The Paradox of Photography

Every photograph is an illustration of Zeno’s Paradox. By seeming to frame time with the release of the shutter, the photograph seems to frame time as infinitely divisible into moments, into halfway points between an infinitude of 2 other points. Whether starting or ending with starting or ending, the infinitude of these points prevents the possibility of starting or ending.

People have noticed something like this about photography pretty much as soon as its invention. The specificity of the moment and subject of a photograph contrasts with its potential infinitude of meaning and authorship. Even more, this aspect of photography provides a snapshot of the paradox of art in a disenchanted, rationalized age.

Expanding on this in an interesting way has been a series of posts at still searching – An Online Discourse on Photography.  The site hosts a series of bloggers, each who writes several posts over a period of time. The posts by Ekaterina Degot I found especially worthwhile.  Her posts were augmented by the comments of “co-bloggers” Casey Smallwood and Matthew Jesses Jackson.  Additionally, Prof. Degot linked to a book chapter by Boris Groys.

virtually all contemporary artists today are working FIRST as photographers and SECOND as artists. The ubiquity of the photograph as a means of basic art communication — as a painting jpeg on Contemporary Art Daily — or as performance documentation — or as film still that platforms a video — means that that artists are always “thinking photographically” as they produce their work. So, the mind is imagining the “photographic aspects” of works and in this sense we could argue that photography has accidentally became the defining medium of our time.  Matthew Jesse Jackson

'Fountain'_by_Marcel_Duchamp_(replica)[1]The art environment had already been altered by the dynamics that made Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain not only possible, but deeply influential.  The all but complete replacement of the chemo-mechanical production, reproduction and display of photography with the digital enabled these dynamics to fully flower.

What is spotlighted instead is a contemporary art that is less of an object and more of an essay, a piece of writing, a bit of a theory, presented in “research installation” form with a vast spectrum of media, where photography can be also used—but, indeed, used rather than fully acknowledged in its “autonomy.”  Eketrina Degot

Furthermore Casey Smallwood suggests that in this environment, the artist or photographer becomes less one who executes a medium and more one who curates it.

Perhaps the accumulation of contexts and content within the medium of photography along with the ubiquity of digital photography in combination with the accessibility of sophisticated software and instantaneous filters has put formerly monetary and labor-intensive techniques into even more hands than analog photography film put automatic cameras. If the conversation and celebration of technical skill was disrupted in painting with photography, then it seems – that same conversation is being disrupted now. We are less impressed with technique or the mastery of a medium, now, more than ever before. So, if technical skill is not the criterion of an artist, perhaps curation is. Casey Smallwood

In times celebrating collectivity, the communal, both mundane and cosmic, every piece of art was singular, individual. This singularity was a manifestation of the collective Invisible and its all-encompassing unitary nature.

Boris Groys explores this terrain in the book chapter Prof Degot links to:

The digital image is a visible copy of the invisible image fi le, of the invisible data. In this respect the digital image is functioning as a Byzantine icon—as a visible copy of invisible God…

In this respect, how iconoclastic religions have dealt with the image could probably help. According to these religions the Invisible shows itself in the world not through any specifi c individual image but through the whole history of its appearances and interventions. Such a history is necessarily ambiguous: It documents the individual appearances or interventions of the Invisible (biblically speaking: signs and wonders) within the topography of the visible world—but at the same time it documents them in a way that relativizes all these appearances and interventions, that avoids the trap of recognizing one specifi c image as the image of the Invisible. The Invisible remains invisible precisely by the multiplication of its visualizations. the visible. From Image to Image File—and Back: Art in the Age of Digitalization

In times of disenchanted rationality the Invisible disappears from art. It no longer adheres to the image. It is set adrift from the chromatic progression of a specific image’s history, untethered to its copies, its repeated re-enactment of form and content.

The Invisible is in fact what makes copies possible. Copies are always in some sense themselves. They do not occupy the same space as the original, they are imperfect compared to the original. Copies are possible not so much through technologies of reproduction, but through their function to stand in for the original.

As the Invisible becomes unsensed, the individual work of art looses its ability to represent the collectivity. Each work of art becomes not a representative of the Invisible but part of a searchable database.

Photography, in its current form of endless propagation, produces, more than any art form, the revealing of Being as searchable.

Every iteration of an image is neither copy nor original. Its form and history are incidental to the specificity of the display it shows up on. Nothing adheres to it other than its searchability, its findabiity.

This can appear as an opening of possibilities, its ahistoricalness a liberation from the either/or of ideologies. Or it can appear as merely another database


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