Photographic Initiatives: The Initiative of Industrial Technology

Van Lier, Henri. Philosophy of Photography, Lieven Gevaert Series, 6, New ed. (Leuven: Univ. Press, 2007)

Part Two: Photographic Initiatives: I. The Initiative of Industrial Technology, pp.54-58

p.54

[…] the different technical combinations inflecting the photographic processes of each epoch are divided amongst the classical masters of the history of photography, each one of them pushing the technical possibilities available at that time to their extremes, just like ancient artists used to do. A photographer’s “photographic subject”, that is to say his systematic exploitation of particular perceptual field effects, is intricately bound to this choice, much in the same way a painter’s “pictorial subject” was bound to the props, pigments and media he had at his disposal.

p.55

However, a photographer does not depend on his apparatuses and his lenses in the same manner that Beethoven depended on his piano makers, who were few and lived close by. Someone using photography depends on a photographic technician who sees to thousands f individuals all over the world. who in their turn depend on a gigantic planetary processing, i.e. photography.

In fact, for every shot or zoom lens, for every film, developer or  fixative to be possible at a given moment in time, it is necessary that at least three conditions are met. Marketing engineers must be aware of the conscious and unconscious desires of a truly international market. Throughout the world, these desire, which often form technically incompatible combinations, must be supplied in compatible combinations whose elements are to be given form by either physical engineers for the lenses, or either chemists, for the film. The moment these combinations are known, their means of production must enter the harsh manufacturing and distributional competition governing the global market.

Of course singular developments might occur, as with Edwin H. Land, who was simultaneously the designer, producer and marketer of the Polaroid. However, even this case  presupposes a strong connection between the industrial and the scientific. Land was anything but an artisan. Photography places its users within a multi-dimensional and planetary technical network, putting the species to work so to speak.

This international process, defines a kind of homo photographicus. The latter undoubtably began as a realist. What mattered most was that photographic representations rendered things not as they physically behave, but as they appear to us after perceptual correction.

Especially in the West, man as technician, as well as technology are thus subordinated to man as user-consumer.

However, the position of a planetary homo photographicus also produced an inverse subordination, in which technology, changed by its own logic, modifies the perceptual and mental habits of human beings. An example of this concerns recent cartography, where one can see a photograph couple to a computer offering geographical and historical positions in curved space that are neither subjected to orthogonal arrangements, nor to realistic colours, nor to recognisable measuring standards. However we are not disturbed; instead we concentrate and treat it as obvious.

Crossing cultural barriers, the photograph, together with other planetary processes such as the computer, sound, the car and the plane, has therefore given birth to a more topological than geometric appropriation and understanding that activates mental schemas in an operative rather than conceptual or ideal fashion, where data processing is pivotal and where the real has precedence over reality and realism.

p.56

Anyone present at a convention of photographers, as if at an ancient Church Synod, could see members of this semi-fraternal and semi-aggressive movement passing around equipment from hand to hand, with everyone touching, weighing and handling it, not so much so as to discover what one already knows, but to participate in a ritual, a cult.

The camera is not an object. It is a relay in a process or network, just like his acoustic brother, the tape recorder. And the network, as Gilbert Simonden pointed out has become one of the places for the contemporary sacred.

In the information-noise and signs-indices of the Universe to which we are exposed, the unrestrained excess of man’s technical devices, or more precisely his technical environment, which is not merely a means, is more often than not the most pertinent to the system. Besides, what does one mean with pertinence when studying luminous, possibly indicial and possibly indexed imprints.

Thus, the photograph is one of three or four spaces – together with sound, lighting, the computer, the car, and the airplane – that manifests the true initiatory character of technology in our contemporary world. In this sense, photography is not only technical but technological.

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