Photography undeveloped

The Photographic Image in Digital Culture
November 8, 1996

This collection attempts to answer an apparently straightforward question: are we now entering a postphotographic era? It sits neatly within a well-trodden field that debates the so-called death of photography as yet another indicator of epochal change as we approach the millennium. Although the idea of the death of the medium is, of course, nonsensical (it would be as easy to kill photography as writing), such a notion has a material base, for it is predicated on the emergence of what is referred to rather awkwardly in this work as the image-oriented computer: the Mac, the scanner and Adobe Photoshop. Pour enfoncer le clou, and to make sure that the right cultural tropes about representation are invoked, the cover is a photo-montage of David Hemmings in Antonioni's Blow-Up (1967) on a Photoshop-induced background. Quite easy to do, it implies. Does this mean that photography will end up in the hands of computer nerds?

The essays range from the arcane to the irrelevant, including a couple that are right on the button. But mostly they miss the point by being too widely conceived and not about photography at all: a charge I am sure Martin Lister would dispute, for he argues that here photographic image is a term that includes broadcast television and video. This opens the floodgates to a torrent of issues that obscure the fact that all that is presently evident is a change in technology, on a par with the invention of dry plates and roll film in the 1880s, the 35mm camera in the 1920s, or the minilab in the 1970s. In fact, chemical photography remains absolutely dominant in the process of single-image making, despite all the hype about digital imaging. Where significant change has occurred it is in the area of prepress production. Computers have made a huge impact on the distribution of images and on the sociotechnology of publishing. Sadly, this book has virtually nothing to say about such things.

Concern that images originating in broadcast television and video can be captured as effortlessly (and then manipulated) by digital technology as those created by chemical photography has led some to argue that more than a technological change in how images are made is at stake. On the whole Lister et al take a less millenarian position. To simplify greatly, the argument frequently turns on issues about representation, and the old saw about a photographic image having inherent documentary value - the camera never lies. Only in the field of cultural and media studies does anybody believe that people are still prone to this simplistic belief.

The main problem with this collection is that the contributors prefer to engage with current debates in cultural theory rather than with photography per se. It is a field that has produced little of substance about photography especially where the construction of meaning and truth through the still image are concerned. Presenting such a collection with the title The Photographic Image in Digital Culture is simply meretricious.

Peter Hamilton researches photography, Open University.

The Photographic Image in Digital Culture

Author - Martin Lister
ISBN - 0 415 12156 6 and 12157 4
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00 and £12.99
Pages - 256

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