Flusser: Towards a Philosophy of Photography

Flusser, Vilem. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. , 2000. Print

Flusser opens with a bold hypothesis that there have been two fundamental turning points in human culture. The first being the invention of linear writing and the second the invention of technical image making, initially through photography. He speaks at length about the ‘apparatus’ of the camera as being a tool that has it’s own ‘program’ that takes precedence over human control. That photographers are playing a game of operating the camera, but always within the programmed rules of the apparatus.

Several particularly interesting quotes:

“In choosing their categories, photographers may thing they are bringing their own aesthetic, epistemological or political criteria to bear. They may set out to take artistic, scientific or political images with the camera is only a means to an end. But what appear to be their criteria for going beyond the camera nevertheless remain subordinate to the camera’s program. In order to be able to choose camera-categories, as they are programmed on the camera’s exterior, photographers have to ‘set’ the camera, and that is a technical at, more precisely a conceptual act (‘concept’, … is a clear element of linear thought). In order to be able to set the camera for artistic, scientific and political images, photographers have to have some concepts of art, science and politics; How else are they supposed to be able to translate them into an image? There is no such thing as naive, non-conceptual photography. A photograph is an image of concepts. In this sense, all photographers’ criteria are contained within the camera’s program.” (p. 36)

“It is true that one can still take new images, but they would be redundant, non-informative images, similar to those one has seen before. …. Redundant photographs are not of interest in this study; photographers in the sense intended here are in pursuit of possibilities that are still u unexplored in the camera’s program, in pursuit of informative, improbable images that have not been seen before.” (p. 37)

As discussing a decision making process: “As consequentially, no decision is really ‘decisive’, but part of a series of clear and distinct quantum-decisions, likewise only a series of photographs can testify to the photographer’s intention. For no single photograph is actually decisive; even the ‘final decision’ finds itself reduced to a grain in the photograph.” (p. 39)

“Black-and-white photographs embody the magic of theoretical thought since they transform the linear discourse of theory into surfaces. Herein lies their peculiar beauty, which is the beauty of the conceptual universe. Many photographers therefore also prefer black-and-white photographs to color photographs because they more clearly reveal the actual significance of the photograph, i.e. the world of concepts. (p. 43)

“Color photographs are on a higher level of abstraction than black-and-white ones. Black-and-white photographs are more concrete and in this sense more true: They reveal their theoretical origin more clearly, and vice versa: The ‘more genuine’ the colors of the photograph become, the more untruthful they are, the more they conceal their theoretical origin.” (p. 44)

“Reduced to basic elements, photographers’ intentions are as follows: first, to encode their cncepts of the world into images; second, to do this by using a camera; third, to show the images produced in this way to others so that they can serve as models for their experience, knowledge, judgment and actions; fourth, to make these models as permanent as possible. In short: Photographers’ intentions are to inform others and through their photographs to immortalize themselves in the memory of others.” (p. 45-46)

“As an object, as a thing, the photograph is practically without value; a flyer and no more.” (p. 51)

“In theory, information can be classified as follows: into indicative information of the type ‘A is A’, into imperative information of the type ‘A must be A’, and into optative information of the type ‘A may be A’. The classical ideal of the indicative is truth, that of the that of the imperative is goodness, and that of the optative is beauty. This theoretical classification cannot, however, be applied in practice since every scientific indicative has at the same time political and aesthetic aspects, every political imperative has scientific and aesthetic aspects, every optative (work of art) has scientific and political apsects. Nevertheless, the distribution apparatuses practice precisely this theoretical classification. (p. 53)

“Almost everyone today has a camera and takes snaps. Just as almost everyone has learned to write and produce texts. Anyone who is able to write can also read. But anyone who an take snaps does not necessarily have to be able to decode photographs. For us to see why the amateur photographer can be a photographic illiterate, the democratization of the making of photographs has to be considered — and at the same time, a number of aspects of democracy in general have to be addressed.” (p. 57)

“Amateur photographers’ clubs are places where one gets high on the structural complexities of cameras, where one goes on a photograph-trip — post-industrial opium dens.” (pg. 58)

“The documentary photographer, just like the person taking snaps, is interested in continually shooting new scenes from the same old perspective. The photographer in the sense intended here is, on the other hand, interested in seeing in continually new ways, i.e. producing new, informative states of things.” (p. 59)

“In the course of the foregoing attempt to sum up the essential quality of photography, a few basic concepts come to light: image – apparatus – program – information. These must be the cornerstones of any philosophy of photography, and they make possible the following definitions of a photograph: It is an image created and distributed by photographic apparatus according to a program, an image whose ostensible function is to inform. Each one of the basic concepts thus contains within it further concepts. Image contains within it magic; apparatus contains within it automation and play; program contains within it chance and necessity; information contains within it the symbolic and the improbable. This results in a broader definition of a photograph: It is an image created and distributed automatically by programmed apparatuses in the course of a game necessarily based on chance, and image of a magic state of things whose symbols inform its receivers how to act in an improbable fashion. (p. 76)

From the afterword, written by: Hubertus von Amelunxen (for more on Hubertus, click here)
Moholy-Nagy stated, “… that those who are ignorant in matters of photography will be the illiterates of tomorrow.” (p. 90)

“The aim of any single photograph is — as Adorno says — the disclosure of the ‘logic of being produced’. Thinking about photography means defining the playful combinations contained within the apparatus and seeing the program as a concept of freedom.” (pg. 93)

Click here for a good wikipedia overview about Flusser and in particular a short essay about this book.
This wikipedia entry includes the follow quotation:

Flusser developed a lexicon of terms that have proven influential and that continue to be useful for thinking about contemporary photography, digital imaging technologies and their online uses. These include: the ‘apparatus’ (a tool that changes the meaning of the world in contrast to what he calls mechanical tools that work to change the world itself); the ‘functionary’ (the photographer or operator of the camera who is bound by the rules it sets); the ‘programme’ (a ‘system in which chance becomes necessity’ and a game ‘in which every virtuality, even the least probable, will be realized of necessity if the game is played for a sufficiently long time’; the ‘technical image’ (the first example of which is the photograph, with its particular kind of significant surface that looks like a traditional image but harbors encoded and obscure concepts that cannot be ‘immediately’ deciphered). While Flusser did write a number of short essays on the work of specific photographers, his major focus was the critical and philosophical need to understand late 20th-century media culture and the emergent possibilities and threats presented by the larger forces at work in an increasingly technical and automated world.

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