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Thinking Tools

The Photographic

Visual observation techniques have changed substantially since the nineteenth century. In 1839, when the physician François Arago announced the invention of photography to the world, he referred to the daguerreotype as 'a new instrument in the service of observation' that could be used in an array of disciplines from photographing the stars to the philological study of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Over time, the camera did indeed come to be used as a mechanical instrument in various sciences, technology and the arts.

Walter Benjamin’s view was that photography destroyed the aura of works of art. In his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1932), he predicted that the social impact of mechanization – the industrialization of photography as a reproducible medium – would prove much more fundamental than photography as an art form. Thus, ‘the photographic’ is also the condition for mass media and a digital image culture created with camera images.

Nowadays, art students are influenced more by Twitter, Instagram, GoPro and other digital image sharing technologies than by the nineteenth-century pioneers and the photographic tradition. Everyone is a photographer these days and everyone is familiar with ‘the photographic’.

The artistic practice of contemporary critical visual artists cannot, therefore, be dissociated from the many, diverse roles of photography in contemporary society or from the production, dissemination and consumption of camera images in mass media.

The Thinking Tools research group reflects on the consequences of the growing emancipatory yet dehumanising impact of digital technology on contemporary observation, imagination and imagery. How do we observe the world with a machine? At which point should we consider the issue of authorship when using these ‘seeing machines’? Photographer Trevor Paglen referred to such machines as a broader definition of photography “that helps us identify the remarkably diverse roles in society that image-making has come to play". In his films, the late media artist Harun Farocki repeatedly emphasised the scientific and military applications of a camera “as a disembodied machine” in drones, satellites and surveillance equipment (see also Paul Virilio, The Vision Machine, 1994)

This research group aims to map the critical positions of contemporary image makers, who subject photo, film and computer cameras to their intentionality. The group examines the tension between the camera and the freedom of the artist, between the machine's apparent ‘objectivity’ and the photographer's subjective point of view, between mechanical registration and other ‘ways of seeing’.

According to the Prague philosopher Vilèm Flusser, a camera is “an instrument that changes the meaning of the world”. The technical image that is produced by a machine is an image of a concept, in spite of the illusion of objectivity. Every photo is a materialization of one of the possibilities afforded by the machine's program. The photographer as ‘operator’ has no idea what is happening inside the machine. In the best case, however, photographers can outsmart their pre-programmed machines and subject them to their human wills. Just think of experimental photographers and media artists. This option of freedom in a world that is controlled by machines indicates that we need to think about the technological aspect of photography. The artist’s subjectivity is confronted by the machine’s technological program in the time document constituted by the photo. The more invisible and transparent it is, the more complex it becomes. The thin line between man and machine fades. The Thinking Tools research group focuses on image makers who try to ‘outsmart the machine’ in a Flusserian spirit.

Starting from the broader concept of ‘the photographic’, we focus on a far wider research area than medium-specific ‘photography’.

Starting from ‘the photographic’ means we can open up the discussion. English writer and curator David Campany writes that we can define not one medium, but three or four, depending on the various mechanical, technical and chemical-optical elements of the photographic machine: i.e. lens, shutter, film and subject itself (David Campany, Photography, Encore, 2014). When thought of as 'lens-based image making', photography thus opens up a world of optical laws, perspectives and monocular vision, discussions about soft focus and photo realism, and the importance of the ‘frame’ from the photographer’s position. Shutter photography, on the other hand, focuses on the dimension of time, as in the entire aesthetic of the snapshot and the decisive moment, as well as on the contemporary anti-shutter trend, and the return to slow photography and large-format cameras.The light-sensitive surface of photography – which has changed fundamentally in the transition from paper to electronic media – can also determine the photographer's approach. Just think of photograms, experimental camera exercises, the abstraction of grain and pixel and examining a photo as an index of reality. Finally, Campany also suggests seeing the thing itself as an aspect of the photographic.

In a recent article entitled Het fotografische/ de fotografie (De Witte Raaf, issue 173, Jan-Feb 2015) Steven Humblet also refers to the enigmatic character of photo imagery when approached from the point of view of the technical device used in the act of taking a photo. According to Humblet, the photographic is revealed in the gap between the image and the world, between the spectator and the image, between the spectator and the world. The photographic emerges where the relationship between these three actors is disrupted. Within the broad scope of contemporary art, the line separating photography, sculpture, video, performance, painting and installation art may have eroded but ‘the photographic’ is still relevant as a set of specific references and strategies, techniques and ways of looking at things.

Nowadays we also see, for instance, the remarkable ‘Material Turn’ trend, which has its roots in the plastic, material character of photography – a chemical-physical process rather than the photograph as a document. But many painters have also used the photographic gaze, the indifference of the camera image, or the distance and standardization of the photographic as a starting point. How is the photographic manifested in contemporary art and photography? And what is the impact of the photographic in the realm of digital visual culture? Ultimately: what impact (liberating, disruptive or virtual) does the photographic have on our experience of reality?

Focus: Impact of digital technology on contemporary observation, imagination and imagery.

Chair: Steven Humblet - steven.humblet@me.com, Inge Henneman

Researchteam: Peter Boelens, Bert Danckaert, Geert Goiris, Inge Henneman, Charlotte Lybeer, Els Vanden Meersch, Mashid Mohadjerin, Karin Hanssen, Paolo Favero, Nick Geboers, Ulla Deventer, Stefan Vanthuyne, Liza Van der Stock, a.o.