Flusser, Vilém. “The Distribution of Photographs” pp.49-56 in Towards a Philosophy of Photography (London: Reaktion Books, 2005)
Nature as a whole is a system in which information disintegrates progressively according to the second law of thermodynamics. Human beings struggle against this natural entropy not only by receiving information but also storing and passing it on – (in this respect they differ from other forms of life) – and also by deliberately creating information.
This specifically human and at the same time unnatural ability is called ‘mind’, and culture is its result, i.e. improbably formed, informed objects.
The process of manipulating information – called ‘communication’ – is divided into two phases: In the first, information is created; in the second, it is distributed to memories in order to be stored there. The first phase is called ‘dialogue’, the second ‘discourse’.
The camera creates prototypes (negatives) from which as many stereotypes (copies) as one likes can be produced and distributed – in which case the concept of the original, in the case of the photograph, has scarcely any meaning anymore.
As long as the photograph is not yet electromagnetic, it remains the first of all post-industrial objects. Even though the last vestiges of materiality are attached to photographs, their value does not lie in the thing but in the information on their surface.
This is what characterizes the post-industrial: The information, and not the thing, is valuable. Issues of the ownership and distribution of objects (capitalism and socialism) are no longer valid, evading as they do the question of the programming and distribution of information (the information society).
Until photographs become electromagnetic, they are a connecting link between industrial objects and pure information.
In the case of the photograph [as opposed to objects like shoes or furniture], the information sits loosely on the surface and can easily be conveyed to another surface. To this extent, the photograph demonstrates the defeat of the material thing and of the concept of ‘ownership’. It is not the person who owns a photograph who has power but the person who created the information it conveys.
It is not the owner but the programmer of the information who is the powerful one: neo-imperialism. The poster is without value; nobody owns it, it flaps torn in the wind yet the power of the advertising agency remains undiminished nonetheless – the agency can reproduce it.
This obliges us to revalue our traditional, economic, political, moral, epistemological and aesthetic values.
Electromagnetic photographs, films and television images do not illustrate the devaluation of the material thing nearly as well as photographs attached to paper in the old-fashioned way.
In the case of classical photographs, there are still valuable bromide prints – even today the last vestiges of value attach to the ‘original photograph’ making it more valuable than a reproduction in a newspaper.
Like all apparatuses, the apparatuses of photograph distribution also have a program by which the program society to act as part of a feedback mechanism. Typical of this program is the division of photographs into various channels, their ‘channelling’.
In theory, information can be classified as follows: into indicative information of the type ‘A is A’, into imperative information of the type ‘A must be A’, and into optative information of the type ‘A may be A’. The classical ideal of the indicative is truth, that of the imperative is goodness, and that of the optative is beauty.
This theoretical classification cannot, however, be applied in practice […] nevertheless, the distribution apparatuses practise precisely this theoretical classification.
Thus there are channels for supposedly indicative photographs (e.g. scientific publications and reportage magazines), channels for supposedly imperative photographs (e.g. political and commercial advertising posters) and channels for supposedly artistic photographs (e.g. galleries and art journals).
Of course, the distribution channels also have borderline areas, in which a particular photograph can slip over from one channel to another. The photograph of the moon landing, for example, can slip from an astronomy journal to a US consulate, from there onto an advertising poster for cigarettes and from there finally into an art exhibition.
The essential thing is that the photograph, with each switch-over to another channel, takes on a new significance: The significance crosses over into the political, the political into the commercial, the commercial into the artistic.
In this respect, the division of photographs into channels is in no way simply a mechanical process but rather an encoding one: The distribution apparatuses impregnate the photograph with the decisive significance for its reception.
Photographers are involved in this encoding. Even at the time of taking photographs they have their eye on a specific channel of the distribution apparatuses and encode their images as a function of this channel.
The symbiosis, characteristic of taking photographs, between camera and photographer is mirrored in the channel.
For example: Photographers take photographs for a specific newspaper because the newspaper allows them to reach hundreds or thousands of receivers, and because they are being paid by the newspaper; in this, they act in the belief that they are using the newspaper as their medium. Meanwhile, the newspaper is of the opinion that it is using the photographs as an illustration of its articles in order to be able to program its readers, that accordingly photographers are functionaries of the newspaper apparatus. As photographers know that only those photographs that fit into the newspaper’s program will be published, they attempt to fool the newspaper’s censorship by surreptitiously smuggling aesthetic, political or epistemological elements into their image. The newspaper on the other hand may well discover these attempts to fool it and publish the photographs anyway because it thinks it can exploit the smuggled elements to enrich its program. And what is true for newspapers is also true for all other channels.
Every distributed photograph allows photography criticism to reconstruct the struggle between photographer and channel. It is precisely this that makes photographs into dramatic images.
It is positively disconcerting how often standard photography criticism does not read off from photographs this dramatic confusion of the photographer’s intention with the program of the channel. Photography criticism habitually takes it for granted that scientific channels distribute scientific photographs, political channels political photographs, artistic channels artistic photographs. In this respect, the critics function as a function of the channels: They allow them to vanish from the receiver’s field of vision. They ignore the fact that the channels determine the significance of the photographs, and thus they give support to the channels’ intention to be invisible. Seen in this light, the critics collaborate with the channels against the photographers wanting to fool the channels.
We are dealing here with a collaboration in the bad sense, a trahison des clercs, a contribution to the victory of the apparatus over the human being. This is characteristic of the situation of intellectuals in post-industrial society, in general. The critics, for example, ask questions such as ‘Is photography art?’ – as if these questions were not already being answered automatically by the channels concealing this automatic, programmed channelling and making it all the more effective.
In the light of standard photographic criticism, photographs get an uncritical reception and are therefore able to program the receiver to act as if they are under a magic spell; this action flows back in the form of feedback into the programs of the apparatus.