BA Phot

Geoffrey Batchen
Ectoplasm: Photography in the Digital Age, 1999

Reading 1.2

Batchen, Geoffrey (1999b) Ectoplasm: Photography in the Digital Age, in Squiers, Carol (ed.)Over Exposed: Essays in Contemporary Photography, New York: The New Press, pp.9– 23.


[ spellchecked 14 Feb]

[8Feb23] This essay has some overlaps with Batchen's Obedient Numbers..., reading 1.1. And so does my introduction.

The 2.7MP Nikon D1 launched in June 1999; Facebook in 2004; the Apple iPhone in 2007; Instagram in 2010.

Batchen opens with the familiar quote from Paul Delaroche in response to the arrival of photography, "from today, painting is dead!", although in the first footnote he expresses doubt that Delaroche actually said or thought that. He then turns to the arrival of digital imaging and lists a series of comparable quotes on the effect this will have on photography from Tim Druckrey (1988), Fred Ritchin (1990), Ann-Marie Willis (1990) and William J. Mitchell (1992). Their collective conclusion is that photography will either be replaced or transformed. The latter is, of course, correct.

The two "anxieties" (p.9) Batchen identifies are that "fake" photographs will be indistinguishable from the "real" 1; and that this will lead to a loss of faith in the documentary aspects of the photograph ("[t]hing and sign, nature and culture, human and machine; all these hitherto dependable entities appear to be collapsing in on each other", p.10). Gerry Badger, writing a decade later with the advantage of hindsight could express this more accurately, "photography has separated into two parallel worlds … [n]ot art and documentary, but something much more fundamental — between recreating a real world and recreating a fake world" (Badger, 2010) 2.

Batchen now turns to photography and the representation of death, first quoting Nadar who described Balzac's notion that each person is enveloped in a series of imperceptible layers and whenever they are photographed, the outer layer dissolves, diminishing the subject. This ties in with anecdotal Victorian accounts of some cultures' wariness of being photographed and this issue has been more recently been transformed with the idea of the empirical gaze and is particularly strongly felt within Indigenous American culture (Meier, 2018).

Batchen continues:

Interspersed with photography and death Batchen mentions a theme he explored at greater length in Burning with Desire: Conception of Photography (1999a), his notion that photography should have been invented before Niépce, Daguerre and Fox Talbot came to the stage 4.

Having set the context of a pre-digital photography being intertwined with death, now at the mid-point of the essay, Batchen asks, "what does it mean then to speak of the death of photography by digital imaging?" (p.14). He states that "[t]here is no doubt that computerized image-making processes are rapidly replacing or supplementing traditional still-camera images in many commercial situations" (p.14) and gives the examples of Kodak's increasing investment in digital research, from the "mid-1990s" 5. Also mentioned is Microsoft's setting up of Corbis Corporation to acquire rights to historic images: when dealing with the rights to Ansel Adams' photographs, Corbis bought the digital rights alone, which Batchen regards as significant 6.

Batchen describes digital imaging as "a practice that is known to be capable of nothing but fabrication" (p.16) and gives some examples including the modifying OJ Simpson's skin colour
Analogue photography is, of course, not innocent in this arena, to give just a few older examples from a long list in an LPE essay (Blackburn, 2022), Roger Fenton's rearrangement of cannon balls, and the common practice of separate exposures for skies or sky substitutions and Batchen admits that the "history of photography is already full of images that have been manipulated in some way or other", (p.17) thus undermining his own argument and, acknowledging that he has done so, Batchen then redefines his analogue / digital distinction. "Photography 's plausibility", he states, "has always rested on the uniqueness of its indexical relation to the world it images" and that this inheres in the co-presence of the camera and its object at the instant of exposure: "the referent adheres", as Barthes put it (1980, p.8). Digital imaging breaks this requirement and so "images [can] be made in which there is potentially no direct referent in an outside world" (p.18).
Batchen continues for some time, navigating the semiotic cul-de-sac that preoccupied many of his generation of theorists. A SUITABLE QUOTE HERE?

While the essay raises some interesting and important points about image manipulation and its increasing ease and prevalence, it suffers from two major faults. Firstly, his scene-setting introduction where he suggests that photography has always been steeped in death does not work because the examples he provides are unconvincing.
More importantly, the essay is based on a false premise: at its mid-point he states,

whereas photography still claims some sort of objectivity, digital imaging is an overtly fictional process. As a practice that is known to be capable of nothing but fabrication, digitization abandons even the rhetoric of truth that has been such an important part of photography's cultural success. Batchen, 1999b, p.15

writing in 1999, Batchen can only be describing the manipulation of images in digital editors (Photoshop et al.) because serious digital cameras (that are the functional equivalents of their analogue predecessors), smartphones and worldwide social media did not then exist, much less AI-imagery. He had no notion that soon more photographs would be taken and distributed in a busy hour than happened in a whole year in the previous (that is, the 20th) century.
He was correct about the extent of manipulation (albeit the vast majority is simply frivolous), but was naive (or perhaps just reluctant to acknowledge) the degree of analogue manipulation and the extent of public faith in the truth of photography.


1 Batchen's uses quotation marks on "fake", I have added them to "real".

2 I quoted Badger in LPE Assignment 4.

3 Batchen edited a book of essays on Barthes' Camera Lucida, Photography Degree Zero (2009). In the introduction, Batchen describes Camera Lucida as, "the most quoted book in the photographic canon" (p.1).

4 The back cover summary for Burning with Desire describes it as, "… a detailed discussion of photography's conception in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He examines the output of the various nominees for "first photographer," then incorporates this information into a mode of historical criticism informed by the work of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. The result is a way of thinking about photography that persuasively accords with the medium's undeniable conceptual, political, and historical complexity" (Batchen, 1999a, back cover).

5 To enlarge the story of Kodak's digital path, in 1975, Kodak engineers, Gareth Lloyd and Steve Sasson, invented digital photography and the first digital camera, but Kodak management took little interest in it. At the time, Kodak sold "85% of all film cameras and 90% of all film ... in the US".
Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012. It sold off many of its business interests and, restructured, continues on a much smaller scale, while licensing its name to others for various imaging products.
(Zhang 2017, 2018)

6 In 2013, Microsoft sold Corbis to Unity Glory, a "Chinese-based investment group whose majority owner is Getty Images"(Winslow, 2013).


Alexander, J. & McMurdo, Wendy (2015) Digital Image and Culture [DIC]. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Badger, Gerry (2010) It's Art, But Is It Photography? Some thoughts on Photoshop, in Badger, G. The pleasures of good photographs. New York: Aperture Foundation.

Barthes, Roland (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Random House.

Batchen, Geoffrey (1999a) Burning with desire. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Batchen, Geoffrey (1999b) Ectoplasm: Photography in the Digital Age, in Squiers, Carol (ed.)Over Exposed: Essays in Contemporary Photography, New York: The New Press, pp.9– 23.

Batchen, Geoffrey (2009) Photography Degree Zero. MIT Press: Cambridge MA.

Benjamin, Walter (2008) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. London: Penguin. First published in 1935.

Blackburn, Nick (2022) Grey Areas: The Ethics of Skies and other manipulations [online]. Available from [Accessed 14 February 2023].

Druckrey, Timothy (1988) L'Amour faux;' Digital Photography: Captured Images, Volatile Memory, New Montage, in an exhibition catalog, San Francisco: San Francisco Camerawork, pp. 4-9.

Meier, Allison C. (2018) Native Americans and the dehumanising force of the photograph [online]. Available from [Accessed 8 February 2023].

Mitchell, William J. (1992) The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era . Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Ritchin, Fred (1999) Photojournalism in the Age of Computers, in Squiers, Carol (ed.) Critical Image: Essays on Contemporary Photography, Seattle: Bay Press, 1990, pp. 28-37.

Willis, Anne-Marie (1990) Digitization and the Living Death of Photography, in Hayward, Philip (ed.) Culture, Technology & Creativity in the Late Twentieth Century, London: John Libbey, 1990, pp.197-208.

Winslow, Donald R. (2013) Corbis Sold To Getty's China-Based Investment Group [online]. Available from [Accessed 14 February 2023].

Zhang, Michael (2017) What Kodak Said About Digital Photography in 1975 [online]. Available from [Accessed 14 February 2023].

Zhang, Michael (2018) A Brief History of Kodak: The Rise and Fall of a Camera Giant [online]. Available from [Accessed 14 February 2023].

Page created 08-Feb-2023 | Page updated 17-Mar-2023