Hybridity: The reverse of photographic medium specificity?

Jan Baetens and Heidi Peeters, 2007. Hybridity: The reverse of photographic medium specificity? History of Photography 31, 3–10. https://doi.org/10.1080/03087298.2007.10443497


Is photography a hybrid medium? And has it, to some extent, a ‘medium specificity’?

A double affirmative answer to the double question of hybridity and medium specificity seems today a contradiction in terms.


In most current scholarship in the field, the notion of medium specificity is strongly rejected, for reasons that we will discuss in detail, while the notion of hybridity is usually taken for granted, at least in our contemporary, postmodern culture. Of course, hybridity has not always been the popular option. In some periods, it was, on the contrary, the notion of medium specificity that held most critical approval (the example of Alfred Stieglitz’s straight photography comes readily to mind).

Yet, if today the critical and theoretical interest in medium specificity has been fading away, this rejection has less to do with the growing importance of hybrid or complex media than with a fundamental critique of the essentialist and teleological underpinnings of the traditional medium specificity theory. Following this traditional approach, each medium possesses its own, ideal (and idealized) specificity, and the goal of each serious artist ought to be to respect this Platonic essence (in the case of Lessing, this takes the form of a series of very pragmatic prescriptions and many clever suggestions on how to by-pass some difficulties; in the case of the much more radical Greenberg, the vision is puritan).

A second aspect of the rejection of medium specificity has to do with technology, more precisely with the rise of digital culture. The computer screen is considered the ‘super-‘ or ‘supra-medium’ capable of combining all types of signs, and the underlying digital code of bits and bytes is praised for superseding the immemorial differences between words, sounds and images.

The fact that this integrating movement is far from being new, but continues and ameliorates previous attempts to combine media (think of the simultaneous printing of texts and photographs thanks to the halftone technique or the integration of the accompanying sounds in the film’s sound track), brings further evidence of the evaporation of medium specificity.


Due to the influence of cultural studies (and later women’s studies, postcolonial studies and queer studies), the very search for medium specificity, which had been ‘translated’ by Greenberg and others in terms of purity and essence, has acquired a politically quite incorrect status. Conversely, the pursuit of medium hybridity has been awarded a political premium and a theoretical passport without too many serious discussions. Every Zeitgeist is made up of this type of metaphorical weaving and cross-over, yet it is important to realize that these metaphors may have significant practical consequences, for artists as well as for critics and theoreticians.

A theoretically developed (and very astute) debunking of medium specificity has been elaborated by Noel Carroll, who argues that medium specific thinking is suffering from a double handicap: tautology and circularity (a medium is good in what it is able to do and does not perform correctly what it is unable to do etc.).


In addition to the fact that the idea of a universal digital code of ones and zeroes is far from being implemented in similar environments and frameworks (if this were the case, there would be no problems of exchanging data between Apple and PC or with the upgrading of systems, to give some very simple examples), the very belief that our newest computers are already capable of surmounting the word and image boundary should still be qualified as wishful thinking, if not as a myth.

[…] it is important to observe that the systematic and a priori praise of hybridity seems to have encountered its own limits.

Whereas hybridity was in the beginning strongly valorized as one of the short-cuts of and to multiculturalism (specificity, that flagship of Essentialism, being the villain of the story), critical theorists like Fredric Jameson and Rosalind Krauss have linked it to the dominant features of postmodern consumerism.

Conversely, it is now medium specificity-as rediscovered through the anachrononistic approach of those reluctant to celebrate uncritically the generalised and total hybridity of the post-medium age-that acquires the aura of resisting late capitalism and consumerism.


If a new and open approach to medium-specificity, one that integrates hybridization as one of its characteristics, is possible, one may wonder how such a shift affects photography.

Today, however, the increasing institutionalization of photography seems to give this medium (the oldest of the new media, as is regularly claimed) a new actuality and a pilot function in recent discussions on hybridity and specificity.

In no other medium has the transition from analogous to digital recording produced such a dramatic self-interrogation of the specific markers and meaning of a medium. In the case of photography, the shock of the digital has been felt much more sharply than in the case of cinema, where the dominant status of the index in our thinking of the mechanical image had been challenged from the very beginning by the split between two ways of film-making: the ‘documentary’ way of Louis Lumiere (1862-1948) and the ‘imaginary’ way of Georges MeIies (1861-1938).


Whereas digital technology was considered mainly in terms of expansion of film’s possibilities, the first reflections on digital photography tended to present // it, often within the framework of ethically burdened vocabulary, as the end of photography.


[…] new ways of thinking photographic medium specificity will no longer have to draw boundaries between ‘real’ (and therefore ‘good’) and ‘impure’ (and therefore ‘bad’) photography, i.e. between ‘photographical photography’ and ‘painting photographically’, but historicize the reasons that push photography in either direction in order to lay bare the specific ways in which the medium is dealing with questions of hybridization.

Instead of focusing primarily on the complex relationships between photography and painting, it would be enriching to. examine, in the same perspective, the mixing of words and images. Although this topic has been studied from the very beginning of photography critique and theory, an appropriate perception of the encounter of the verbal and the visual has been hampered by a certain unawareness of its very necessity.

Mixed genres such as photo-novellas or photo-essays are exactly that: ‘mixed’ genres, genres not belonging to the very core of the photographic medium. Most of the time, our current reprint and dissemination practices of the photographic medium, which tend to isolate the image from the text and often to keep only the former at the expense of the latter, dramatically increase the illusion of the photograph’s autonomy.

Thanks to the scholarship of Carole Armstrong and Martha A. Sandweiss, for example, we do finally realize that the use of photography in the nineteenth century can only be understood as an entanglement of words, images, practices and performances.

Yet what matters here is to avoid the rapid conclusion that this systematic hybridity precludes critical thinking on photography’s specificity: the very fact that there are no lOO% ‘pure’ media does not mean at all that media cannot be specific.


Clearly indebted to the Roland Barthes of Camera Lucida, although avoiding the ‘subjective turn’ of this model, Henri Van Lier does not reject his structuralist heritage but reframes it from a historical and multidisciplinary viewpoint which he calls ‘anthropogenic’ .

For Van Lier, the specificity of the medium is both hybrid and mobile. It is hybrid, since it cannot be detached from the network in which it emerges and which entails both human and nonhuman actors (to use here Bruno Latour’s ‘actor network’ terminology): technology is paramount here, but also the creative input of the artist; technology enables the artist not just to discover but to invent new modes and forms of photography, and conversely this creative input helps foster technological development.

It is also mobile, first because it is not initially given (specific uses of a medium have to be found by practice, and although this practice has certainly an interest in being supported by a theory, no theoretical stance can predict exactly the outcome of a creative process), second because it is permanently challenged by shifts and transformations in the environment (new technologies, new competitors, new cultural and scientific impulses, and so on). Yet this mobility is never absolute: no one can escape the times and the culture one lives in. Hence the historical turn adopted by Van Lier in his thinking on medium specificity: photography is not defined once and for all and then progressively laid bare, it ceaselessly sprouts within the hybrid networks that make it possible.


The critique of Greenbergian formalism should therefore reintroduce reflections on subject matter in medium specificity. Van Lier has clearly been a forerunner in this regard, since he is very explicit in including the subject matter in his definition of photographic specificity.

The basic idea of these [second birth] theories, defended both from a technological and a art-historical point of view, has institutional rather than formal or semiotic underpinnings: new media, it is argued, do not arrive in a neutral environment, but have to cope with existing media, media uses, media expectations, etc., and can only find their niche by adapting themselves to that environment, for instance by censoring what is radically new in them, by hiding this newness, or by implementing older forms and practices in their own framework, so that the very specificity of each new medium can only be displayed after a period of institutional uncertainties and mutual reshaping.

Contrary to these ‘second birth’ theories, the ideas of Van Lier would emphasize the possibility of a permanent revolution (although the term ‘revolution’ bears connotations that Van Lier would probably discard as being too emphatic).

If Van Lier’s vision brings in valuable arguments to start thinking afresh about photographic medium specificity, there are also two major flaws or blank spots, which will need careful consideration at the moment of implementing these ideas in concrete analyses. The first problem is the persistent influence of the ‘great artist’, which gives Van Lier’s thinking a romantic twist at odds with more recent ways of practising history.

The second problem is the relative neglect of the verbal, textual, and discursive elements that surround photography in general and most photographs in particular. In the case of Van Lier, this stance can certainly be explained by the longtime distrust of linguistic control of images.