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Towards a Philosophy of Photography

I’ve just completed my first reading of  Towards a Philosophy of Photography by Vilém Flusser (1920-1991). It is a remarkable book, even more remarkable for that fact that it pre-dates digital photography (and other digital media to a large extent), and yet it seems to predict the impact of that technology on our culture.

It’s implications reach beyond photography, as Flusser himself suggests, ‘the photographic universe can serve as a model for post-industrial society as a whole and  … a philosophy of photography can be the starting point …’ (loc 868). For me, this is rooted in what Flusser describes as the power of the image to program human behaviour itself; for images to be read naively as a representation of reality itself and therefore symbolic of what should be acted out in reality (for example through advertising).

Flusser describes post-industrial society as one in which ‘work must be replaced by information’ and where the power lies not so much in the ownership of the means of production but in the ability to program and control apparatus (simulating thinking) that directs the production of goods and information (think Apple, who produce none of their own products). Similarly the camera has become the apparatus to produce technical images (taking away the work element of drawing or painting). It is a clever black-box, in which we cannot see the inner workings, but can control its output through the symbols provided on its controls. Flusser describes photographers in ‘a stalking … game of making combinations of time-and-space categories … making combinations with the [settings] of their camera’ (loc 371).

The camera itself is subject to programs of the manufacturer, with the photographer acted upon by those programs. The photographer ‘plays’ a camera, much like a musician, ‘plays’ an instrument to create an output. The camera can take over its operator (go to any famous landmark and observe the camera-phone selfies) in its greed for images, driving an obsession, and meanwhile just creating images that are redundant (contain no new information). As Flusser describes ‘they are not in charge of taking photographs, they are consumed by the greed of their camera,they have become an extension to the button of their camera. Their actions are automatic camera functions’ (loc 659).

The image or photograph has little intrinsic value – it can be infinitely reproduced – the power is with ‘the person who created the information it conveys’. Flusser argues that the photograph as ‘an immobile and silent surface’ has scarcely any meaning. It is the channels through which it is communicated that convey meaning and it is possible for a photograph to switch between different channels (eg documentary to art) and for the intention of the photographer to be lost. The channels help to ‘encode’ the photograph with meaning.

Flusser discusses how people receive photographs as ‘objects without value that everyone can produce’, without appreciating that we are ‘manipulated … and programmed to act in a ritual fashion’. Rather sinisterly, that they ‘suppress critical awareness’, within a kind of magic circle.

So what then is should the photographer do to escape the magic circle, the flood of images that are mostly produced mindlessly each and every day in the digital world? As Flusser states ‘we have become accustomed to visual pollution; it passes through our eyes and our consciousness without being noticed.’ (loc 750). It is here this that Flusser states that his philosophy will ‘expose this struggle between human being and apparatus’ and help photographers find an answer.

Flusser states that photographers who are conscious of the basic problems of ‘image’, ‘apparatus’, ‘program’, and ‘information’ can create images that are not redundant:

… one can outwit the camera’s rigidity … smuggle intentions into its program that are not predicted by it … force the camera to create the unpredictable … show contempt for the camera … in order to concentrate on information. In short: Freedom is the strategy of making chance and necessity subordinate to human intention. Freedom is playing against the camera.

References

Flusser V (1983). Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Kindle Edition. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

Goldsmith K (2015). It’s a Mistake to Mistake Content for Content. 14 July. Los Angeles Review of Books [online]. Available from: https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/its-a-mistake-to-mistake-content-for-content [accessed 30.12.15]

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