“It stands to reason that this should be so: every society needs an image in its own likeness. Silver gelatin photography provides the image of industrial society and operates with the same protocols as all of the other forms of production that took place within it. The materiality of silver gelatin photography is bound up with advances in chemistry, the development of steel and the railways, machinism and the colonial expansion driven by capitalist economics. In contrast, digital photography is the product of an economy that privileges information as a commodity, opaque capital and invisible electronic transactions. Its material is language, codes and algorithms; it has the same substance as text or sound and can exist in the same networks of transmission. It pertains to an accelerated world, to the supremacy of dizzying speed and to the demand for immediacy and completeness.”
The media are heirs of their own past. 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. Aristotle describes the optical principles of the camera obscura, and the Arab alchemists were familiar with the photosensitive properties of silver halides. However, what we commonly think of as photography only crystallised in the early nineteenth century, because it was precisely at that point in time that the technico-scientific culture of positivism required a process that could certify the empirical observation of nature. The advent of the camera is thus linked to notions of objectivity, truth, identity, memory, document, archive and so on. The camera would become an instrument in the service of industrialisation, in the service of colonialism, in the service of the emerging disciplines of control and surveillance… Beyond that leap from silver salts to silicon, and from the grain of film to the pixel, what are the changes that digital photography will confront us with in semiotics, in epistemology and in ontology?
To answer the question we must dive down into the deepest idiosyncrasies of digital photography. The texture of the support and the mosaic character that comes from being composed of graphic units which can be operated individually, takes us close to the status of painting or writing.
The digital image reproduces this kind of situation: once again we can act on the most basic components of the image, which is now structured as a grid of pixels, capable of being modified and combined with one another. Once again, the formation of the image appears as a chain of choices. It can therefore be argued that, in essence, a pictorial image and a digital image are identical. There are differences in the technical modus operandi, the tools and the apparatus, but – let me say it again – their structural nature is the same. The convergence of the two systems invites us to think that, in the evolution of images, it would have been the logical development to go from painting directly to infographics. Technology should have taken painting straight to digital imaging. But it didn’t happen that way. Instead, photography insinuated itself between the two processes. And in photography the optical registration of the image was marked by an extravagant singularity: a scene is projected automatically and in its entirety onto a whole surface at once. The two-dimensional screen thus becomes the signifying graphic unit. The conclusion to be extracted from this, in short, is that analogue photography is inscribed and digital photography is written.
Considered in this light, photography would seem to be an accident of history, an anomaly, a parenthesis in what could have been expected in a foreseeable genealogy of the image. In the natural transition from painting to infographics (which can actually be thought of as computer painting) photography somehow slipped in, and for a century and a half made itself at home, imposing the values of descriptive neutrality and credibility we know it by – in other words, paying off its debt to nineteenth-century positivism and empiricism.
That reception has to do with the qualities we accept in the digital image, and also with its application and treatment. In photography, two facets have always necessarily coexisted, perfectly wedded and all but inseparable: on one hand, the photograph as information, as visual data, and on the other, the physical support, the photograph as object. The history of photography can be understood as the continuum from the object to the information, that is to say, as a process of increasing dematerialisation of the support. The daguerreotype as the first instantiation of an image produced by a camera was not so much an image fixed on a plate, as a plate containing an image: its sumptuous materiality was inevitable. From the manifestly weighty daguerreotype to the weightless abstraction of an ordering of algorithms, photographs have been metal, glass, paper, film and finally a volatile presence in cyberspace. Certain social practices have favoured one state or another; in the domain of the archive, for example, the informational condition is paramount, while in the museum it is the objectual condition that prevails. Slowly but surely, however, the qualities of the object have given way before the qualities of pure information. No doubt this explains the parallel transition in the world of the visual arts from the formal to the conceptual, just as it also suggests clues to the difficulties that prevented painting from evolving into infographic creation. In short, digital technology has dematerialised photography, which has now become pure visual data, content without physical matter, an image without a body. This intangible condition of photography opens up magnificent prospects for diffusion and collective interaction, while at the same time generating uncertainties about its conservation (uncertainties, that is, about the durability of the support). We will also return to these issues later.