Dystopian Diffraction: “Reconsidering Image-Making after Photography”
International Seminar, Bandung Institut of Technology
October 18, 2022
In the history of Western culture, the turning point that separates the practice of making images or image-making before and after the art era happened around the 16th century. This critical point created a canonical yet hegemonic perspective and an idea of what Art is. The radical development in a particular city in Italy called Florence was later alleged to be the point where painting eventually became a given visual culture. The city is also allegedly blessed with several cultural aspects, such as having the first art historians, the first art schools, and strong patrons who supported the development of works of Art (read: paintings) so that their effects were all over Europe. Despite the other political and social contexts that enrich the narration of this development called the Renaissance. Then furthermore, Europe’s social and political backgrounds, especially related to several vital revolutions at that time, brought Art to its modern paradigm: becoming autonomous, institutionalized, discoursed, considered universal, and shaping the ideas of the future. Of course, not without blemish, because this hegemony then issued the development of the periphery, the role of women and people of color.
In the early 20th century, the critical points were not only about painting as a given visual culture but how the development of optical technology reshaped the perspective of so-called; image-making. We will be directing our perspective to image-making after the era of photography. Photography then became a “challenge” for painting because of its primary ability to duplicate reality with great precision. Since then, critical questions have been directed at painting about its position as the most correct way of depicting the world. Since then, photography has immediately replaced the function of painting as a representation; thanks to its ability to reproduce images, through photography also, the hegemony and aura of art as a single object became questionable. In the realm of visual culture, photography marks the hegemony of painting as a major part of visual culture which is obsolete, and along with that, Art revises itself. Even in the realm of visual art later, photography slowly managed to gain recognition as one of the artistic mediums.
In its development, photography, which was previously defined as a complex medium and requires various kinds of knowledge (from chemistry to mechanics), slowly shifted when Kodak launched the brownie camera in the 1900s. As a result, photography is diffracted in all directions of social level, or what we know today as vernacular photography. Image-making and the process of seeing became social events. At the same time, photography experiences a tension between two positions: its position as an artistic medium and its position as a popular image-maker in everyday life.
This tension ultimately leads to the problem of the image as the result of the photographic process. Is the image “only” seen as an imitation/recording of reality – as was the initial function of photography – or can it be seen as a medium of conveying a message like a work of art should? The image’s meaning can be seen more deeply through its relation to the meaning of visuality.
“Visuality is vision socialized” (Walker and Chaplin, 1997: 22)
Norman Bryson in Walker and Chaplin also elaborates that seeing in social events is a retinal experience associated with social milieu(s). He wrote,
“I am inserted into systems of visual discourse that saw the world before I did, and will go on seeing after I no longer see… It may…be that I always feel myself to live at the center of my vision…but…that vision is decentered by the network of signifiers that come to me from the social milieu.”
This perspective aims to provide an overview of how visuals are experienced not only in physical and physiological (both retinal and optical nature) but also from mental aspects and social phenomena. The image of a dark future and horror indicates that visuality is related to individual experiences in a social process.
In today’s realm of visual culture, the development of digital technology and information technology has caused the relationship between image and photography to be vulnerable to question. Various kinds of cameras – including their presence in mobile phones – make it possible for anyone today to easily produce images with all intentions and various skills. Then, the sophistication of digital technology made it easier for anyone to manipulate photographic images; today, a person can produce various images without carrying a camera. In the end, even in art photography, artworks no longer have to be produced through the process of “taking the usual” through dependence on a tool called a camera. In the situation of today’s visual culture, images are scattered everywhere freely, and anyone can access them as needed as “objects of discovery”.
As a reflective effort on the above background, we will direct our perspective to image-making after the era of photography. “After Photography”, according to Fred Ritchin, means examining the myriad ways in which the digital revolution has fundamentally altered the way we receive visual information, from photos of news events taken by ordinary people on cell phones to the widespread use of image surveillance. In a world beset by critical problems and ambiguous boundaries, Ritchin argues that it is time to begin energetically exploring the possibilities created by digital innovations and to use them to better understand our rapidly changing world.