Photo-genic Assemblages: Photography as a connective interface

Edgar Gómez Cruz, ‘Photo-genic Assemblages: Photography as a connective interface’, pp.228-242, in:

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

p.228

Photography, as we have understood it for more than a century, has radically changed and we are still in the process of those changes becoming stabilised.

The opening point of this chapter is that digital photography is shaping different ‘assemblages of visuality’ (see Wise 2013) from those of its photo-chemical predecessor.

I understand ‘assemblage’ following Latour’s (1990) ideas of a fixed arrangement between technologies, practices and discourses.

p.229

These new assemblages are still in the process of stabilization and this is important because, following Hand, image-making practices in the digital era had become a ‘compelling territory for understanding the dynamics of digital media and society.’ (2012, p.4)

It would probably be safe to affirm that, for many people, photography is a more commonly used function of the mobile phone than making a call, and it is equally safe to say that people are taking more photos with mobile phones than with other kinds of camera.

[…] vernacular uses of photo-technologies are incorporating practices that move away, not only from traditional uses of photography, but even from representational realms. Photography is increasingly being used as an interface, without even involving an image.

It has been clearly stated that we are no longer part of Kodak Culture (see Sarvas & Frohlich 2001). I want to take this argument further and propose that vernacular photography practices are increasingly becoming algorithmic and a source of metadata, while expanding their function as depictions and representations. At the same time, I want to show how this Kodak Culture, as one possible assemblage, reinforced the idea that photography always has to be a representation of something.

p.230

The Kodak culture — which is to say a set of practices, a business model and a set of technologies – was a specific stabilisation of photography that, I was a century later, has been disrupted due to digital practices.

[Gomez Cruz claims a ‘social constructivist position’]

p.231

[citing Hand; technologies become stabilised ‘in the result of a social process’]

These stabilisation are not necessarily permanent and, specifically in the case of photography, they could be understood as a pendulum movement, constantly swinging through cyclical changes, which comprise knowledge and technologies to afford and constrain certain practices (e.g. higher mobility due to smaller cameras, democratization of photography at the beginning of the twentieth century, when he introduction of film rolls replaced the need for knowledge about chemical processes, etc.)

[using concept of ‘stabilisation’]

This deconstruction of photography could aid an understanding of how digital technologies are forming new assemblages, rather than simply reconfiguring digital imagery as a ‘new’ version of the ’old’ photography.

pp.231-232

With the introduction of the Kodak camera and the creation of the amateur market for mass photography, different stabilisations formed assemblages there were reinforced through different practices and discourses.

p.232

Several dichotomies and divisions began to marriage, mutually excluding diverse photographic practices from each other: professional/amateur, photography/snapshots, scientific/vernacular, artistic/documentary, fashion/every day, etc.

The vernacular use of photography in everyday life, as a memory device, as a ‘souvenir’ of happy and important moments, shaped that Kodak Culture.

Photography was considered an assemblage that always generated images (Photographs) and these images the recipient of memory and projected a notion of social cohesion by virtue of what they depicted, namely special and unique happy moments in life.

As a practice, vernacular photography had clear codes, avoidances, constraints and uses that remained more or less stable for almost a century, and that were analysed, in depth, in studies of photography and everyday life.

What these new practices within digital technology seem to be achieving is the destabilisation of photography as it was understood in the Kodak culture.

Snapchat has become a successful app by understanding (and pushing) new assemblages of photography as a communicative device and not as a memory one.

p.233

The important argument here is that vernacular photography began to change its role, from recording memories to being a connective mechanism.

I want to take this argument further and move towards a reflection on the use of photographic technology in everyday life, beyond representation or detection. I suggest that it would be useful to understand the lens-based practices not only as photo-graphies, that as photo-interfaces.

p.234

One of the most important reference point for understanding photography as a technology (or a series of photo-technologies, to be more accurate) is the work of Patrick Maynard. In his book The Engine of Visualisation, Maynard also states that ‘almost all writing about photography in our own times tends to begin with the alleged nature of the product rather than with its production and use’.

What’s Maynard proposes, instead, is to focus on the photo-technologies and their relations processes, and not on the resulting ‘image’, since ‘in working towards an understanding of images and thereby photography in terms of display functions, we making a slightly stronger claim than that they have to be visible to do their jobs’.

The move from understanding photography as images/indexes to understanding it as a process for surface-making-detection is key, since, as Maynard suggests, ‘image’ refers to a certain kind of marked surface, and ‘imaging’ any method for producing it.

It is interesting to note that, in fact, the process described by Fox Talbert was called ‘photogenic drawing’. ‘Photogenic’, despite the current use of the word, literally means ‘produced or precipitated by light’,’photo-generated’ process. Images, therefore, were less important than the possibilities of this new technology of visualisation.

Understanding photography as a process and other technology freed us from thinking about the photographic image other semiotic unit and turns attention to the exploration of the possible processes based on ‘photogenic practices’.

p.236

The route to our ‘quantified self’ had its seed in an image of a QR code.

If we think about the common words we relate to photography, the QR code completely changes the game, since the camera on the phone did not take a photograph.

Taking a photograph of QR code shifts the agency in the encoding/decoding of the image from the user to the algorithm.

The result of this process is not a depiction based on a ‘real’ object, or even an image, it is a direct connection with a digital platform (a webpage, an app, etc) that does not resemble, in any way, what I was pointing my phone at and seeing through the viewfinder.

p.237

The photogenic capabilities of the camera phone, Chesher continues, emerged from research in different rounds(academic, military, commercial) into image analysis, face recognition and displays.

This means that photo-technologies or increasingly related to computational processes.

This way, this photogenic interface enables new forms of mediation, or translators, between information systems and people: face recognition software, scanners (with sign or a character recognition), images with GPS metadata, etc. This, inescapably, Has broader consequences for knowledge/power systems.

p.238

By understanding of photography as an assemblage of ‘surface-marking technologies’ we move away from a semiotic/indexical understanding of images and could increasingly relate everyday photography with other kinds, of image-processes, for example, scientific imagery.

p.239

[…] I suggest that we engage and understanding photo-technology is not only in relation to images, while, at the same time, we should not think about photographs in relation only to cameras. This seems to be the key point, to focus on the processes and technologies involved in the creation of images that generate agency that do not necessarily represent or detect anything.

I want to stress the two elements I consider key in this emerging agenda.

The first point is to know that a photograph is not necessarily reduced to mere depiction, and is increasingly inserted into a wider, more complex context, with different temporalities and elements (and this explains many of the current uses of photography in social media). The combination with text, links, mobilities and timing I know part of, or are constantly shape, the ‘image’, while sometimes the specific ‘code ‘ used to understand the image is shared only by a specific of people or technologies (as with x-rays, MRIs or art images).

The second element, the one that I have tried to develop in this chapter, is that photo-technologies are increasingly becoming translators (in a literal sense but also in a Latourian one) between material objects, databases, people, etc. This means they are not just representations.

p.240

This is a call to think more about photography as a sociotechnical practice and less about photography as images, representations and depictions.

Ultimately, photography has always been a photo-genetic assemblage with a series of consolidated meanings and practices. We are witnessing the rise of new ones and we should be trying to understand them.

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