Does the digital image hold a new relationship to truth?
No change in the technology of photography has brought with it the quite the same promise of democratic representation as that of digital photography and the internet.
Before digital technology became widely accessible, most images that reached the public were the result of a photographer who had the time, resources, and training to pursue photography as a passion – and, if their images were reaching a wide audience – the connections to distribute their images through the curations of photo editors or editors or publishers. The internet and social media, however, allow for a comparatively un-curated distribution of images, sidestepping the processes of traditional publishers and gatekeepers.
This democratization of photography has, however, arrived synchronously with concerns about the truth of the digital image and the disavowal in some circles of digital photography as an art. Just as photography at the beginning of its history had to reconcile with its relationship to painting and the machine, digital photography faces contemporary struggles in defining its relation to truth, power, documentary, and art, and the role of power in the materiality and the material effects of the image. Just as the invention of photography prompted cries of the death of painting, digital photography has prompted cries of the death of photography.
Rather than the discussions of affect that had dominated discourse in previous decades of photography criticism, the turn of the century saw a new urgency to questions of how technology determines our relation to the world. Because of its novelty and radically new potentials for its distribution, conversations surrounding the digital image shifted away from the content of a photograph to questions of its materiality. Especially as the convergence of a number of media as cameras became linked with other technologies - such as phones, social networks, and socio-technical communication tools - the way the image has been thought of, used, and theorized has been radically altered.
Trapped in a limbo of legitimacy, the digital image has been perceived as at once too easily produced to justify as an artistic work, and yet too uncertain in its relation to physical reality to claim the same indexical “document” status as analogue photography. Rather than the apparently indexical relationship to the world brought about by the reaction of silver chemicals to light, everything in a digital image is computed, calculated, and transformed. Especially in conjunction with the development of image manipulation software like Photoshop allowing complex image manipulations to be performed more easily than they were in the darkroom, the assumption of digital images, therefore, seems to be fakery, trickery, and lies, rather than a pure access to truth.
Adding to this distrust, neither nature nor the photographer seems to possess the same amount of pure, clearly-defined agency in digital imaging as in analogue photography. The multifunctionality and connectivity of cameras, as well as the easy distribution of a photograph through social media seems to promise that any agency or control of the photographer or authorial intent will be subservient to the whims and appropriation of the internet and its comparative lack of authoritative, knowledgeable, gate-keeping curation. Furthermore, the potential for photoshopped images to lead to severe and potentially dangerous misinformation is matched by the current inability of either the human eye or machines to detect fakery, questioning our agencies as viewers. As critic Jordan Bear has written, “an ostensibly constitutive feature of the digital era is our supposed inability to distinguish the world form the simulacrum and the original from the copy.” (Bear 2015, 150)
While anxiety over agency in photography was not created by digital photography, it has been amplified by it. Whereas traditional cameras imagined an optical system that is roughly equivalent to the processes of the eye (even if they were capable of seeing infinitely smaller details or objects much further away), modern cameras are now reaching technological levels that allow them to be more analogous to the human brain. Whereas light used to be the only source of information by which to construct an image, digital photography can cast a wider net for more information – such as the amount of information taken in during RAW processing, or the ability to capture a range of exposures and making no assumptions about the rendering of the scene – and make decisions as to how this information should be rendered, rather than simply recording its impression.
Especially with the advent of artificial neural networks and machine learning, it is not so difficult to imagine a world where the human element is no longer needed in the creation of meaning. What happens when machine learning gets so good at culling images that it can reject and curate images not only on technical aspects (such as whether the image is in focus) but on subjective qualities like beauty, when photo-realistic images can be generated from scratch, can create a new subject in the style of a dead artist so accurately that no one can tell the difference? Once again, (as in the Victorian era), the necessity of the human artist or observer (“liberal humanist subject”) seems obsolete.
But while there is an impulse in public understanding to cast digital photography and technologies as caught in a fraught and particularly new moment of crisis in its “lost” relationship to indexicality and truth, the idea that photography came from a pure point of origin but that every advancement in technology pushes the image further from truth is a popular misconception of the image, and plays into the often oversimplified view of technology as full of either utopic or dystopic potential, with little consideration for the gradations of nuance in between.
As Jennifer Tucker explains in her book, Nature Exposed: Photography as Eyewitness in Victorian Science, photography had a fraught relationship with its claim to objective witness in nineteenth-century Britain and was not immediately or naïvely accepted as truth by the Victorians, as history commonly believes. The history of photography and the entire concept of a photograph as an indexical trace of reality in popular thought has always been oversimplified – ignoring, on even the most basic technical level, the presence and influence of the camera, lens, film stock, and developing process on an image – whereas the potential of a digital sensor's matrix of numbers and ability to geotag location and incorporate other metadata has routinely been underplayed. Just like an analogue photograph, for example, a digital image also has indexical properties, as light coming into a digital camera is converting and interacting – not with film, but with a light-sensitive electronic light-detector chip, which converts the energy into electricity and records it that way.
Tom Gunning, in "What's the Point of an Index?" outlines the ways in which analogue images never truly constituted an index, but rather an icon, and how digital images – even if they are not naturally iconic of the scenes they represent – are capable of being indexical. He also argues against what seems to be the prevailing notion that photography began at a point of pure, innocent relation to truth, and the notion that digital media cannot constitute an index. As he writes:
“Storage in terms of numerical data does not eliminate indexicality (which is why digital images can serves as passport photographs and the other sorts of legal evidence or documents, which ordinary photographs supply). Further, it would be foolish to closely identify the indexical with the photographic; most indexical information is not recorded by photography. Long before digital media were introduced, medical instruments and other instrument of measurement, indexical instruments par excellence – such as devices for reading pulse rate, temperature, heart rate, etc, or speedometers, wind gauges, and barometers – all converted their information into numbers.” (Gunning 2008)
As Gunning explains, digital photography represents less a upheaval of photographic significance and potential than a displacement and continuation of traditional conversations of photography onto a new medium. As he writes, "If Freud had subjected one of the West's central ideologies – historical progress – to psychoanalysis, he might have discovered the primary operation of displacement, operating behind our constant impetus towards ever-greater perfection.” (Gunning 2008) As at the beginning of photography, the “end” of photography has been concerned with locating the real.
Gunning also notes that the artistic freedom of transformation afforded by the digital image can turn photography to a state closer to art, and that there is a playfulness in digital images that deserves to be celebrated. Rather than making impossible all referential claims to truth, Gunning argues that many images find success in their tension between reality and artifice, and in this heightened sense of the problematics of addressing truth directly. In some ways, rather than taking away agency, this has restored agency to photography. There is more power than ever in the photographer as an artist, affecter of truth, producer. (Gunning 2008)
Such examples of technology expanding human agency can be found in digital photography – with the Light Field (or Lytro) camera, for example, it is possible to take a photograph without excluding information based on focal length or the compression of space that that brings, and through a program called Photosynth it is possible to combine hundreds of images taken by multiple photographers to achieve a more complete view of a scene or a single moment in time. Although agency shifts in the authorship of a digital image, the agency of the photographer is still present. Instead of making itself present in decisive operations of reducing the world, this power has simply been made less dependent on the whims and limitations of technology. Instead of an art which requires the impulses of taking, shooting, the artist has now moved into a realm where actions are calculated, processed, and rendered. As Fred Ritchin writes in After Photography, "In the digital environment a new kind of photograph emerges, neither mirror nor window but a mosaic. It allows for multiple pathways leading to new avenues of exploration – a hypertext. Like Alice's mirror, the hypertextual photograph can lead to the other side, whether to explore a social situation or to create an image poem. The photograph is no longer a tangible object, a rectangle resembling a painting, but an ephemeral image made of tiles.” (Ritchin 2010, 70)
Such considerations, while not directly tying into the discussion of “The Beggar Maid,” offer an interesting perspective for the assumptions that we bring to an image and open up questions about what the world might have looked like if such ease of documentation and performance were available in the Victorian era. If Alice could have created selfies or a video diary, as silly as that might seem, how might have she presented herself? Self-portraits have always existed (Lewis Carroll took one of himself!) but what do we make of the relatively causal nature of the capture of digital media? How do we perceive Alice’s identity as created through the difficulties of the wet collodion process, and how has the comparatively free and open forum of the internet and media technology transformed both our understanding and performance of self, and our expectations and understandings of body language, sexuality, and identity? As Lewis Carroll’s archive becomes digitized and distributed through digital channels, has the curation of his images shifted?
Batchen, Geoffrey. Burning with Desire: the Conception of Photography. MTP Press, 1999.
Baudrillard, Jean, and Sheila Faria. Glaser. Simulacra and Simulation. University of Michigan Press, 2010.
Bear, Jordan. Disillusioned: Victorian Photography and the Discerning Subject. Penn State Univ Press, 2015.
Heiferman, Marvin. Photography Changes Everything. Aperture, 2012.
Krauss, Rosalind. “A Note on Photography and the Simulacral.” October, vol. 31, 1984, pp. 49–68. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/778356.
Mitchell, William J. The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era. MIT Press, 1994.
Ritchin, Fred. After Photography. W.W. Norton, 2010.
“What’s the Point of an Index? or, Faking Photographs”, Tom Gunning
"The Ministry of Truth: A mass experiment in altering political memories", William Saletan, Slate, May 24, 2010
"How fake images change our memory and behavior”, BBC Future, Rose Eveleth, December 13, 2012
The Chicago School of Media Theory Blog
"‘It’s gonna be great fun!’ Politics in the age of post-truth", Political Critique: Krytyka Polityczna & European
Alternatives, Daniel Tkatch, November 24, 2016
"The Purpose of Photography in a Post-Truth Era", Time Lightbox, Santiago Lyon, January 26, 2017
"Breaking News", The Future of Fake News, Radiolab Podcast
"How Photography Can Destroy Reality", The Intercept, Michelle Orange, July 1, 2015
"Stop calling yourself a Purist in Photography", Canvas of Light, Daniel Nahabedian, February 2, 2011