. However, as Flusser describes, “[colour] photographs are at least as theoretical as black and white. The green of a photographed field, for example, is an image of the concept ‘green’, just as it occurs in chemical theory, and the camera (or rather the film inserted into it) is programmed to translate this concept into the image.” (Flusser, 2000, p. 18)
Photography, unlike other types of technical images, is also defined through its method of distribution. Originally these images were limited to paper copies and other printed means of distribution. However, since the emergence of the Internet, the reproduction of images has increased exponentially. Even with most printed copies, “their value does not lie in the thing but in the information on their surface. This is what characterizes the post-industrial: The information, and not the thing, is valuable. Issues of the ownership and distribution of objects (capitalism and socialism) are no longer valid, evading as they do the question of the programming and distribution of information (the information society).” (Flusser, 2000, p. 22)