Key Writers on Photography – Vilem Flusser

I first read Flusser’s Toward a Philosophy of Photography during the Surfaces and Strategies module and after reading a synopsis in Durden’s book, Fifty Key Writers on Photography, I felt the need to reread Flusser.  A few more months of coursework, much more reading and becoming readjusted to critical thinking in an academic sense has put me in a better position to absorb, understand and challenge Flusser’s hypotheses.

I realise though Flusser is regarded as one of the key critical theorists on photography, he interestingly and by his own admission, just made it all up.  His thoughts didn’t derive from someone else’s prior work and he make no references and has no bibliography.  So, while it is a fine piece of original thinking and easy at first to buy into the logical train of thought he establishes, on further examination there are, in my opinion, some fatal flaws that derail his train.

His initial premise in the introduction about how the written word and then the photograph are significant events that altered who and how information is shared among societies is certainly worthy of recognition and supportable based on a review of history and current events.  I believe Flusser is also spot on in his assertion that images are ambiguous and open to interpretation, but he starts to get sketchy when he begins his discussion on decoding images.  He claims images are needed to make the world comprehensible because the world is not accessible to human beings.  I find this premise completely off target.  Human beings exist as an integral part of the world and that which surrounds each of us is not only directly accessible, but also comprehensible without need of images if one takes the time to look and understand what surrounds us.  Images can help with communicating to others things with which they are not in direct contact, but those images are unlikely to be able to stand alone.  I quite agree, however, that humans can be lazy or malign by malappropriating or misappropriating images and sending them out into the world.  One need only look at the spate of social media platforms and the millions of memes that are taken by the gullible or naïve to be representations of reality.  There is a necessary relationship between images and text.

To suggest as Flusser does that there are distinct breaks between idolatry, textolatry, and technical images is to ignore they are a continuum unique to humans and completely dependent on each other.  We as humans see, we ascribe labels to the things we see either as pictorial representations or words that conjure the pictorial representation or the actual thing.  When we read we visualise the meaning of the words.  We read the “the large grey stone house set at the edge of the wood” and our mind’s eye conjures a picture.  My picture will look different than the next person’s but there will be an image nonetheless that holds significance for that individual.  When we are first presented with an image, our ‘decoding’ begins with assigning words to what we see.  Our attempt to decipher a technical image is not really any different than our need to decipher what we see in real time with our eyes except that the image is static, and we are afforded more time with which to undertake that decoding.  And just as when we read, that decoding will be unique to each person doing the decoding.

I cannot find the distinction Flusser makes in his notion that traditional “prehistoric” images represent phenomena and technical “post-historic” images represent concepts.  Both periods are rife with examples that represent phenomenological and conceptual images.  It is a distinction without a difference in my view.  In fact a stronger argument might be made for the opposite and that most Renaissance art was based in religion and far more conceptual than phenomenological, while Impressionist, Pointillist, Dada are equally so conceptual. Technical images on the other hand are more likely to show what is (was) or what happened at a particular time and place and therefore are not representing concepts but rather phenomena.

The lack of criticism of technical images is not an inherent characteristic, but rather an indictment of human laziness, education systems which have stopped emphasising critical thinking and perhaps also the relentless onslaught of imagery that now perhaps even exceeds that which can be experienced by a human in real time with their own eyes.  Just as we process what we see around us quickly to avoid danger and find our way we often haven’t time to linger over the significance of any particular instant.  The inundation of images we face in modern society leaves most with inadequate time to process and therefore criticise those images.   It is too easy to accept the images at their superficial face value or just disregard them and move on.

Flusser argues in first order images the painter puts themselves between the significance and the image and that to understand the image we must decode the encoding that took place in the painter’s head.  I ask is that not an even more mysterious ‘black box’ than an apparatus?  The painter makes choices of which they may or may not be aware to include or exclude or enhance aspects of the subject seen or imagined.  This is abstraction of the highest order and a product of the imagination of the artist.

The technical image Flusser asserts is encoded in a ‘black box’, but I would argue the ‘black box’is far more easily decoded than the human brain of the painter.  We can look with complete objectivity at the capabilities and limitations of an optical sensor (film or digital) and wee can understand how the photons that stimulate that sensor are subsequently translated into an image chemically or digitally.  It is far less magical, and more predictable than the brain.  Furthermore, the unaltered technical image cannot exclude anything from the image that was within the technical limitations of the device, so it is in every sense a purer representation of its significance.

The consequence realised, to which Flusser alludes, is that humans have allowed images to displace text (a picture is worth thousand words) thereby believing the necessity of conceptual thinking has been eliminated, or perhaps more correctly as an excuse for the lazy to avoid conceptual thinking.  Flusser stretches way too far when he states technical images were invented to prevent culture from breaking up as a code valid for all of society.  This may have been a consequence, just as the printing press ultimately increased literacy among the masses, but neither was an intent of the invention.

Flusser is consistently anthropomorphic and ascribes to inanimate objects, images, apparatuses, etc attributes of power and action they do not inherently hold.  He tries to bestow up a thing, the technical image, powers only held by the makers and the viewers (users).  How and why images are made and used are not inherent in the image, but in the humans make choices in what to make and how to use them.  Photographs are a tool and a fool with a tool is still a fool.  A photograph has no more or less significance than a screwdriver which can be used to poke out someone’s eye or used to remove a fastener as intended.  Both are choices made by the user of the tool.  A photograph can reintroduce traditional images to daily life and make hermetic text comprehensible or not.

I think Flusser is quite cynical and that he must have loved the Star Trek Next Generation portrayal of the Borg as they intoned ‘resistance is futile’ as that seems to represent the essence of his fears with regards to modern technology in general and photography in particular.  His notion that we are all embroiled in a heated battle against various apparatuses, programs and metaprograms seems to me a pretty pessimistic view on the future of humanity, but then again perhaps we are all going to hell in the proverbial handbasket and his concern about humans abdicating their role in the world to technology is warranted.

My worldview developed in large measure from my education as a scientist and my work in engineering and technology is based in the concept of systems and systems of systems.  It is in some ways analogous to Flusser’s ideas of programs and metaprograms. But unlike Flusser I think humans are still very much engaged and that what he goes to great length to describe as apparatuses are in fact nothing more than tools.  At one point he declares the intention of the camera as a tool to produce a photograph.  The camera tears the light from the world to bring a photo that humans can see and use.  His comparison to an apple or a shoe is in my opinion is specious because whether it informs a little or a lot is entirely dependent on the viewer and is not fixed.  To a hungry man the apple may inform far more than the shoe.

I think Flusser again gets overly anthropomorphic when he states “if an apparatus is neither a tool or a machine and its purpose is to change the meaning of the world by creating symbols, their intention is symbolic.”  The apparatus has no inherent ability to act on its own.  Yes its ‘program’ which is both known and knowable may do something with the confines of a ‘black box’, but it carries no independent inherent intention merely by virtue of its existence.  I maintain that it is still a tool in the hands of a human who must convey intention with its use.

Flusser agrues each photograph is a realisation of one possibility resident within the program of the apparatus, and that photographers are trying to exhaust the full range of possibilities in search of information.  He says any photograph that does not achieve a new possibility is not informative and therefore redundant.  On the contrary, every photograph is unique.  It occupies a unique temporal space.  The differences may be beyond human perception but that makes them no less unique.  And as to what is informative, that too is unique, but totally in the purview of the viewer.  What is informative to me may be old hat to someone else.  Furthermore, all the possible photographs are not resident in the program, they are resident in the world which is undergoing constant and inevitable change and in time, and they require a photographer with a tool to realise them.

Flusser says no photographer can understand the black box.  While most don’t bother, it is in fact completely explicable.  It is far more transparent and discoverable than the brain of the painter or a photographer’s artistic choices for that matter.  I completely disagree with Flusser’s position that a photographer is a functionary controlling a game over which they have no competence and I will return to this in a moment.

Quite ironically, Flusser asserts photographers, after the statement in paragraph above, have power over those who look at their photographs and that the camera has power over the photographer.  Misplaced assignation again.  I don’t think the photographer actually has any influence let alone power over the viewer.  How a photograph is interpreted is totally and uniquely in the realm of each viewer.  And I don’t buy into the notion the camera is a complex apparatus, particularly in the context of 1983 when this treatise was first published.  There is little mystery to the analogue camera; the mystery if there is any is in the chemistry of the film.  In a digital camera, the camera is no more complex in its basic function than the analogue and it is the sensor and the subsequent processing that replaces the mystery of the film, but which is entirely comprehensible if one wished to take the time to understand the physics and programming logic.  But that is no more necessary to a photographer than was understanding film chemistry.

Flusser then says the starting point for any consideration of the act of photography is that the apparatuses play and function better than the human beings that operate them.  Szarkowski is spinning in his grave!  The camera cannot take itself to a particular place at a particular time and it cannot imagine an output associated with a particular perspective or compositional choice, nor can it choose the precise moment to open and close the shutter.  The ‘power’ remains with the photographer always and the camera remains a tool; albeit one with limitation that must be recognised.  Flusser is correct in saying the camera can only photograph what can be photographed with a particular tool, but neither can I screw a fastener with a saw.  Also true is that the photograph is a representation of states of things.  The camera cannot photograph emotion, but it can discern representations or evidence of emotion.

Flusser claims the camera has more imagination than all the photographers in the world combined.  Once again Flusser is anthropomorphising.  The camera has no more imagination than a chisel.  Put a chisel in front of a block of marble and it will never in a million years imagine or create as statue of David until it is in the hands of a Michelangelo.

I take exception again to the Flusser assertion that the traditional distinction between realism and idealism is overturned in the case of photography and that neither the world or the camera’s program is real; only the photograph is real.  The world is always real, and a photograph is real only in the sense it is a tangible physical entity.  The image it contains is not real but rather a two-dimensional representation of a reality that occurred in some specific time and place that is limited further in its ability to represent reality by the capabilities of the film or sensor.

Then in what almost seems a turnabout, Flusser summarises: “The act of photography is like going on a hunt in which the photographer and camera merge into one indivisible function.  This is a hunt for new states of things, situations never seen before, for the improbable, for information.  The structure of the act of photography is a quantum one: a doubt made up of points of hesitation and points of decision-making.  We are dealing here with a typically post-industrial act: It is post-ideological and programmed, and acct for which reality is information, not the significance of this information.”

So where heretofore I find Flusser’s thinking frequently flawed, he starts to get interesting when he begins discussing the photograph. His proposal that black and white photographs are more conceptual as they are less real is intriguing.  I confess to becoming lost again though when he claims that the more genuine the colours are, the less truthful they become.  He makes this point in the context of black and white being closer to the theoretical origins of optics and yet farther away from reality while colour is closer to reality but farther from the theoretical origins.  I cannot see the point of this line of enquiry and in doing so it seems he obfuscates the concept of decoding unnecessarily. This is especially so when he concludes that to follow this path leads down a bottomless rabbit hole and the whole thing can be avoided by not going there.  He says in essence that a photograph is decoded when one has determined how the cooperation and conflict between the photographer and the camera have been resolved.  Has the photographer succeeded in achieving his/her intentions and overcoming the limitations of the camera?  He goes on to argue the camera is imposing its intentions on the photographer and here again I take issue with the idea the camera can have intentions.  It has technical limitations, but not intentions which in my mind implies a sentience the camera does not possess.  In any case he concludes this thought with the notion the best photographs are when the photographer’s intentions win out over the (my words) the limitations of the tool used to capture the image.  I believe herein lies a significant part of the photographer’s skill; knowing the tools at hand and their capabilities and limitations so that the correct set of tools can be pulled from the kit bag to compliment the planning, positioning, light and other compositional considerations.

Flusser continues to be interesting in his discussion on distribution of photographs and of particular significance is his discourse on how the distribution channel has an impact on the meaning of a photograph and how that meaning is altered each time it enters a new channel.  I believe this further supports my earlier contention that each viewing of a photograph is unique and in the hands of the viewer who is also influenced by where the photograph is viewed.

His observation that we are so overly exposed to photographs that we have come to regard them as fixtures and fittings in our lives and as a result hardly take notice of most of them.  This helps to explain why most are not looked at in any critical way or attempt to decode them.  And the truth is that to do so with most would be a waste of time.  Unfortunately, that introduces the very real risk that photographs that deserve attention will go unnoticed.  It also presents an additional challenge for the photographer who produces, in Flussers terms, “informative” work, work that breaks the program and is new and unique, because it will be even more difficult to be ‘heard’ amidst the noise of the millions of less worthy photographs being produced every day around the world.

So while I find it hard to agree with many aspects of Flusser’s essays, in large part because of the semantics and his sometimes fatalistic and pessimistic view of the world, in the end he comes nearly full circle and very early disavows the whole train of thought that preceded by saying: “The time is therefore not far off when one will have to concentrate one’s criticism of the apparatuses on the human intention that willed and created them.  Such a critical approach is enticing for two reasons.  First, it absolves the critics f the necessity of delving into the interior of the black boxes:  they can concentrate on their output, human intention.  And second, it absolves critics of the necessity of developing new categories of criticism:  Human intention can be criticized using traditional criteria.”

He also sounds a warning that we are at risk of being automated out of existence and that it is necessary to fight against that automation to regain freedom of intention.  And there are indicators that Flusser isn’t too far from the mark.  One needs only to walk down the street to see how enslaved people have become to their mobile phones.

Flusser his treatise to conclusion with some profound thoughts. “The task of the philosophy of photography is to question photographers about freedom, to probe their practice in the pursuit of freedom.  This was the intention of the foregoing study, and in the course of it a few answers have come to light.  First, one can outwit the camera’s rigidity.  Second, one can smuggle human intentions into its program that are not predicted by it. Third, one can force the camera to create the unpredictable, the improbable, the informative.  Fourth, one can show contempt for the camera and its creations and turn one’s interest away from the thing in general in order to concentrate on information.  In short:  Freedom is the strategy of making chance and necessity subordinate to human intention.  Freedom is playing against the camera.”  “A philosophy of photography must reveal the fact that there is no place for human freedom within the area of the automated, programmed and programming apparatuses, in order to finally show a way in which it is nevertheless possible to open up a space for freedom.”

Towards a Philosophy of Photography is an important text and while I found the train of logic Flusser followed to be full of twists and turns, a few sidings and a couple of derailments, the end of the journey led to a destination I generally find quite agreeable.  More importantly the journey through this book provoked thought, made me question and challenge my own beliefs and in the writing of my essay take positions even if they were contrary to the popular accepted thought of photography’s academic world.  It was well worth reading this book a second and third time, and I think it can really only be appreciated in its entirety.

 

References

FLUSSER, Vilém. 1983. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. English. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

DURDEN, Mark (ed.). 2013. 50 Key Writers on Photography. First. Milton Park: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

 

 

 

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