The Photograph as Post-Industrial Object

Vilém Flusser. ‘The Photograph as Post-Industrial Object: An Essay on the Ontological Standing of Photographs’ Leonardo, 19:4, 329-332, 1986


The Latin term ‘objectum’ and its Greek equivalent ‘problema’ mean ‘thrown against’, which implies that there is something against which the object is thrown: a ‘subject’. As subjects, we face a universe of objects, of problems, which are somehow hurled against us. This opposition is dynamic. The objects approach the subject, they come from the future into the subject’s presence.

The shock between subject and object occurs over the abyss of alienation which separates the two. The present tendency is to relegate this shock from human subjects to automatic apparatus. Automatic cameras may serve as an example.

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Beyond Machines (but Still within the Phenomenology of Gestures)

Vilém Flusser, “Beyond Machines (but Still within the Phenomenology of Gestures)”, pp.10-18, in:
Flusser, V., 2014. Gestures. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
During its first phase (antiquity and the Middle Ages), history emphasizes the way the world should be; that is, people work to realize a value—ethical, political, religious, practical, in short, “in good faith.”
During its second phase (modernity), it emphasizes the discovery of being in the world; that is, people work epistemologically, scientifically, experimentally, and theoretically, in short, “without faith.”

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What is an apparatus?

Georgio Agamben, ‘What is an apparatus?’, pp.1-24, in:
Agamben, G., 2009. “What is an apparatus?” and other essays. Stanford University Press, Stanford, Calif.


I wish to propose to you nothing less than a general and massive partitioning of being into two large groups or classes: on the one hand, living beings (or substances), and on the other, apparatuses in which living beings are incessantly captured. On one side, then, to return to the terminology of the theologians, lighting ontology of creatures, and on the other side, the oikonomia of apparatuses that seek to govern and guide them towards the good.

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The One-Eyed Man and the One-Armed Man: Camera, Culture, and the State

John Tagg, ‘The One-Eyed Man and the One-Armed Man: Camera, Culture, and the State’, pp.1-49, in:
Tagg, J., 2009. The disciplinary frame: photographic truths and the capture of meaning. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.


This carefully constructed room has an old name. It is a camera. A room, but a room with a purpose: the training of light, graphing it—quite literally, photo-graphing, subjecting light to the punctual rule of the room’s inbuilt geometrical law.

The camera is, then, a place to isolate and discipline light, like a room in Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. And, like that room in the Panopticon, the cell of the camera has its utility both as a training machine and as a device for producing and preserving text.

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Technical Mentality

Gilbert Simondon, ‘Technical Materiality’ (previously unpublished essay), pp.1–15, in:

De Boever, A., Simondon, G. (Eds.), 2013. Gilbert Simondon: being and technology. Edinburgh Univ. Press, Edinburgh.
Leaving Antiquity aside, technology has already yielded in at least two ways, schemas of intelligibility that are endowed with a latent power of universality: namely in the form of the Cartesian mechanism and of cybernetic theory.

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The Camera That Ate Itself

Matthew Fuller, ‘The Camera That Ate Itself’, 55-85 in:

Fuller, M., 2007. Media ecologies: materialist energies in art and technoculture, 1st MIT Press paperback edition. ed, Leonardo. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England.


This persistent whimsy that labor-saving technology will of itself release people into a helter-skelter world of self-determined fun is less a theory than a suburban myth.

Nevertheless, Flusser’s Towards a Philosophy of Photography insists we play along. Having been liberated from the necessity, if not from the compulsion, to work, people are available for play.

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Retentional Economy

Bernard Steigler, ‘Retentional Economy’, pp.8-13, in:
Stiegler, B., Ross, D., 2010. For a new critique of political economy. Polity, Cambridge.

In 2001 I argued […] for a new critique: for a critique addressing the question of tertiary retention, that is, the question of mnemotechnics – and in more general terms addressing the question of technics which, qua materialization of experience, always constitutes a spatialization of the time of consciousness beyond consciousness and. therefore, constitutes an unconsciousness, if not the unconscious.

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The Burden of Representation

Tagg, John (1988) The Burden of Representation.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan.


Yet the daguerreotype survived, at least until the introduction of carte-de-visite photographs, patented by Disderi in France in 1854. Carte-de-visite photographs were paper prints from glass negatives, mounted on card and produced by use of a special camera with several lenses and a moving plate holder. With such a camera, eight or more images could be taken on one plate and the prints from it cut up to size. Since unskilled labour could be used for many of the operations involved, the productivity of the operator and printer could be increased virtually eightfold. The basis was laid for a mass production system in which the actual photographer was no more than a labourer.


The extreme development of the socio-technical division of labour has produced a multiform ensemble of experts and technicians – including all kinds of photographers – who have direct and localised relations with particular domains of knowledge and particular institutions, who have an intimate familiarity with the specific constraints which hold there, and who are therefore capable of locating and marking the weak points, the openings, the lines of force.


From its very beginning, the history of photography had been the history of an industry. The impetus for its development came from a vast expansion of the market for reproductions – especially portraits – which both necessitated and depended on a mechanisation of production which could guarantee the cheapness and availability of the images but also, so it seemed, their ‘authenticness’. Its subsequent growth was that of an arena of enterprise ripe for entrepreneurial exploitation, driven by needs alternatively manufactured and supplied by an unlimited flow of commodities. It was, in short, a model of capitalist expansion.


We have seen how the production of still photographs was already by the 1880s subject to an elaborate division of labour controlled by entrepreneurs like Nadar who, on returning to photographic portraiture in the changed economic conditions of the last quarter of the century, took control of an extensive photographic business even though he did little more than receive sitters into the studio and direct the setting of poses.


Photography as such has no identity. Its status as a technology varies with the power relations which invest it. Its nature as a practice depends on the institutions and agents which define it and set it to work. Its function as a mode of cultural production is tied to definite conditions of existence and its products are legible and meaningful only within the particular currencies they have. Its history ~as n.o unity. It is a flickering across a field of institutional spaces. It is this field we must study, not photography as such. 


Photographies (the word does not sit happily in the plural) are discursive practices and, as Foucault has stressed: “Discursive practices are not purely and simply ways of producing discourse. They are embodied in technical processes, in institutions, in patterns for general behaviour, in forms for transmission and diffusion, and in pedagogical forms which, at once, impose and maintain them.”  For this reason, one cannot ‘use’ photography as an unproblematic ‘source’. Photography does not transmit a pre-existent reality which is already meaningful in itself. As with any other discursive system, the question we must ask is not, ‘What does this discourse reveal of something else?’,but, ‘what does it do; what are its conditions of existence’ how does it inflect its context rather than reflect it; how does it animate meaning rather than discover it; where must we be positioned to accept it as real or true; and what are the consequences of doing so? 119


Photographs and photographic practice appear as essential ingredients in so many social rituals – from customs checks to wedding ceremonies, from the public committal of judicial evidence to the private receipt of sexual pleasure – that it has become difficult to imagine what such rituals were like and how they could be conducted before photographs became widely available. It is difficult precisely because the internal stability of a society is preserved at one level through the naturalisation of beliefs and practices which are, on the contrary, historically produced and historically specific. It is in this light that we must see photographs and the various practices of photography.


Photography is a mode of production consuming raw materials, refining its instruments, reproducing the skills and submissiveness of its labour force, and pouring on to the market a prodigious quantity of commodities. By this mode of production it constitutes images or representations, consuming the world of sight as its raw material. These take their place among and within those more or less coherent systems of ideas and representations in which the thought of individuals and social groups is contained and through which is procured the reproduction of submissive labour power and acquiescence to the system of relations within which production takes place. In this sense, while it is also used as a tool in the major educational, cultural and communications apparatuses, photography is itself an apparatus of ideological control under the central ‘harmonising’ authority of the ideology of the class which, openly or through alliance, holds state power and wields the state apparatus. 


The point to which I want to return and lend real emphasis is that when we deal with photography as ideology we are not dealing with something ‘outside’ reality: a looking-glass world related to the real world by laws of reflection and reversal. According to Althusser, ‘An ideology always exists in an apparatus, and its practice, or practices. This existence is material.’ ‘Therefore,’ as Pierre Macherey has argued, ‘to study the ideology of a society is not to analyse the system of ideas, thoughts and representations (the “history of ideas” approach). It is to study the material operation of ideological apparatuses – to which correspond a certain number of specific practices.’


The photographer turns his or her camera on a world of objects already constructed as a world of uses, values and meanings, though in the perceptual process these may not appear as such but only as qualities discerned in a ‘natural’ recognition of ‘what is there’. By more or less conscious adjustment of an infinite field of significant determinations ranging from the arrangement and lighting of this ‘world of objects’ to the mechanics and field of view of the camera and the sensitivity of the film, paper and chemicals, the photographer abstracts from the distribution of reflected light from the objects to procure a pattern of light and dark on paper which can in no way be regarded as a replication of the ‘given’ subject. This pattern on paper is, in turn, the object of a perception – or reading – in which it is constituted as a meaningful image according to learned schemas.


From this point of view, ideology will be seen as a mode of accommodation between the regime of truth and the domain of prohibited desires, whose effectivity lies in the manner in which it can bring both into play: on the one hand, naturalising the regime of truth and, on the other, ameliorating the disruptive effects of desire, the sources of whose prohibition is, in the process, completely erased. It is this form of collusion of power and the unconscious which remains entirely unmoved by ‘rational’ analysis.


If the institutions or apparatuses which constitute the technology of power in a particular society form a cluster, not an organic system, then an intervention in one apparatus, or around the conditions of possibility of struggle within it, does not threaten to collapse the whole structure nor necessarily entail any effects in the other apparatuses or mechanisms which make up that structure. This is not to say, however, that such an intervention may not affect the others, which may be non-continuously directed towards some common or convergent, emerging or incoherently defined end, without sharing a common ruling and prior-existent ‘purpose’ in the Hegelian sense, even where a consciously arrived at ‘plan’ may exist.

What is opened up is the possibility of the emergence, construction, restructuring or re-orientation of the various apparatuses.


What Berger appeals to is a ‘future’ which serves both as a hope, a profession of faith, and a standard by which present actions may be judged. What historical research produces is no such grand plan but a constantly changing ground of tactical actions whose strategy may be stated only in terms so generalised as to be of little analytical use, though they may have a function in political rhetoric. What such historical analysis offers practitioners is not the heroic chance to measure themselves against the future, but a multiplicity of points of intervention, limited objectives, courses of action open now, ends that can be achieved through struggle: an unremitting ‘war of position’ in which the smallest gain may hold significance for a chain of related struggles.


Such a prospectus for action may lack the emotional appeal and attraction of the Utopian projection. It may not offer the guarantees of historicism. But it does have the incomparable advantage that it begins in the present, in the topography of existing apparatuses and institutions, in a concrete analysis of the uneven terrain in which the struggles must be waged. Its ‘revolution’ is not to be put off till the millennium. Its forces are not to be gathered for the ‘moment of becoming’. Its ‘revolution’ is a potential now and everywhere.


We must not allow ourselves the expedient of imagining something existing ‘before’ representation by which we may conveniently explain the representation away. Where we must start is with concrete material activity and what it produces. We must begin to analyse the real representational practices that go on in a society and the concrete institutions and apparatuses within which they take place. We must plot the network of material, political and ideological constraints which bear on these institutions and constitute their conditions of existence and operation. We must describe the function of ‘specific’ individuals within them and their production of ‘operatives’ to staff them. We must establish the material, social and symbolic contexts in which they are sited, in which they operate and in which they intervene .

Only in this way will we come to understand how ideologies are produced in real representational practices, in material apparatuses; how these representations are disseminated, consumed, elaborated, modified and sustained; how they are meaningful; how they affect and are affected by other productive activities within the same social complex. And all this is to be done by studying actual material entities and processes, entirely without the need for pregiven mental or spiritual phenomena. This, then, would be the beginnings of a materialist account.

Publicités Kodak

Jean-Claude Gautrand, Publicités Kodak: 1910-1939 (Paris: Contre-jour, 1983).


The advertised image is no less ephemeral than the newspaper, the magazine or the poster that conveys it. The need to continually  repeat the commercial message, to reassess its visual impact and to avoid visual boredom leads to making a series of images that follow one another, modify one another and overlap in order to reflect tastes, fashion and present cultural trends as closely as possible. These series can even go so far as to create new habits and new needs to which they offer the right answer.

If ‘You Press the Button, we do the rest’ has remained one of the most enduring and exemplary formulas for the whole history of advertising, it has with the years accompanied series of new images that celebrate the technological improvements, which in spite of their popularity were intended for a certain social class.

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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


[…] 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.


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.


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.