Picture taken in a photobooth, King's Crustation, London, 1997
© Joan Fontcuberta
image source: Fontcuberta, 2014, p.56
[15Feb23] Although the date of this particular essay is not given, Fontcuberta starts with an immense advantage over Geoffrey Batchen's Ectoplasm... by publishing fifteen years later and witnessing what really happened with digital photography.
The title should be explained: Fontcuberta opens the essay with an illustration of the power of digital imaging, showing a digital photobooth image of himself with one of the enhancements it offered, a Spice Girls collage. (This also illustrates the danger of mistaking movement for progress.)
Such changes, he states, have affected " all [analogue photography's] old stamping grounds: the press, advertising, scientific documentation, family reunions, holidays and travel and so on" and he refers to "supposed death of photography" (p.58).
He elegantly expresses the essence of an analogue photograph as "a fine layer of silver salts", whereas a digital image is "an array of pixels provisionally arranged according to certain graphic codes" (p.59) and the most important word here is provisional.
All the modifications that can be applied at the various stages of the analogue process can be accomplished more easily digitally and, vitally, "synthetic images, images that have no external referent but are entirely computer-generated while having a convincingly photographic appearance" (p.59). As has been noted, Fontcuberta's essay is dated 2014, 15 years after Batchen's Ectoplasm..., but nearly 10 years before the recent achievements of AI deepfakes in numerous fields of creative endeavour 1. Fontcuberta is as concerned as Batchen about "images that have no external referent", echoing "images [can] be made in which there is potentially no direct referent in an outside world" (Batchen, 1998, p.18).
These views are, at least in part, fallacious. In warning of the dangers of digital imaging losing touch with reality, both Fontcuberta and Batchen 2 are falling into the blinkered historical narrative that ignores significant portions of photographic output. Julia Margaret Cameron's tableaux, Oscar Rejlander's multi-negative extravaganzas, both were photographic fictions. In his introduction to Arthur Tress's Theatre of the Mind, A.D. Coleman writes, 3
All photographs are fictions, to a far greater extent than we are yet able or willing to acknowledge…
Though you wouldn't know it from studying any of the available histories of the medium, the directorial mode of photography has a long, diverse, and honorable tradition. Yet for reasons which appear to have more to do with photo-historical politics than with scholarship and logic, certain uses (and users) of the directorial mode have been accepted as legitimate while others have been rejected out of hand. The basis for these usually arbitrary judgements generally boils down to the conservative taste patterns of the medium's heretofore dominant historians…
Fortunately, a generation of photographers has come of age whose members are intent on overriding this and all other prejudices concerning the "proper" uses of their medium. One result of their refusal to be trapped within these whimsical boundaries has been the resurgence of work in the directorial mode. Coleman, 1976, unnumbered
Digital photography and imaging make many aspects of the medium easier than achieving the same outcomes in analogue but manipulation has always occurred and photographic fictions have existed throughout its history. Ostensibly documentary imaging is increasingly being undermined, and again this is becoming progressively easier, but photographic truth has always been a matter of faith and been rooted in naivety.
Fontcuberta echoes another of Batchen's recurring topics, the view that, "[it] is no secret that all of the elements necessary for the photochemical process of photography were known long before the invention of the daguerreotype" (p.59) and Fontcuberta argues that the fact that the actual invention occurred in the early-mid 19th century resulted in entrenched attitudes to the medium reflecting the contemporary scientific and intellectual zeitgeist with the result that, "the camera is thus linked to notions of objectivity, truth, identity,
memory, document, archive and so on" and, moreover, "an instrument in the service of industrialisation, in the service of colonialism, in the service of the emerging disciplines of control and surveillance" (p.59). No evidence is provided in support of these assertions, nevertheless, "the camera doesn't lie" is a common point of departure for these essays, including Batchen's Ectoplasm... Fontcuberta argues that the enormous increase in the power and range of manipulation, and its ease has shifted its position in the artistic pantheon: whereas photography stood apart from painting (and the other two-dimensional graphic arts) as having the lens' object as its starting rather than a blank sheet, digital imaging starts from a point closer to painting.
This is true in some minority areas of artistic endeavour, but the current reality is that photography as "the making and display of pictures" has survived and prospered with digital cameras, smartphones, the social media and easy, superficial, largely frivolous modifications such as app filters. There is less straight photography, but a lot more photography.
As Fontcuberta observes, there has been a technological revolution and it has made photography more accessible both in terms of input and output through smartphones replacing cameras and apps replacing Boots the Chemist and social media becoming galleries. These were inconceived when Batchen was writing his essays in this exercise and clearly unrealised when Fontcuberta was writing Spice Girls...
Conceptual? - save for later
digital images exist, in storage, as a coded description of an image - this only becomes an image when it is assembled on a display device such as a smartphone screen. There is an interesting parallel with conceptual art, notably Burgin's Photopath (1967) which exists in two states, the original textual description and the temporary site-specific realisation as a physical display.
1 See Research Finds AI Deepfaked Faces Look More Real Than Genuine Photos (Bandara, 2023); ChatGPT is here to stay, education boss warns (Nicola Woolcock, 2023); The Times view on recreating lost masterpieces: AI Art (editorial, 2022).
2 It is, perhaps, more surprising that Batchen did so because he has criticised photo-history orthodoxies for ignoring areas of the medium such as the vernacular. In Vernacular Photographies (2000), he writes,
How can photography be restored to its own history? And how can we ensure this history will be both materially grounded and conceptually expansive, just like the medium itself? Well, perhaps we should start by considering what has always been excluded from photography 's history: ordinary photographs, the ones made or bought (or sometimes bought and then made over) by everyday folk from 1839 until now, the photographs that preoccupy the home and the heart but rarely the museum or the academy. Batchen,Vernacular Photographies, 2000
3 The current (in 1976) practitioners Coleman named were: "Leslie Krims, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Richard Kirstel, Lucas Samaras, Clarence John Laughlin, Duane Michals, Eikoh Hosoe - and Arthur Tress".