Time has come to write a history of photography.

November 28, 2007

“Philosophy, as the thought of the world, does not appear until reality has completed its formative process, and made itself ready. History thus corroborates the teaching of the conception that only in the maturity of reality does the ideal appear as counterpart to the real, apprehends the real world in its substance, and shapes it into an intellectual kingdom. When philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known. The owl of Minerva, takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.”

Hegel, Philosophy of Right, 1820, Preface
available here

If truly historical knowledge can only be retrospective knowledge (and historical knowledge maybe the model of all knowledge), knowledge of the results that only, according to Hegel, will allow us to trace back and understand a whole process of development, our time can be seen as the proper time to write a history of photography.

For the new technologies of digital images may announce not just changes in the practice of photography but the end of photography itself. The new historical epoch is that of the closure of the history of photography, which brings a true understanding of the photographic phenomenon: a final, conclusive one.

According to Lev Manovich (1), the digital image is something other than the photographic image. And yet, if photography has come to an end, the photographic thrives and indeed may be stronger than ever! Photography has taught us to see the world according to the photographic image’s standards. Our vision, we may say, has in many ways become photographic. Accordingly, the new digital media have adapted to the type of “perception of the real” most common in our time. “Realism” has become photorealism, in the words of Manovich. And this precisely when the new digital technology has brought doubt about the “realistic” character of the photographic image.

If only by reminding us that photography itself began both as “documentary”, the recording of perceptual reality, and as what Manovich terms “illustration”, that is, symbolic creations, images of “non-reality”, externalizations of mental constructs, imaginary perceptions and visions. The creation and treatment of images by the computer reminds us of the mutable character of photographic images in general, past and present, whether static or dynamic images (film).

The computer generated image, what Manovich calls the “synthetic” image, points to the future, to an event yet to take place (in the case of movable images) as the photographic image always refers to an event in the past. It maybe therefore, and this will be part of our investigation here, that the photographic image has become tautological, pointing to itself and its own past, painting “gray over gray”, and therefore amenable for the first time to proper historical treatment and to truly historical knowledge, in Hegel’s concept.

Or does it? For what maybe at stake in the end, is the understanding of images and how they relate to the mind and to reality. But reality for us can only be human reality. Our time is the time that has invented and perfected the “spectacle”, that is, in the words of Guy Debord (2), ideology made into image.

The question of photography and its “double”, the digital image, becomes another important terrain to investigate the “self-representation”, that is, the illusion of the time.

Marcelo Guimaraes Lima

(1) Lev Manovich – The Paradoxes of Digital Photography (1995)

(2) Guy Debord – The Society of the Spectacle (1967)

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