The involution of photography

RP 157 () / Article

As we settle further into the era of digital media and globalized visual culture, it might be tempting to think that photography holds no more than historical interest. Yet it continues to feature in debates with considerable significance for the present.1 The terms by which it was negotiated in the twentieth century – the print, the negative and the mechanical-optical apparatus, the affective experience of a moment stilled, and any truth that its rendering promises – have been technically and culturally displaced and expanded. New instabilities have become familiar and have distanced us from how photography was understood, even in the fairly recent past. The current historical conjuncture is marked by a widespread suspicion that existing theories – including those that turned, in the 1970s, to Marxism, feminist critique, semiotics or psychoanalysis so as to politicize and contest mainstream photographic culture – might no longer be adequate to photography’s contemporary situation. That photography still matters, however, can be evidenced, prosaically and contingently, by noting the increasing number of new scholarly journals and exhibitions devoted to its past, present and future in recent years.2 There is, in this – as Fred Ritchin is only the latest to note – a sense that the undoing of photography’s prior certainties constitutes an ending and an enlargement. The fate of photography provides an ‘expansive filter’ through which to chart the ‘chaos of possibilities that emerge and recede, back up and move forward, crisscrossing each other.’3 Expectations of the new and the old, the obsolete and as yet only anticipated, are thrown into temporal disarray as its openness to reformation gives the photographic past a futural slant.

One case in point is the photographic index. Photography has often been thought to produce indexes of things in a way that enables its ontological characterization. The idea is that the photographic index arises out of a strict relation the apparatus establishes with something that has to be in front of the camera in order for its image to be produced. However, the lack of motivation in this process tends also to indicate other (contextual and dialogic) meanings. As Blake Stimson and Robin Kelsey noted recently, photographic indexicality is tendentious and has shifted ‘from scientific guarantee to social promise to myth’. They think of this history as foregrounding a ‘double indexicality’ in photography’s ‘peculiar pointing both outward to the world before the camera and inward to the photographer behind it.’4 In the wake of new media, this relation has shifted again. Whilst one might be sceptical of the ways in which indexicality has been used as a key to the definition of photography, it is striking that in some senses – at the very moment at which the mechanicaloptical apparatus guaranteeing its sense is eclipsed – the ontological purchase of the concept on theorizations of the photographic has only seemed to increase. Certainly, this marks recent controversies between those who want its apparent sudden obsolescence to renew indexicality for the task of capping photography off historically, and those who carry on using the term regardless of the ground shifting beneath them. Indexicality has come to act as a retrospective and comprehensive stand-in for a range of related terms (such as evidence and reference), which, at various stages in its history, served different ends in contests over photography’s character and meaning. This does not leave the present untouched. One might say that photography is undergoing an involution registered by the transformation of indexicality. The historically freighted and politically ambivalent ways in which this might unfold call for close scrutiny.

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