BA Phot

Daniel Rubinstein and Katrina Sluis
Algorithmic Photography and the Crisis of Representation

Reading 1.4

Rubinstein, Daniel and Sluis, Katrina (year) Algorithmic Photography and the Crisis of Representation, in Lister, N. (ed.) (2013) The Photographic Image in Digital Culture,(2nd edn.) Abingdon: Routledge pp.22–40.


[spellchecked 17Mar]

[17Mar] As noted in the previous essays in this series, the 2.7MP Nikon D1 launched in June 1999; Facebook in 2004; Twitter in 2006; the Apple iPhone in 2007; Instagram in 2010.

The second edition of Lister was published in 2013, the first in 1995. It is not clear when Rubinstein and Sluis wrote this essay: I have ordered a copy of the first edition in case this might clarify the matter (one penny on Amazon from the Cotswold Library, plus £2.80 postage). The authors seem to have a clearer view of the effects of digital imaging and the internet than Fontcuberta in his essay.

The authors see digital imaging and the internet (let's call this the diginet from here on) as being a sea change in the nature and meaning of the photograph and of photography: as with the two Batchen essays and Fontcuberta, I largely disagree.
Two films are used as symbolic of the change, Cameron's Titanic (1997), in which a surviving passenger's life is summarised, at its end, in linear highlights by framed photographs beside her deathbed, contrasted with Nolan's Memento (2000) in which an amnesiac protagonist uses Polaroids as aides-memoir, resulting in dual narratives, one forwards, one backwards 1 — the Nolan film serves as an example of how images have become detached from a straightforward, documentary, linear narrative.

My essays on essays are summarised on the parent course material page: I was drawn to write a summary in this case at around ⅔rds of the way through,

Rubinstein and Sluis argue that there is a qualitative difference between analogue and digital photography.
While there is some truth in that, the fact remains that if the photographer intends to depict the subject accurately (that is, as they perceive it) and the picture is successful technically, then there is no functional difference between analogue and digital. The distinction lies in the ease of diverging from accurate representation, the proliferation of distribution channels and the dilution of image ownership and control.

Describing how photography operated pre-diginet, the authors note how photography was invented in an era when scientific method was replacing superstition and so became associated with reason, evidence and truth (this follows Batchen's Obedient Numbers): they quote Elkins (2007, p.27), "photographs … are bound to the world itself rather than to cultural systems". The implicit indexality of analogue images is enforced by the mechanics of the process 2.
With digital, on the other hand, the direct link between subject and image, or the need for a physical subject at all is breached. As the authors state, "[w]hen the photograph became digital information, it not only became malleable and non-indexical, it became computational and programmable" (p.29) and, a term they use later, "processual" (p.34).

The factor which seems to scare Rubinstein and Sluis most of all is the speed and extent of the proliferation of images through a succession of third parties on image platforms, becoming progressively distanced from subject, time and location. The notion that came to mind when I read this was the depiction of WW2 armed forces, their sleeping stations decorated with photographs of both forces sweetheart pinups and their actual sweethearts, mixing fact and fantasy in a pictorial distraction from the horrors of their enforced purpose. More recently, The (Soaraway) Sun's Page 3 girls became daily currency for many readers of that newspaper from 1979 to 2015. Photographs have always proliferated: the diginet has just made it faster and wider.

Towards the end of the essay, Rubinstein and Sluis undermine their own argument when citing Michael Bakhtin's notion of 'dialogic' (p.36). In its original form, this was applied to text and suggested that each listener / reader applies their own contextual interpretation to textual input. The writers apply this to imagery and conclude that "[c]onsidered dialogically an image cannot be reduced to the intentions vested in it by the photographer or the author" (p.36).
The essential point they miss is that this applies to both analogue and digital images in equal measure, for as Susan Sontag observed in 1973 (p.41), paraphrased by Ashley La Grange (2005, p.37) "photographs do not seem strongly bound by the intention of the photographer" 3.

Before the diginet users could access what the various media granted them: now there is a far greater range of unregulated media giving faster and broader access. What has changed for the producers of images is indexality and control; and for the viewers, range and speed of access. If a provider of images wishes them to be representational, then that can be done more easily that was the case in analogue, but there is a far greater range of non-representational options.
Gerry Badger, writing in 2010, identified the truely profound effect of the diginet when he observed, regarding the work of Andreas Gursky, "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" 4.


1 Thomson (2010, p.709) writes of Nolan, director of Memento,

At what point in this very inventive career would one want to see Nolan taking up an invitation to make the next Batman film? At the time of Memento - which was a considerable hit among American avant-garde moviegoers-1 think that de sination would have been regarded as a sellout and a horrible waste of Nolan's intellectual playfulness and the chance that it was about to open up new attitudes to film narrative. Will he be allowed that freedom with Batman 5? Time will tell. Meanwhile, without meaning to be crushing, I have to say that his work has already become progressively less interesting. Thomson, 2010, p.709

2 As was noted in the discussion of Fontcuberta's …Spice Girls, this view of analogue photography ignores Julia Margaret Cameron's tableaux, Oscar Rejlander's multi-negative extravaganzas, Coleman's 1970s "generation of photographers … whose members are intent on overriding this and all other prejudices concerning the 'proper" uses of their medium' and all the artists of photographic fictions who came between those two periods.

3 This quote from Sontag, via La Grange is that most commonly cited on this site and is, I believe, the most important statement to have been made about the medium.

4 See LPE, Assignment 4, Grey Areas.


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.

Elkins, James (2007) Photography Theory. NY: Routledge.

La Grange, Ashley. (2005) Basic critical theory for photographers. Burlington, MA: Focal Press.

Rubinstein, Daniel and Sluis, Katrina (year) Algorithmic Photography and the Crisis of Representation, in Lister, N. (ed.) (2013) The Photographic Image in Digital Culture,(2nd edn.) Abingdon: Routledge pp.22–40.

Sontag, Susan (1973) On photography. NY: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

Thomson, David (2010) The New Biographical Dictionary Of Film, (5th edn.). London: Little, Brown.

Page created 14-Mar-2023 | Page updated 19-Mar-2023