Photography is dead – Long Live The Image

September 23rd, 2020Stephen Mayes

Published in the Royal Photographic Society Journal, September 2020

Leaving Kansas

“I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” said Dorothy (AKA Judy Garland) as a perfectly ordinary day mysteriously became an adventure in weirdness.  From that moment onwards the 1939 movie The Wizard Of Oz invites the audience to suspend all sense of reality and to engage with a tin puppet with a beating heart and a lion that speaks English along with a cast of implausible Munchkins and others as though they were old friends.  So deeply do we invest in the fantasy that real people have bid upwards of half a million real dollars to own a pair of ruby slippers touched by the toes of Ms Garland and maybe still trailing a whiff of the land that never existed.  “Crazy,” you think, “but why not enjoy a delightful fantasy…” and we return our thoughts to the real world of today..

But how real is our world in which we make and consume digital imagery that we persist in describing as “photography”?   I don’t mean to imply that digital images are necessarily unreliable but hidden in plain sight is a trap that renders us the viewers potentially unreliable as consumers of the modern digital image. 

The world remains as real as it ever was and during 180 years we have become adept at interpreting its reality as represented in the magical medium of photography, to the extent that we can look at a black and white photograph and consider it to be a version of reality, even though no living person has ever seen a world that looks like it.  This is the reward of the experience and education that trains us to understand the somewhat analogous two-dimensional world of photography as though it were the world we actually live in.  We accept not only black and white but a thousand other visual protocols that shape our knowledge of how light works and how perspective works, the surface artefacts of photographic reproduction and the social conventions that distinguish the participation of consensual and non-consensual subjects, in short everything that we have learned about how the photograph functions.  We use this knowledge to triangulate the visual information presented in images, testing our knowledge against what we see to recognise familiar cues and identify new information which then adds to our understanding of the world.  It’s yet another example of the human brain performing extraordinary feats of data-sorting and comprehension that place us at the precarious tip of evolution, undertaking tasks so complex that our conscious brains can hardly comprehend them, even though they’re performed at speed and almost effortlessly.

But that same mental brilliance can also make us into fools when we place too much certainty on the credibility of our experience.  We’re walking along a brick road, paved with nostalgic yellow cobles like the Kodak film boxes in which once we placed all our trust, and we really need to stop and check ourselves when we see a tin man with any kind of heart, let alone a beating one.  We are not in Kansas anymore – that was the familiar world of wet processed film that had evolved from 1840 to 2000; it was an extraordinary evolution that included many significant technological advances, but nothing that radically changed the nature of the image as a mechanical reproduction of  photons hitting film to leave a trace of the world they came from.  Grain became smaller and was even eliminated, colour was introduced, new glass technology dramatically eliminated lens distortion and we learned to bend the light with long exposures.  We became ever more artful in our use of the tools, but the photograph remained faithful as an indexical record of light and therefore of the world.  We had moments of doubt when we realised that the camera could indeed tell lies but eventually we understood that there were no fairies in Cottingley and that commissars could vanish from history with the cut of a knife, and I have always been grateful to PhotoShop for the profound lessons it taught about the need for belief to be tested by skepticism.

But with the arrival of digital origination we stepped into a different realm, but unfortunately unlike Dorothy we haven’t fully recognized the weirdness of our surroundings.  When we lift the lid to inspect the mechanics of the digital image we find ourselves in an unfamiliar world. It’s a place with no name yet strange enough that we might as well call it Munchkinland although superficially enough remains familiar to create the illusion of continuity.   Looking at printed pages or high definition screens it can be hard to tell the difference between an image made using film or with a sensor, and why would we worry because if it’s made using the same lens and similar camera body, often with similar intent why would we worry about substituting silicon for celluloid?  We understand enough to see that there are differences that distinguish the digital output which can exaggerate traditional photographic processes and it has a few extra bells and whistles.  An argument could be made that the differences between analogue and digital are equivalent to the differences between watercolour and oil paint,  which has such radical distinctions of plasticity and texture, but this analogy traps us in old-thinking and limits our understanding to only the two dimensions of traditional image-making.

Let’s start by understanding that we’re no longer looking at the faithful indexical record of light.  With all the advancements in chip technology, the digital sensor remains essentially a single surface that light cannot penetrate, and therefore the rendering of colour requires adjacent pixels to collaborate to mix green, red and blue.  In effect three cells are required to produce a single pixel of image, which means that only one third of the photons hitting the sensor are actually recorded and two thirds are discarded in the interpolation process.  The apparent detail that is so extraordinary in the finished image is not a record of light but is the product of computational processes mimic the appearance of the traditional analogue process.  In the early days of digital origination the camera manufacturers were careful to make the outputs almost indistinguishable from conventional film images, or maybe they didn’t yet know how to make them different.  But they know now and it’s an interesting exercise to put yourself into a darkened room with a smartphone or a DSLR and compare the outputs with what your eyes see to be actually visible.  Without resorting to infrared or other see-in-the-dark technologies, such is the computational power of the modern camera that it will create images of extraordinary detail from almost no actual data. 

Less easy to identify is the creeping introduction of algorithms that automatically widen the eyes and smooth the skin of every face to create a more “beautiful” renderings of ourselves and the people in our lives, and the many other enhancements that are slowly coming to shape our expectations of an image and of ourselves.    I recently installed a camera app on my phone that invited me to display “Useful camera parameters” and at the push of a button revealed a list of nearly one thousand computational processes (I stopped counting at 800).  Coming from a world in which I thought I was pushing the limits of credibility if I applied even twenty processes to the production of a print this is a shocking revelation.  But it’s standard now and to apply the same standards of analysis that once we applied to the photograph is to willfully ignore the stark truth that this enormous computational power might mimic the appearance of photography but it is in fact a very different medium that works on a whole new set of principles.  It’s not a dishonest process, but we are dishonest if we continue the pretense that we can understand the resulting images using the same language and conceptual framework that once we applied to photography.  

This is just the surface of the new medium and we blind ourselves further by looking only at the two-dimensional array of pixels that we choose to call an “Image” while ignoring the enormous volume of other data that is part of the same file.  Some of this data we recognise when we accept geo tags or facial recognition services but few of us even think about the accelerometer or any of the multiple sensors that are now standard issue, let alone the vast trove of dynamic functions that attach to the image via the Internet that not only identify faces but link us individually to income groups and our consumer preferences.  We might not be paying attention because our focus is on “photography”, but someone is looking and those entities have little interest in the 180 years of history with which we imbue meaning in our images.  Even with this knowledge we might still consider ourselves visual artists for whom such ancillary processes are irrelevant and this is a valid perspective.  Up to a point. But that point is reached when popular culture starts to look at our work with different expectations and by failing those expectations we fall into irrelevance.  That point is reached when as communicators we fail to take advantage of all the tools that are available to make richer more meaningful communications.  And that point is reached and passed when disingenuous entities choose to abuse our credulity by using techniques that reach far beyond even the wildest PhotoShop processes to create photo-like images that deliberately rely on our photographic sensibilities to deceive.  Even if we choose to not engage with the modern processes of the digital image we must at least inform ourselves about how they work in order to protect ourselves and our audiences.   This starts by recognizing that we’re not discussing photography with some new and extraneous functionality attached, we are witnessing something entirely new.

Artists, journalists and their audiences experienced a paradigm shift of equivalent magnitude in the Nineteenth Century when the medium now known as photography was itself introduced.  First developed around 1838 by Deguerre and Fox Talbot the word photography already existed but it wasn’t popularly applied for another two decades.  For is first twenty years of existence photography was usually referred to as “photogenic drawing”, because self-evidently any representational image must necessarily be a form of drawing.  Fox Talbot himself, as one of the key figures in the introduction of the new medium maintained strong attachment to the protocols and aesthetics of drawing, even calling his famous photobook (the world’s first) “The Pencil Of Nature”.  It’s easy to dismiss this as a semantic distraction but the reverberations of this misclassification exist to this day with the continuing attention given to Alexander Gardner’s photographs of the American Civil War (1861 to 1865) in which he appears to have posed dead bodies to make more effective compositions.  It’s a practice that’s deeply disapproved by anyone with a background in documentary photography and equal scorn is still poured on Roger Fenton’s images made in Crimea (1855) which ballistics experts have demonstrated to portray an unrealistic number of cannonballs scattered through the “valley of death”.  Such manipulations of reality are offensive to anyone approaching these images with an expectation of documentary evidence.  But to view these images as such betrays our own ignorance of the cultural ethos of the time when the new technology that we now call photography had yet to be recognized as a new and distinctive medium or that it would be subject to a new value system with distinctive rules separating it from the protocols of drawing that had informed artists and audiences up to that point.

As it was in 1860 so it is in 2020.  We are in the midst of a similar tectonic shift in the evolution of visual media with the ironic twist that photography is now the pervasive technology against which we benchmark the new digital processes.   It seems obvious to us that if an image is made using a lens it must be a form of photograph, just as it seemed obvious to Fox Talbot that a representational image must be a form of drawing even if it was made using a magical new technology.   The Victorians clung to the familiar protocols of drawing and ignored the emergent properties of the photograph because they didn’t fully understand their significance. And as we know now this failure to understand what they were looking at made fools of even the boldest and most innovative of them.  Today we must take a step back to recognize that while the digital image mimics many properties of the photograph the huge array of additional, emergent properties combine to make it something else entirely.  Failing to do so will make us the fools of tomorrow’s history.

Meanwhile vernacular culture is swarming all over the digital process. Intuitively and without questions people are embracing digital imagery in ways that would have been inconceivable if tied to conventional photographic processes.  I amuse myself by imagining how Snapchat would have looked if users had to put prints in envelopes and walk to the mailbox in order to post updates to their account.  TikTok?  Forget it!  I have a mental image of my family gathered around the old rotary phone, holding up the curly-wired handset and waiting for the flash to make group selfie to send around to friends and relatives…  But of course the quaint and anachronistic use of the word “phone” to describe both the iPhone 11 and its rotary precursor creates a false sense of continuity that hides the vast chasm that separates the functionality and purpose of the two instruments.  The old dial phone is related to the iPhone in exactly the same way that Kodacolor is related to iPhone: it’s not.  (Although I do know some people who still use their phones to make voice calls, even this single, tenuous continuity appears to be fading out).

Vernacular culture hasn’t even paused to consider the transition – it has simply accepted it and moved on.  It is this popular tide that is now shaping the meaning and relevance of imagery in culture, and we the “experts” in photography are merely onlookers.  Just as we are onlookers watching the development of apps, security systems, marketing machines and in some parts of the world social controls, all of which rely on digital imagery made and applied in utterly non-photographic ways. 

But for as long as we cling to our familiar interpretation of all lens based imagery as a form of two dimensional photography we run the risk of missing what is actually happening in front of our eyes.  Using the framework of photography the world appears to still make sense, but it really shouldn’t because it’s much weirder than it seems.   I fear that with our informed embrace of the proud history of photography, photographers will in fact be the last people on the planet to recognise what’s actually happening with imagery in the 21st Century.  We’re really not in Kansas anymore.