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«PLENARY SESSION II Digital Aestethics What’s the Point of an Index? or, Faking Photographs TOM GUNNING If Freud had subjected one of the West’s ...»

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Digital Aestethics

What’s the Point of an Index?

or, Faking Photographs


If Freud had subjected one of the West’s central ideologies – historical progress – to psychoanalysis, he might have discovered the primary psychic operation of displacement, operating behind our constant impetus towards ever-greater perfection. What passes for progress (especially theoretical progress), I am claiming, often simply displaces unre- solved problems onto new material. As a historian of early cinema (and of the even ear- lier visual and sound technology that preceded the cinema – such as the magic lantern, the phantasmagoria, the panorama, the phonograph and the devices of instantaneous and chronophotography) I am excited, but also a bit dismayed by the current discussion of newly emerging media, especially when this discussion provides an account of the older media of cinema and photography. There is no question in my mind that the recent in- terest in early cinema and its technological antecedents springs partly from the excite- ment the appearance of such new media generates (and my friend and colleague Erkki Huhtamo has demonstrated this interrelation of old and new most wonderfully1). But, as Norman Mailer once said, ideals of progress often depend on the anaesthetization of the past. While I believe that the possibilities and realities of new media invites us to (in fact, demands that we) rethink the history of visual media, I also fear it can produce the op- posite: a sort of reification of our view of the older media, an ignoring of the true com- plexities that photography, cinema and other visual media capturing light and motion presented, simply displacing their promises and disappointments unto a yet-to-be- achieved digital media utopia. Especially bothering to me is a tendency to cast the older media as bad objects, imbued with a series of (displaced) sins that the good objects of new media will absolve.

Let’s tackle one of the largest problem first, the truth claim of traditional photogra- phy (and to some extent cinematography) which has become identified with Charles Peirce’s term “indexicality.” Both aspects need investigation: the nature of the truth claim, and the adequacy of indexicality to account for it. This whole issues becomes even more obscure when critics or theorists claim (I hope less frequently as time goes by) that the digital and the indexical are opposed terms.

I will approach this last issue first, both because I think it is rathersimple and because others have made the argument as well or better than I can (most recently Phil Rosen in his fine work Change Mummified).2 I have some difficulty figuring out how this confu

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sion arose, but I imagine it went something like this: the indexicality of the photograph depends on a physical relation between the object photographed and the image finally created. The image on the photographic negative derives from the transformation of light sensitive emulsion caused by light reflecting off the object photographed filtered through the lens and diaphragm. In a digital image, however, instead of light sensitive emulsion affected by the luminous object, the image is formed through data about light that is encoded in a matrix of numbers.

But what problem does this change present and how does it challenge indexicality?

Clearly a digital camera records through its numerical data the same intensities of light that a non-digital camera records: hence the similarity of their images. The difference between the digital and the film based camera has to do with the way the information is captured – which does have strong implications for the way the images can be stored, transferred and indeed manipulated. But storage in terms of numerical data does not eliminate indexicality (which is why digital images can serves as passport photographs and the other sorts of legal evidence or documents, which ordinary photographs supply).

Further, it would be foolish to closely identify the indexical with the photographic; most indexical information is not recorded by photography. Long before digital media were introduced, medical instruments and other instrument of measurement, indexical instruments par excellance – such as devices for reading pulse rate, temperature, heart rate, etc, or speedometers, wind gauges, and barometers – all converted their information into numbers.

Although a photograph combines both types of signs, the indexical quality of a photograph must not be confused with its iconicity. The fact that rows of numbers do not resemble a photograph, or what the photograph is supposed to represent, does not undermine any indexical claim. An index need not (and frequently does not) resemble the thing it represents. The indexicality of a traditional photograph inheres in the effect of light on chemicals, not in the picture it produces. The rows of numerical data produced by a digital camera and the image of traditional chemical photography are both indexically determined by objects outside the camera. Both photographic chemicals and the digital data must be subjected to elaborate procedures before a picture will result. Here we might grasp how the claim for digital uniqueness displaces a problematic issue within our conception of traditional photography, an especially pernicious one. The claim that the digital media alone transforms its data into an intermediary form fosters the myth that photography involves a transparent process, a direct transfer from the object to the photograph. The mediation of lens, film stock, exposure rate, type of shutter, processes of developing and of printing become magically whisked away if one considers the photograph as a direct imprint of reality.

Thus the very strong claim that digital images can be manipulated in ways photographic images could not, must also be qualified. Indeed the much-heralded malleability of the digital image does not contrast absolutely with photography. I would not deny that the ease, speed and quality of digital manipulation represent an important new stage in the technology of imagery. But we must carefully consider the situations in which such malleability becomes a value and the considerable debt such transformations owe to (although often displacing our attention from) the history of photography. Here especially, the intertwining of indexicality and iconicity must be observed.

Let us grant for the moment, the ability of digital photography to absolutely transform the appearance of the object originally photographed. If we grant that the original digital photograph of Uncle Harry was indexical (and therefore bears an important relation 40


THE OF AN OR, to the actual Uncle Harry), what happens when we then intervene on the data in a Photoshop program and transform his nose into a pronounced beak, his baldhead into a shaggy wilderness, turn his brown eyes blue? Surely the indexical is being attenuated! Two answers are relevant here, both of which depend on a qualified yes. Yes, but … film-based photography can also transform Uncle Harry’s appearance, whether through retouching, use of filters or lenses, selection of angle of photography, exposure time, use of specially prepared chemicals in the developing stage, or adding elements through multiple printing. Traditional photography, therefore, also possesses processes that can attenuate, ignore, or even undo the indexical. No question digital processes can perform these alterations more quickly and more seamlessly, but the difference between digital and filmbased photography cannot be described as absolute.

But a more complex and, I think, more interesting answer would point out that the power of the digital (or even the traditional photographic) to “transform” an image depends on maintaining something of the original image’s visual accuracy and recognizability. I use this phrase (“visual accuracy and recognizability”) to indicate the manner in which indexicality intertwines with iconicity in our common assessment of photographs. Our evaluation of a photograph as accurate (i.e. visually reflecting its subject) depends not simply on its indexical basis (the chemical process), but on our recognition of it as looking like its subject. A host of psychological and perceptual processes intervene here which cannot be reduced to the indexical process. The recognition of a photograph by a viewer as an image of its subject would not simply result from indexically.

Indeed, one could produce an indexical image of something or someone that remained unrecognizable. The image must also be legible in order to be likened to its subject.

Let me get at this via another route. If one of the great consequences of the digital revolution lies in the freedom it gives people to transform a photographic image, we could say that the digital aspires to the condition of painting, in which color, shape, texture, all the components of an image are completely up to the painter, rather than determined by the original subject through an indexical process. But do users of Photoshop want an absolute freedom? Do they really want to create an image or, rather, to transform one which can still be recognized as a photograph (and maybe even as a photograph of Uncle Harry?) The interest in transforming Uncle Harry’s photograph is not quite the same as that of drawing a caricature of him. Admittedly one could point out that few of us have the depictive talent to produce a caricature, and that digital manipulation programs give us that power (interestingly this recalls the argument Fox Talbot gave for his invention of photography). But it seems to me that the power of most digital manipulation of photographs depends on our recognizing them as manipulated photographs, being aware of the strata of the indexical (or perhaps better, the visually recognizable) beneath the manipulation.

The wonderful playfulness celebrated in the digital revolution remains parasitic on the initial claim of accuracy contained in some uses of photography. Just as I tried to untangle the idea of visual accuracy from simple indexicality, I would now like to consider the “truth claim” of photography that relies on both indexicality and visual accuracy but includes more (and perhaps less) than either of them. A great deal of the discussion of the digital revolution has involved its effect of the truth claim of photography, either from a paranoid position (photographs will be manipulated to serve as evidence of things which do not exist thereby manipulating the population to believe in things that do not exist), or from what we might call a schizophrenic position (celebrating the release of


photographic images from claims of truth, issuing in a world presumably of universal doubt and play, allowing us to cavort endlessly in the veils of Maya).

I use the word “truth claim” because I want to emphasize that this is not simply a property inherent in a photograph, but a claim made for it (dependent, of course, on our understanding of its inherent properties). Perhaps its Ur-form can be found in Dion Boucicualt’s 1859 melodrama The Octoroon, in which Scudder, the play’s Yankee “photographic operator”, discovers that an act of murder has been recorded by a camera. He offers the photograph as evidence to a lynch mob about to string up an Indian falsely accused of the murder, declaring, “’Tis true! the apparatus can’t lie!”3 We might add immediately that the apparatus, in itself, can neither lie, nor tell the truth.

Bereft of language, a photograph relies on people to say things about it or for it. It is no accident that Boucicault’s melodrama involves a mock trial in which the photograph exonerates the falsely accused Indian chief Wahnotee and determines the true culprit. Given the early date of this play characters question whether a court of law would actually accept such evidence. Both historically and institutionally, in order to tell the truth, the photograph must be subjected to a series of discourses, become, in effect, the supporting evidence for a statement. Anyone who knows either the complex history by which photographs were granted evidentiary status in legal trial, or indeed the scrutiny and discussion to which they must be subjected before they are granted such status in contemporary trials must realize that in order to speak the truth the photograph must be integrated into a statement, subjected to complex rules of discourse – legal, rhetorical and even scientific (discussing all the aspect of the photograph, its exposure, developing and printing).

But I think we would also have to contradict Scudder and say a photograph can only tell the truth if it is also capable of telling a lie. In other words, the truth claim is always a claim and lurking behind it is a suspicion of fakery, even if the default mode is belief.

In other words, the value placed on the visual accuracy of a photograph, founded on its combination of indexicality and iconicity, forms the basis of a truth claim that can be made in a variety of discourses whether legal (“Here we see the accused caught by a surveillance camera…”) or less formal and interpersonal (“Yes, his penis really is that big…”). But in so far as this value of visual accuracy exists, there will always be a drive to counterfeit it. The truth implies the possibility of lying, and vice versa.

Faking photograph has a long history and was always possible given the processes that intervene or shape the indexical process as it becomes a picture. Spirit photography, the attempt by Spiritualist to prove the survival of a soul after death by capturing its image, a practice dear to my heart, provides only one early example.4 The variety of doctored photographs for political purposes is another.5 But my point here is not simply to claim either that the manipulatability of photographs predates the digital (undeniable) or that this practice was frequently employed in circumstances where truth claims were attempted (undoubted). Rather my point is that the practice of faking or counterfeiting can only exist when true coin of the realm exists as well. Rather than denying photography’s truth claim, the practice of faking photographs depends upon and demonstrates it.

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