Is the camera an extension of the photographer?

Martin Lister, ‘Is the camera an extension of the photographer?’, pp.267-272, in:

Gómez Cruz, E., Lehmuskallio, A. (Eds.), 2016. Digital photography and everyday life: empirical studies on material visual practices. Routledge, London; New York.

p.267

The act of finding meaning in the photograph is, of course, to engage photography as representation. This, in turn (if it is not to be an innocent reading), inevitably entails a measure of academic discipline and methodology: the semiological scrutiny of images treated as texts, with the aim of revealing or interpreting the meanings included within them.

With regard to photography, this is a developed practice that, over the last 30 years or so, became almost synonymous with photography theory.

Now the ongoing convergence of photography with computing and the rapid development of photography as a networked and computational medium have rendered photography radically more transient, relational, dynamic and polymorphous; we have witnessed a kind of supercharging of what it already was!

This sheer degree of this change has rendered the analysis of singular images as discrete artefacts as largely inappropriate; the object of theory has changed.

This transformation in photography has been accompanied by a turn, in theory, to what has been called ‘non-representational’ or, better (if less common), ‘more than representational’ theory. This is a term that points to a diverse, unsettled (and deliberately unsettling) cluster of approaches to the study of social life and cultural practice, which has been developing for quite some time.

p.268

The goal of non-representational theory is to shift attention away from the decoding and revelation of the meanings that we take to inhere in representations, and towards the noise, habit, impulse, emotion and unruly activity that surrounds and exceeds them.

For their non-representational list, the world understood as meaningful text, as representation, is a conservative and restricted view and is replaced by a sense of its material and phenomenological richness. Such approaches are interested, therefore, in the embodied and material practices of human social actors and the traffic with non-human things and the physical environments in which they move and meet.

With photography is concerned, this is a challenging project. It asks us to shift attention away from its products – so photographs – and the attention we have traditionally paid to them, to its practices or, as nonrepresentational theorists like to say, to it’s ‘doings’.

[however…]

Radical shifts in photography and photographs, on many levels, do not mean that, with respect to some photographs at least, reading an image as a text cannot still be useful, cannot be ‘telling’.

[Ref Andreas Feininger’s image ‘The Photojournalist’ 1951]

Feininger’s image offers us a certain concept of technology: the anthropological concept of the tool. The camera is pictured as a hand-tool that extends the photographer’s body and its sensorium much in the way that a hammer, a screwdriver or a knife, seem to extend the body. Extensions are then held to amplify and refine the bodies capacities and, in doing so, they facilitate a human subject’s power and intention.

Understood in this way, tools and wielded, they are under the control and direction of human subjects. Throughout the twentieth century, the photographic camera, along with the microscope and the telescope, was a paradigm for understanding technologies as extensions of the body, in particular, as extensions of the human eye.

pp.268-269

In the era of analogue photography, photographers used their cameras. They controlled the work that they did. At the professional and serious amateur end of the spectrum of practice, this was achieved through a true mastery and coordination of a number of factors: principally focus, shutter speed, aperture and depth of field.

p.269

Further, the photographer’s choice of film type (what we can now understand, retrospectively, as the analogue cameras ‘software’) and the manner of its chemical development and printing, gave control of other factors such as tonal contrast, grain, detail and colour.

At the level of consumer and snapshot photography, these processes were simplified and automated via a set of simple controls, whose functions were usually announced by small icons on the camera’s body.

pp.269-270

Here, as has been frequently observed, commenced the ‘black boxing’ and rendering invisible of photographic technology, a process that has developed exponentially as cameras have become software machines.

p.270

Whilst it was already common, from at least the mid-twentieth century onwards, to think of the photograph as a captured ‘moment’ in time, as something produced in seconds or fractions of seconds, this applied only to the moment of exposure. The full temporal and spatial extent of the analogue photographic process could be considerable, entailing dedicated buildings (darkrooms, laboratories, print shops) and the time and means to travel between these places, across which the division of photographic labour was distributed.

However, when in use, the analogue camera was far from inert: it shaped how the photographer saw the world and how they were positioned to look.

Here, human vision is channelled or funnelled and the otherwise mobile and saccadic field of view of the human eye is framed and fixed, it is restricted by the hard metallic edges of the viewfinder’s window and it is supplied with a perspectival image constructed by the lens.

By these means, the use of a viewfinder also established the distance between the viewer and what or whom they looked at.

Scopic power is involved here, as the distance is not only perspectival and optical, it is also physical and psychological. The photographer is set back ‘behind the camera’ and apart from the world they photograph. A corollary of this distance is a license for presumed authority to look or gaze at others in an unflinching manner that is hardly possible with the unaided eye.

When considering contemporary forms of the camera (the digital camera and the camera phone), Feininger’s image of the mid-twentieth century photojournalist ceases to be so instructive.

pp.270-271

Photographers now view the world on the LCD screens occupy the full width and height of the camera’s slim body, held, with extended arms, away from the photographer’s body.

p.271

As this week and scan the environment (the pro-filmic space) the digital photographer watches the world becoming an image, or one image after another, on the camera’s mobile screen.

Rather than being distanced or place outside them, it is likely that the digital photographer Will be close to the centre of the events and activities they photograph. Where the viewfinder once conferred a privilege separation on the photographer, the digital screen is likely to prompt a fair degree of social exchange between photographer and photographed, which takes place around the very act of photographing. Moreover, on the same screen, the photographer, and those photographed, can view an almost instantaneous ‘playback’ of whichever image was chosen. In short, the choosing or conception, the exposure, the storing, and the display an initial reception of an image, all take place within the digital camera.

These capacities of the digital camera mean that it is no longer a discrete tool, passively waiting its utilisation by a photographer. The camera has become a computer – a computer with sensors – and an element, if the key one, within an extended system of connected technologies.

Digital technologies, generally, have become pervasive and embedded in the physical environment we inhabit.

Contemporary cameras, whether in the form of the camera phone or as freestanding digital cameras with wireless connections, exist as devices within the communications network. This network is always active, it is always ‘on ‘.

The images that enter this network via such cameras do not follow a linear path: they can be in many places and contexts simultaneously. The singular capture of a latent image in the old ‘camera tool’, and its subsequent path through the dedicated places and institutions of materialisation, distribution and reception, given way to a process driven and managed online by software. Further, such software does not only dwell within the new cameras themselves, but also within the other computers and online sites to which there are connected and where images are stored, organised and processed.

p.272

Within this field, the notion that one agents might simply extend another no longer holds. In his thoughts on the current relationship of cameras to software, Daniel Palmer suggests that the “creative act (of photography) no longer belongs to the photographer alone, if it ever did, but is deferred to software and increasingly collaborative possibilities (both human and non-human)’, and this means that ‘the traditional role of individual human agency in photography is changing’.

In light of the observations made above, that is, when thinking about digital networked photography, the cyborgian play in Feininger’s image, between the body and the machine, between a photographer and a camera, begins to imply something less clear-cut and one-directional than my initial reading suggested. It prompts us to invert our title and to consider that the photographer may become an actor positioned within a dispersed field of non-human agents, to which intelligent and networked cameras give access.

In this light, and if the concept of ‘extension’ is to continue to serve us, we might need to say that, rather than the camera extending the photographer, the photographer has become an extension of the camera.

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