The Image as a Networked Interface

Yael Eylat Van-Essen, ‘The Image as a Networked Interface: The Textualization of the Photographic Image’, pp.259, in:

Rubenstein, D., Golding, J., Fisher, A., 2013. On the verge of photography: imaging beyond representation. Article Press, Birmingham, UK.

Mitchell proposes relating to pictures as to living entities with needs, which we should try to relate to on their own terms.


The suggestion that we attribute a subjectivity of their own to living images, as opposed to examining them according to the meanings they create, can be seen as sequential to thought rooted in the theories of Nietzsche and Heidegger, and later, in the works of other theoreticians such as Gilles Deleuze and Jean-Luc Nancy, who sought to relate to a work of art using the question of its “being”.The image, according to them, has its own being that is not derived from the object it represents. It is not a copy or an imitation of something external to it; it is an autonomous entity in its own right.

But at the same time, the existence of the image is always linked to the fact that it is observed by an external subject. The visibility of the image is inherent in its unique visuality and is embedded in the ways it is looked at.

I will present the “life” of the photographic image in the context of perceiving it as an entity existing in a network in which economic, political, cultural and social factors largely influence its visibility. I will show, how in different contexts, photographic images become interfaces for a wide range of information, much wider than presented on their surfaces.

The living mechanism of the photograph in the digital age is essentially linked to procedures of textualization derived from the unique characteristics of photography’s new apparatuses and from the mechanisms of making those photographs visible.

[On a memed image of Netanyahu] The new means of image distribution led to dozens, if not more, of satirical meme versions of the original photo shortly after it was published. They were distributed using social networks, smart phones and email. The consumer of images having access to relevant databases strengthens the potential possibility to implement what is referred to by Roland Barthes as the recalcitrant and antiauthoritarian nature embedded in them.


For Mitchell, the image always precedes the word, evading complete explanation and often ascribing an idea or a concept before existing vocabulary is able to contain it and create any kind of expression in language for the image.
The implicit text in the original photograph could be seen as constituting a kind of direct translation, whereas the transformation of the photograph to meme images can be read as an attempt to shift the mechanism of translation from dealing with the representative aspect of the photograph with the various components presented in it, to dealing with the meanings derived from the photographic syntax which is being used.
The dialogue which is created in the back-and-forth movement formed between the meme image and the source images can also be viewed on the basis of an important distinction indicated by Rosalind Kraus in her article ‘Photography’s Discursive Spaces’. The article demonstrates how the same image, which was photographed at Pyramid Lake in Nevada, functions at first appearance as a photographic model of quiet and mysterious beauty, while its lithographic copy appears as a formalistic representation lacking inspiration. Kraus argues that the reason for this lies in the fact that the two images serve different purposes, and thus, they represent two different discursive regimes.
[…] it is important to note that a central and significant component in the “living” mechanisms of the photograph, which constitute the basis of the cited memes, is their availability on the Internet and on web-based and cellular platforms of distribution. The availability of images on the basis of which the memes were prepared, and the speed of their creation and distribution, constitutes a significant element in their viral character and contributes to the variety of versions which developed from the source photograph.
If Mitchell relates to the conditions of image existence, we could say that time becomes an essential component in the life of an image. Photographic images have never functioned in empty space, but the age of Internet and cellular devices has enabled minimal reaction time from the moment of image reception to its distribution in its renewed version, and this affects the character of the dialogue between the creators of images and their recipients, who are able to devise a variety of interpretations of the photographed text.
In his book The Language of New Media Manovich points to the parallel development of media technologies, starting with photography, and progressing to information technologies based on computerized systems. As these technologies maturate, they converge into a single technology via the computer. Manovich marks two central points in time for this linkage.
The first dates from the 1830s with the invention of photography and Babbage’s development of the analytical engine. The second marks the invention of the motion picture in the 1890s, only a few years after Hollerith’s data processing machine was built and used by the American government for a population census. The linkage between these technologies today is reflected not only in technological devices that can perform both functions simultaneously, but rather in their integration, as embodied in various new Google applications.
The creations of photography-based databases are at the core of Google’s current activity. The firm, which started off writing algorithms for textual search engines in the virtual world, has become a company deeply invested in developing and producing photographic techniques and practices in the actual world.
The “vision machines” built by Google over the last few years distinctly exemplify the assertion made by Vilém Flusser. As early as the 1980s, Flusser rejected the perception of the act of photographing as representation, and instead argued that it was a conceptual action which essentially consisted of decoding and re-encoding reality.
Its purpose is to influence the way we perceive the world, by enabling the creation of images that relate to reality, within the predetermined norms and parameters and the possible permutations.
Flusser’s perception of the semiotics // of photography, more than creating “traces” of what is real, defines the processing achieved with the apparatus, in whose framework the translation of the visual phenomenon into signs takes place.
Analyzing the new Google photographic apparatuses, it can be argued that these apparatuses – by photographing and representing space – reconstruct this space and create visions of second, third and fourth order that mediate and influence the way it is represented: the driverless cars that are equipped with automatic vision mechanisms; the multiple camera “photographic machines” that enable 360 degrees of vision; software that integrates photographs taken by different cameras; and a set of symbols and textual representation for navigating in the photographed space that interfaces with other visual and textual representation systems of the same space, and with Google’s general database.
In this context, photographic images do not function autonomously, but rather constitute an integral part of one reservoir of data in which the text and the image function as different levels within a complex structure of data.
Walter Benjamin was one of the first to assume a theoretical foundation for the photographic medium, in the first half of the twentieth century. In many ways, his approach to translation may be considered a basis for the analysis of the relations between the photographic image and text, as they are manifested in the realm of new technologies of photography and information.
The photograph, argued Benjamin, needs a text to accompany it. The relation between them could be limited to that of similarity but, as with a translation between one language and another, it should not necessarily aspire to this.
It is not necessary for the text to decode the photograph and to transmit what it is saying. That could harm the “deliverability” of the photograph. The role of the text is rather to “broaden” the source in a way that will not supply ready-made interpretations accompanying its appearance and its distribution.
This determination by Benjamin should be seen in relation to his general argument with regard to photography. In his view, what makes this medium so meaningful is not a unique result of the technical procedures on which it is constructed but rather of the historical, political, social and legal circumstances in which it was created.
In digital photographic platforms, textual information is automatically embedded in every photograph saved on the memory card of the camera, and this constitutes an inseparable component of the Exchangeable image file format (Exif) photo data.
[ref metadata and tagging]
Textual information of the picture is of great significance to the way in which this image is “located” in the databases and in the contexts constructed as a result between the picture and the additional components of the database. However, no less importantly, it also constitutes a central element in the ability of the photograph to be retrieved after its insertion in the database and the resulting future contexts which may be produced with regard to it.
Google’s search engine is built according to a certain network structurality, on which a website’s connectivity level is based. There is not necessarily a connection between a site’s visibility and its cultural relevance or values. What gives specific websites preference over others often depends to a large extent on economic and political factors.
Jacques Rancière points to the connection between visibility and politics. He offers tools of thought to deal with the modified meaning of the photographic act in an era of significant change regarding the visibility of images. Relating to aesthetic space, he argues that nowadays when discussing an image, one cannot relate only to the mechanisms with which an individual spectator perceives it, but should examine it in a much wider context, derived from the new means of image creation, distribution, preservation and accessibility.
In my opinion, phenomena like Instagram can be explained in an analogy to Žižek’s claim that the return to the real by means of its virtualization constitutes the loss of touch with the real. Instagram’s popularity can arguably be seen, inter alia, as a reaction to the phenomenon of image textualization becoming rooted in an age of networked databases. The communicative act in Instagram is essentially based on images (despite its tagging attributions), but at the same time it produces visual manipulation that can be perceived as another text.