On photographic field research and the retreat behind the monitor
In a general sense, one hears in theoretical reflection on photography that it seems as if everything has already been photographed, transformed into data, saved and archived. The project of photography has already been completed and has thus become superfluous: “one (must) think up something profoundly new in order to gain control of the situation, both from the perspective of the artist and from that of reception.”1
Since the beginnings of the digitalisation of photography, artistic strategies for transferring existing images into new contexts and revising them instead of creating new photographs have been increasingly elaborated. The current range of technical innovations invites one to use both external and own image archives to generate new images with the help of algorithmic calculations and software applications. However, there must be a haptic product at the end of the process, even if it is only a monitor, in order to be able to present the art context accordingly in exhibitions. In the course of the founding of the international artist group “darktaxa-projekt”, Michael Reisch examines hybrid image forms and artistic strategies between photo art and computer art as an artist and author. According to its self-description, the artist group works “at the interface of photography with new digital imaging processes, for example, with computer generated imagery (CGI), photogrammetry, digital photography and image processing, scanography, augmented reality, 3D printing, motion capture, artificial intelligence and other digital tools.”2 The photo camera is still used in the work process, for example, for the collection of archive material, but only provides the product of the end presentation in exceptional cases. Photographic information, or even simply digital recordings of physical movements, are medially transformed, copied and generated.
It can be observed that (established) artists are increasingly adopting an attitude that reflects on media and are discussing the mediality or materiality of photography in the digital transformation. Because the indexicality of photography is being increasingly contested and interpreted as being without reference, this results in many photographic projects that primarily demonstrate a technical focus and/or should be stylistically ascribed to abstraction. The digital image is seen as an “image without form. The materiality of the medial is demonstrated (in the analogue as) in the digital in abstraction”.3 The post-digital phase is also a phase of endless possibilities for value creation and explanations of concepts revolving around the digital. This includes the redefinition of the “photographic” as an experience from the photographic age, with which handed-down viewing habits (light/shadows/colour/contrast/grain/perspective/soft focus, etc.) have survived into the post-photographic. A seemingly photographic surface can in this way be presented as virtually or haptically experienceable without necessarily being a photograph. While it was the trend in the euphoric phase of digitalisation to interpret and receive contemporary photography as “picturesque/painterly” in order to, for example, establish works in the museum context, all digital or hybrid image forms are interpreted as “photographic” today.
A situation arises in which the photographic becomes “real” at the level of perception and “ambivalent” at the level of time, as the initial material can still only be defined on the basis of intensive explanation of the production chain. However, what does the loss of the camera or its position subordinate to the computer mean for photography? Photography is “false [ambivalent] at the level of perception and true at the level of time”4 was once the definition of Roland Barthes in the sense of handed-down, camera-based (documentary) photography. What risks lie in the reversal of the assumption and of the understanding of photographic images?
“The virtual image is a synthesis of light become matter. It is a visibility that takes place in its inherence and thus settles for simply being itself, without transcending the modems that control it in a numerical manner. This is why its clarity, its flow of liquid crystals no longer expects anything more from above. Its beauty doesn’t strive for the trace of an unobtainable, eternal (éternelle) form, but instead forks and hollows itself out in a cavity, the reflection of which would be, to use a word from Péguy, ‘internal’ (internelle).”5 (Jean-Clet Martin)
The sense in making a digital photo today mainly consists in the transfer of information using numbers in place of letters, but with the same possibilities for manipulation as with words and texts. Because of the manifold possibilities for manipulation, the digital photo graphic (computer graphics) can contain more fictional aspects than time traces. Virtually visualised projects, ideas and fictions may never be manifested in the world of life. They run the risk of remaining captured in an intermediate world. Some analogue photographs, on the other hand, remind us of something that was previously there (see Roland Barthes, 1989) – they become true at the level of time. The sense of analogue photography and of past analogue times existed in the fixing and presentation of the “seen” (image and time) using sensitive material and light, and as the result of a physical dependency. In contrast, digital images seem “photographic” when they are conceived of as such.
Our human curiosity to discover the world with the eyes of photography, to comprehend it anew and to gain a legible memory image that looks to the future is not changed by digitalisation. Our constantly changing memory for images is hybrid: autobiographical images mix with collective, chronological images – including with camera recordings. The photographic images develop their own power of imagination, which also results in memories becoming changeable and flexible. The result is images we have never seen and those we want to see: ideal images, dream images – visionary images.
Has everything already been photographed? Or is this a gesture of the exhaustion of established artists, who have grown tired of their own fully illuminated and exposed environment? A world that has come to a standstill over time in its self-referentiality and repetition of the established schemata and patterns of reflection? Does it still pay to once again venture beyond the artistic strategies taking place “face-to-screen” today, to embark on journeys of discovery in one’s own and in foreign milieus, in order to request an image of the other “face-to-face”6?
Projects of this kind also serve the purpose of comparing one’s own imaginings, the interior with the exterior world, and preserving an experience in the in-between. A change of perspective in the photographer can also take place in this way. Digital images become “photographic” when they originate from physical confrontation, when they approach the other in perspective. Achieving such a comparison of one’s own and the external milieu may remain an important aspect in the contemporary production of images.
Has everything already been photographed?
Nothing that approaches us or that we project into the future has already been photographed. We need to make a picture of the world and communicate our “world view(ing)s”. The processuality of the world, its constant change in form and substance are the only certainties; identities are constantly dissolving and drifting, or else struggle for persistence or resurrection. “We can’t step into the same river twice, because other waters continue to flow.” (Heraclitus) Each moment, each momentum disappears again immediately, and the observer also becomes the other viewer for other observers and for himself.
What we at present require more urgently than a “participation break”, as is in some cases conjectured in the current reception of art, is instead much more the creation of the socially and financially sustainable preconditions for being able to continue working with photography.
1 Michael Reisch interviewed by Florian Kuhlmann, http://www.darktaxa-project.net/theoretical/interview-florian-kuhlmann-michael-reisch/ status: accessed on 05.01.20
3 Schönegg, Kathrin: Fotografiegeschichte der Abstraktion. Verlag der Buchhandlung
Walther König, Köln, 2019, page 338
4 Barthes, Roland: Die helle Kammer, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a.M. 1989, page 126
5 Martin, Jean-Clet: Die Mauer des Bildes, in: Telenoia. Kritik der virtuellen Bilder, ed. by Elisabeth von Samsonow and Éric Alliez, Turia und Kant, Wien 1999, page 195
6 See Chapter 4.4: Verbliebene Kamera-Methoden der Interaktion (Face-to-Face), page 88; Wudtke, Birgit: Fotokunst in Zeiten der Digitalisierung. Künstlerische Strategien in der Digitalen und Postdigitalen Phase. transcript Verlag, Bielefeld 2016