Tools for the Hand, Language for the Face

Ingold, Tim. 1999. ‘Tools for the Hand, Language for the Face’: An Appreciation of Leroi-Gourhan’s Gesture and Speech, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biology & Biomedical Science. 30: 4. 411–453


What might a more inclusive theory, that would accommodate the social and technical along with the zoological dimensions of human existence, look like?


To read Le Geste et la parole, however, is to realise that Leroi-Gourhan’s contribution extended far beyond questions of art and technology, to embrace a vision of human development of quite breathtaking scope.

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Redundant Photographs: Cameras, Software and Human Obsolescence

Daniel Palmer, ‘Redundant Photographs: Cameras, Software and Human Obsolescence’, pp.47-65, in:

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


The history of photography is also a history of automation.


Needless to say, the primary aim of automation is to reduce human labour time (related to a secondary aim of removing human error). Indeed, certain kinds of cameras today – such as those designed to identify car number plates – need no regular human operator at all.

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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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On the mode of existence of technical objects

Gilbert Simondon, ‘Introduction’, pp.15-21, in:

Simondon, G., 2016. On the mode of existence of technical objects. Univocal Pub, Minneapolis, MN.


Culture has constituted itself as a defense system against technics; yet this defense presents itself as a defense of man, and presumes that technical objects do not contain a human reality within them.

We would like to show that culture ignores a human reality within technical reality and that, in order to fully play its role, culture must incorporate technical beings in the form of knowledge and in the form of a sense of values

The opposition drawn between culture and technics, between man and machine, is false and has no foundation; it is merely a sign of ignorance or resentment.

Behind a facile humanism, it masks a reality rich in human efforts and natural forces, and which constitutes a world of technical objects as mediators between man and nature.

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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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On Aesthetic Plasticity

Tom Sparrow, ‘On Aesthetic Plasticity’, pp. 177-218, in:

Sparrow, T., Malabou, C., 2015. Plastic bodies: rebuilding sensation after phenomenology. Open Humanities Press, London.


The argument so far has followed two general, intertwined trajectories: one critical, the other constructive. The critical thread has argued that the two visions of embodiment offered by Merleau-Ponty and Levinas are inadequate for thinking how our bodies actually interact with the material world. The constructive thread has assembled evidence which suggests that both phenomenologists were cognizant of the function that sensation plays in the constitution of experience and identity.

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Photography, Vision and Representation

Joel Snyder & Neil Walsh Allen, ‘Photography, Vision, and Representation’, pp.143-169 in:
Critical Inquiry, Vol.2, Autumn 1975.


Is there anything peculiarly “photographic” about photography – something which sets it apart from all other ways of making pictures?

[…] for most of this century the majority of critics and laymen alike have tended to answer these questions in the same way: that photographs and paintings differ in an important way and require different methods in interpretation precisely because photographs and paintings come into being in different ways.

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Photography: history and theory

Jae Emerling, ‘Preface’ and ‘Introduction’, pp.xii-xiii and pp.1-16, in:

Emerling, J., 2012. Photography: history and theory. Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY.



Every book on photography is always marked by the same limitation: the absence of all the photographs discussed within the text.

In other words, every historical and theoretical text on photography has blind spots, photographs that are missing, absent, untranslatable. Rather than see this as a shortcoming, perhaps it is better to reckon with these blind spots as openings, as disjunctive syntheses.

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Technology is Society made Durable

Bruno Latour, ‘Technology is Society made Durable’, pp.103-130 in:

Law, J. (Ed.), 1991. A sociology of monsters: essays on power, technology, and domination. Routledge, London New York.


In this paper I argue that in order to understand domination we have to turn away from an exclusive concern with social relations and weave them into a fabric that includes non-human actants, actants that offer the possibility of holding society together as a durable whole.

To be sure, the distinction between material infrastructure and symbolic superstructure has been useful to remind social theory of the importance of non-humans, but it is a very inaccurate portrayal of their mobilisation and engagement inside the social links. This paper aims to explore another repertoire for studying this process of mobilisation.

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Photography as Technology

Patrick Maynard, ‘Photography as Technology’, pp.3-21, in:

Maynard, P., 2000. The engine of visualization: thinking through photography. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.


This simple theme of this book is that what we call “photography” is a technology. What accurately, it is a branching family of technologies, with different uses, whose common stem is simply the physical marking of surfaces through the agency of light and similar radiations.


Thus the outline of a mini-history of one line of popular photo-technological development for a general market. It is no part of my brief presentation to say that this development was autonomous, or that it basically involved “solving problems”. I do not even call it progress, or imply that it answered anyone’s “needs”.

Setting the account in the context of widening mass, popular, consumer markets, fairly affluent and increasingly mobile– as well as within a production and distribution network increasingly global– is a reminder from the outset that, technologically, necessity is by no means the mother of invention. In fact, the idea of necessity is a poo way of understanding human and technological initiatives generally and who are still in the context of modern popular consumer markets.


Given their market applications, photographic inventions of the kinds listed seem more often the mothers of (perceived) necessities. This is the place of modern advertising, in which photo processes, as we all know, serve as an “engine of visualisation,” affecting conceptions, quickening desires.


History shows that many technological initiatives simply fail to interest potential uses.

Nor did all the changes occur in cameras themselves. During the same decade, color prints began to dominate color slides in the popular market, and black-and-white printing suffered successive demotions (which may be tracked through our family photo albums) from standard to default, option, speciality or “custom” (more expensive and not so fast)–a plunge similar, though rather less dramatic and final, to that of final sound recordings after compact discs appeared.

While listing such high-technology advancement in certain markets, we might also note that throwaway cameras came into vogue about the same time, following the trails of the disposable ballpoint marker of the mid-1950s and razors of the mid-1970s.


Here is the point at which we should observe a technological fact that usually passes unappreciated in discussions and prophecies of this sort. If something called photography seemed about to be transformed by fast-developing computer technologies, these technologies were themselves functions of a photographic technology and could not exist without it.

The reason is simple: personal computers were made possible by the emergence in the early 1970s of microprocessors, tiny solid-state structures that depend, crucially, upon the process of microfabrication of computer chips, which is itself a “photolithographic” technology.

That variant of what might be called classic photo-technology is necessarily a chemical, not an electronic, process. Without photo-technological miniaturisation, computer circuits would simply be too large, too slow, too undependable, and fighting expensive to have any of the uses I have indicated. For more than photography relies on a electronic and digital technologies, those technologies rely on standard chemical photography.

This observation carries us from the topic of (“merely”) technologies of photography (such as autofocus devices) to that of photographic technologies (such as those from making microchips) and thereby to photography as technology.

If those photographic technologies are to be considered part of what we mean by”photography,” then there is photography that does not consist in making photographs–at least not as we ordinarily understand those terms. That photography may be a technological way of doing things might suggest that even in the more familiar or “traditional” case of making photos, photography could also be understood in terms of doing things.


[My sample] was to remind us how much photography is a creature of technology, a product of nineteenth-century industrial society which continue transformation right through twentieth-century technological society.


[…] the term “photography” itself is, like “lithography” […] the name not the class of things that of a kind of productive process, which frequently but not always issues in things of diverse use and interest.

The only advertising for photography and daguerreotypy (if we keep these systems at first distinct), their scientific and commercial promotions, and certainly their patents, of course, stressed their physical means of production. Early inventors and promoters such as William Henry Fox Talbot were prudent to draw attention not so much to new class of objects as to the diverse uses of the new set of technological procedures.

By contrast, almost all writing about photography in our own times tends to begin with the emergent nature of the product rather than with its production and use. Photography itself is taken as a productive process for producing photographs.


[Ref Bazin, Cavell]


Some influential theorists almost provide exceptions to this predominant thing-mindedness. I third modern film theorist, Siegfried Kracauer, is also something of an exception to the approach to photography via the nature of photographs. To be sure Kracauer’s introduction to his 1960 book on cinema speaks of “the nature of the photographic medium” and it’s “specific properties”, but he works at such topics quite effectively through an analysis of the early and recent histories of our ideas of it.

Kracauer also argues explicitly against perhaps the most harmful false dichotomy in the history of talk about photography, pointing out that its realist recording powers are fully consistent with its being highly interpretive, even self-expressive. His famous, controversial insistence on maintaining cinemas connection with “physical reality,” however, still emphasises what it produces photographs of.

Such was true of an even earlier writer, Walter Benjamin, whose avowedly technological approach to still photography and film during the 1930s would become very influential some decades later; his is perhaps the most influential of reputable opinions. Benjamin provides the rare case of a modern writer on photography he treats the technologies of photo reproduction centrally and relates these (though all too to briefly) to the printing press and to sound recording.

[Benjamin’s essay as “sweeping and often misleading historical generalisations about the use of images”]


This avowed Marxist’s technological approach, however, yielded an essay distinctly about kinds of things, rather than about the work that people do with a technology or even about the ways in which that work became organised and industrialised.

His way of thinking leaves out for example, the normal use people make of photographic reproductions: to discover originals, learn about them, imagine seeing them, even indirectly perceive them, as we do by listening to sound recordings.


Citing Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Sontag too understands photography basically in terms of the relationship between two kinds of entities: images and reality–as a producing of photographs of things–and offers many perceptions about what “photographs are” or tend to do.


One has to wait for her very last, not so influential, pages to find your qualifying this approach was an interesting contrast of Chinese and “capitalist” photographic practices– the ontology of photos presumably being the same in Beijing as in New York.

As for Barthes, there could scarcely be a clear instance of the tendencies under review than his melancholy investigation. Highly a sustained account of photographs themselves, his monograph is actually reductive to your subjects photographed, taking substantively: usually people are details of them and their attire.

Unlike Sontag, who at least make some reference to photo-technology, Barthes explicitly puts that aside on page 3 to investigate unabashedly what he terms “Photography’s” (interchangeably, “the Photograph’s”) “essence”.

Where the moment of the composition of the picture seems an undeniable factor in the appeal of the photograph, Barthes counts that as “luck”.

[Ref Berger’s Another Way of Telling]


Although he discusses different uses of photography, commenting that their “truthfulness” varies with the context of use, the thesis of this critic of positivism is based on the unexamined assumption that of photographs can be derived from the way in which they are, already, made: because they are “taken in an instant,” they can capture experiences at instant, whence they can inherit their characteristic and troubling ambiguity, as appearances at instance are ambiguous.

If we are being phenomenological, none of this makes much sense against the experience of some of the most “photographic” of photographs, such as an amateur’s telescopic view of the Horsehead Nebula, or closeups of bark, […] nor does it jibe with standard printed photography of package contents, and so on.

With some exceptions, such a survey of reputable “philosophical” opinions shows a tendency to consider photography in terms of its products, photographs, and then to consider significant relationships that these products bear to some other thing or things and thereby to discover the meaning all this has for us.

In other words, we find an all too familiar syndrome of theoretical puzzlement. It begins with “reification,” the conception of the topic in terms of substantive, “things”– in fact, two kinds of things and thus a “dualism” to beat: on one side there is “the photograph” (click); on the other, “reality” (THUD). Next comes “essentialism”, a search for the essences (drawn from impressions of a few instances) of one or the other member of this pair of things, as well as for an essential relationship between them, from which perceptions are to flow.


Here is a place to note that in the decades immediately following the books just described, many thinkers on the subject turned from the alleged nature of the photograph to that of the other relational term, the world or reality itself, wondering about photography’s power to determine its nature.

If these three labels–reification, dualism, essentialism—are perhaps too strong for describing both common conceptions and printed meditations regarding photography, they at least indicate the direction of the more usual kind of thinking.

Photography is understood in terms of photos, and photos are invariably understood relationally as being of things. Remarkably, one looks in vain to that literature to discover any attempt to find or to explain the relationship “—––is a photograph of—––.” Remarkably one looks in vain even for any effort to mark the difference between being a photographic picture of something and being a photograph of it, although we daily see photographic pictures that are by no means photographs of what they depict.


[Ref Turner’s History of Photography, 1987]

One could hardly find a clearer exposition of the tendency under review: to consider photography in terms of the sort of thing, like bricks, and cast photo-technologies into the background of conceptions and concerns.

Most photo histories, however, are not like that—not even this one.

Almost every history of photography emphasises its technological history, and none presented in terms of technology. A striking symptom of this is that such histories are nearly devoid of reflection upon the nature and history of technologies generally and and never seem to bring insights there to bear on their subject matter.


[…] photographs themselves are of rather different natures, uses, appearances, and have been produced and valued in these different ways from their first inventions. Besides underestimating this diversity, the usual “photographs” approach to photography falls short in its ability to help us understand new kinds of photo imagery as they appear.

Furthermore, we have reason to expect photo-technologies to continue to produce new kinds photographs are, better, new kinds of photography and new uses of it. As these occur, they will be better understood in terms of some general principles. For example, we know that all modern technologies tend to diversity. Dust television was developed from work on radar: an example of what which might be called “route diversification.”

Again, microcomputers, developed independently of cameras, revolutionised camera control systems: such might be called “application” or “transfer.” Application may also be interactive: hence “hybridisation.”

These are typical of many technological developments, and unlike meals, such hybrids often prove fertile, even of other forms.

The lack of principles shows that in most treatments of photography that attempts to be general. There is not only a partiality to certain examples and a tendency to overgeneralise from them, not only an inability to help us understand new examples as they appear, but also a tendency to isolate photography from related, even closely related, phenomena.


Part of my argument is that even when we choose to narrow our consideration of photography to certain examples, we will much better understand them if we first think about photography in a general sense and within the wider field of relationships.

Even writers who would set out to interpret the nature and significance of photography usually forget to notice the photo-reprographic processes by which the very text of their own texts and articles are not only illustrated but printed. Thereby they overlook the most important reinvention of photography, around the beginning of the 20th century (which electronic imaging’s development may never rival in importance): the ink, relief-impact, press-printing systems without which even though “the photograph” today would have a diminished historical significance.


[…] we must do more than draw attention to photographic technologies; we must develop a principled, technological (but not too technical) conception of photography itself.


We can characterise photography in terms of technologies for accomplishing or guiding the production of images on sensitised surfaces by means of light (broadly understood), without necessarily understanding such images as “photographs”.


Procedures, structures, materials will then be photographic when they have a place in such technology, whether or not they themselves work by light (Which, in the case of some parts of camera engineering or development chemistry, we certainly do not).

Putting “photography” before “photographs” in the order of enquiry means that photographs in the ordinary sense are themselves photographic because they are pictorial images produced by such processes.


In short, to understand photographs, we will first have to understand photography.