Visual observation techniques have changed substantially since the nineteenth century. In 1839, when the physician François Arago announced the invention of photography to the world, he referred to the daguerreotype as ‘a new instrument in the service of observation.’ This instrument would be suitable for a broad array of scientific disciplines, from astronomy to the philological study of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Over time, the camera was indeed used as a mechanical instrument in various arts and sciences.
Walter Benjamin’s view was that photography destroyed the aura of works of art. In his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1932), he predicted that the social impact of mechanisation (photography as a medium of reproduction) would prove much more important than photography as a form of art. Thus, ‘the photographic’ is also the precondition for the mass media and for digital image culture.
Today, art students are influenced more by Twitter, Instagram or GoPro than by the photographic tradition. Everyone is a photographer, and everyone is familiar with ‘the photographic.’ The practice of contemporary critical visual artists cannot, therefore, be dissociated from the many, diverse roles of photography in contemporary society or from the production, dissemination and consumption of camera images in mass media.
The Thinking Tools research group reflects on the consequences of the emancipatory, yet dehumanising impact of technology on contemporary observation, imagination and imagery. How do we observe the world with a machine? Should we re-consider the issue of authorship when using these ‘seeing machines’?
Photographer Trevor Paglen referred to such machines as a broader definition of photography ‘that helps us identify the remarkably diverse roles in society that image-making has come to play’. In his films, the late media artist Harun Farocki repeatedly emphasised the scientific and military applications of a camera as a ‘disembodied machine’ in drones, satellites and surveillance equipment.
The research group aims to map the critical positions of contemporary image makers, who subject photo, film and computer cameras to their intentionality. We examine the tension between the camera and the freedom of the artist. Between the machine’s apparent ‘objectivity’ and the photographer’s subjective point of view. Between mechanical registration and other ‘ways of seeing.’
According to Vilém Flusser, a camera is ‘an instrument that changes the meaning of the world.’ The technical image produced by a machine is an image of a concept, in spite of the illusion of objectivity. Every photo is a materialisation of one of the possibilities afforded by the machine’s programme. The photographer as ‘operator’ has no idea what is happening inside the machine.
In the best case, photographers can outsmart their pre-programmed machines and subject them to their human will. Just think of experimental photographers and media artists. This option of freedom in a world that is controlled by machines indicates that we need to think about the technological aspect of photography. The artist’s subjectivity is confronted by the machine’s technological programme in the time-document constituted by the photo. The more invisible and transparent it is, the more complex it becomes.
The thin line between man and machine fades. The Thinking Tools research group focuses on image makers who try to ‘outwit the camera’s rigidity’ or ‘play against the machine’ in a Flusserian spirit.
Starting from the broader concept of ‘the photographic,’ we focus on a far wider research area than ‘photography.’ The English writer and curator David Campany has written that we can define not one medium, but three or four, depending on the various mechanical, technical and chemical-optical elements of the photographic machine: i.e. the lens, the shutter, the film, and the subject.
When thought of as ‘lens-based image making’, photography thus opens up a world of optical laws, perspectives and monocular vision, soft focus and photo realism, and the importance of the ‘frame’ from the photographer’s position.
Shutter photography, on the other hand, focuses on the dimension of time, as in the entire aesthetic of the snapshot and the decisive moment, as well as on the contemporary anti-shutter trend, and the return to slow photography and large-format cameras.
The light-sensitive surface of photography – which has changed fundamentally in the transition from paper to electronic media – can also determine the photographer’s approach. Just think of photograms, experimental camera exercises, the abstraction of grain and pixel and examining a photo as an index of reality. Finally, Campany also suggests seeing the thing itself as an aspect of the photographic.
The Belgian critic Steven Humblet has written about the enigmatic character of photographic imagery when approached from the point of view of the technical device. According to Humblet, the photographic is revealed in the gap between the image and the world, between the spectator and the image, between the spectator and the world. The photographic emerges where the relationship between these three actors is disrupted.
Within the broad scope of contemporary art, the line separating photography, sculpture, video, performance, painting and installation art may have eroded. But ‘the photographic’ is still relevant as a set of specific references and strategies, techniques and ways of looking at things. Today we also notice a return to the plastic and material character of photography – a chemical-physical process rather than the photograph as a document. But many painters have also made use of the photographic gaze, the indifference of the camera image, or the distance and standardisation of the photographic as a starting point.
How is the photographic manifested in contemporary art and photography? And what is the impact of the photographic in the realm of digital visual culture? Ultimately: what impact (liberating, disruptive or virtual) does the photographic have on our experience of reality?