Heraclitus is said to have said that “you cannot step into the same river twice” (PLATO 1997: 120). For brevity’s sake, let us assume that that statement that is said to have been said by Heraclitus is sensical and refers to a verifiable perceptual phenomenon that when experienced makes everything come to be perceived as being in constant change. Assuming all that, we come to see that a photograph is always an original; that there cannot be two photographs which are copies of each other (unless printed from the same negative – but that’s not what we are concerned with here); that multiple photographs taken of the same subject in quick succession are essentially non-alike and that each one of those photographs ought to be treated as unique.
Taking stock of all that has just been argued, we can easily see how the photographic project has failed. In the process of giving everyone the ability to easily produce images, photography has gone off on a tangent, giving birth to an automatism substantially, significantly and ontologically different to its inherent ontologically-determined automatism, understood as the automatism that is at play in the production of an image that is reliant simply on the pressing of the shutter-release button. The automatism we are making reference to here is the automatism known as the ‘automatic mode’; the automatism inherent in taking photographs using a smartphone, where we’re told that “each photo and video…is the original […] – without filters, adjustments or retouching” (AFAQS! 2016) (…and surely, with all photographs coming out looking the same, we have come to see the world through that filter of sameness; and if our photographs come out looking like the world we have come to see through that filter of sameness, then they surely must be original – “well, they surely haven’t been tinkered with – they look just the same as everybody else’s!”); the automatism in the workflow of the professional photographer on manual mode using Photoshop presets… (I believe I have covered all the scenarios.)
Flusser says: “reduced to its basic elements, the camera’s program is as follows: first, to place its inherent capabilities into the image; second, to make use of a photographer for this purpose, except in borderline cases of total automation (for example, in the case of satellite photographs); third, to distribute the images produced in this way so that society is in a feedback relationship to the camera which makes it possible for the camera to improve progressively; fourth, to produce better and better images. In short: The camera’s program provides for the realization of its capabilities and, in the process, for the use of society as a feedback mechanism for its progressive improvement” (2000: 46). The camera’s program is thus continuously updated to incorporate within it the latest fads and trends – essentially novel, hitherto unexplored ways of using of the camera, approbated by society, and later programmed by the programmer and fashioned as new updates to the photography apparatus.
Photographers operating in any one of the three scenarios delineated previously are not only taking a false sense of ownership over ‘their’ images (clearly, these images are not ‘theirs’; these images are simply programmed virtualities being emitted by the photography apparatus); their malpractice calls into question the very status of these images as photographs, since photographs have here been argued to be always original, unique and non-alike. As Flusser argues, operating strictly within those parts of the camera’s program that are already well explored produces “redundant, non-informative images, similar to those one has seen before” (2000: 36-37).
Now, the solution to this malpractice may seem obvious to some: photographers should never stop experimenting with the photography apparatus and should consistently produce “informative, improbable images that have not been seen before” (FLUSSER 2000: 37). But, Flusser himself warns: “a number of human beings are struggling against this automatic programming: photographers who attempt to produce informative images, i.e. photographs that are not part of the program of apparatus; critics who attempt to see what is going on in the automatic game of programming; and in general, all those who are attempting to create a space for human intention in a world dominated by apparatuses. However, the apparatuses themselves automatically assimilate these attempts at liberation and enrich their programs with them. It is consequently the task of a philosophy of photography to expose this struggle between human being and apparatuses in the field of photography and to reflect on a possible solution to the conflict” (Ibid. 74-75).
Let us return to our introductory argument in which we claimed that a photograph is always an original and unique, and that no two photographs are ever alike. Clearly, we can see that this argument holds true for analogue photography but doesn’t fare so well with digital photography. The silver halide crystals present on photographic film react to form silver metal when exposed to light. This chemical reaction produces a dark image on the film. In analogue photography, thus, the relationship between the image and its determinant is non-arbitrary. In digital photography, the negative, so to speak, is the raw image file, which is a digital file that can be copied infinite times (unlike the ‘true’ negative in analogue photography, which is a unique object). In digital photography, the relationship between the digital image and its determinant (essentially a digital file containing a series of 1s and 0s – binary code) is completely arbitrary, wholly dependent on the whim of the programmer of the intelligent (or interpreting) machine.
Now we enter the usual conundrum: in the digital domain, a digital raw image file is considered as being original, analogous to the negative in analogue photography. With the possibility of the digital raw image file being digitally copied always lurking in the shadows, and with such eventual copies being eventually identical to this original raw image file, the original raw image file cannot be considered original anymore, and the resultant copies cannot be categorised as copies either. Clearly, had all these identical digital raw image files to be considered as being all originals, that would defeat from now onwards the purpose of ever calling something again original… and should they be considered all copies – copies without an original? Can that even be conceived?
Clearly, we can access the metadata embedded in the raw image file and see who the original creator of the image was (unless that happens to have been tinkered with and we end up with some fictitious Henriette Cartier-Bresson).
Let us return to Flusser’s argument on the camera program and see whether we can reach some conclusion. Dear Vilém, the hitherto unexplored parts of the camera program must always exceed the hitherto explored limits of the camera program, otherwise that wouldn’t be a very good photography camera that we bought, right? The “struggle between human being and apparatuses” (FLUSSER 2000: 75) is resolved by human being claiming its own creation (creation being for all apparatuses a delicate argument ‘they’ prefer to avoid).
That great ignoramus, Franz Kafka, managed to write one genial piece of literature, a parable he aptly titled, ‘On Parables’, and here it goes:
“Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life, which is the only life we have. When the sage says: “Go over,” he does not mean that we should cross over to some actual place, which we could do anyhow if the labor were worth it; he means some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something too that he cannot designate more precisely either, and therefore cannot help us here in the very least. All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already. But the cares we have to struggle with every day: that is a different matter.
Concerning this a man once said: Why such reluctance? If you only followed the parables you yourselves would become parables and with that rid of all your daily cares.
Another said: I bet that is also a parable.
The first said: You have won.
The second said: But unfortunately only in parable.
The first said: No, in reality: in parable you have lost.” (KAFKA 1999: 457)
Do not be disheartened by this post! I will clearly manage to write other beautiful posts about other interesting topics about the wonderful art of photography, even if that essentially means writing further posts containing much of the same arguments… So fuck jazz, too.
P.S. Language too is fiction and we are as a matter of fact as mute as animals.
AFAQS!. 2016. ‘Apple Stuns Once Again; Displays Ads Clicked On iPhone 6s, 6s Plus’. afaqs! [online]. Available at: https://www.afaqs.com/news/story/47055_Apple-Stuns-Once-Again-Displays-Ads-Clicked-On-iPhone-6s-6s-Plus [accessed 6 April 2020].
FLUSSER, Vilém. 2000. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. London: Reaktion Books.
KAFKA, Franz. 1999. The Complete Short Stories of Franz Kafka. UK: Vintage.
PLATO. 1997. Complete Works. USA: Hackett Publishing Company.
Pixel Peeps. March 2020 at Sliema, Malta. Digital illustration by the author.