Until now, I have related the development of art and of photography in particular to the breaking down of civilization by the Second World War on the one hand (we should take the development of science and economy for granted), and on the other hand to the increasing commercialization and mediatization of society. Now, we are again faced with the aftermath of an epochal rift, another post-war period as it were: photography after the end of the Cold War, symbolized by the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the demise of the Soviet Union and the so-called Eastern Block. In its wake, we could interpret the 1990s and 2000s, with only slight exaggeration, as a post-war period of the second order.
To wit: the internet originally is an American military project dating from the 1960s, called ARPANET, or also DARPANET (with “D” for “Defense”), a decentralized network based on linked American universities who conducted research for the Pentagon, mainly for reasons of storage capacity. Internet is therefore originally a military communication network. Of course, the new network technology was also explored in other, non-military places, such as CERN in Geneva, where its core protocols acquired their definitive form. Common to all of these research programs was to forge research networks and facilitate academic connections within closed intranets. Ultimately around the early 1980s, this new technology was quasi “in the air.”
Although having been around for a while, the “internet technology” was only commercialized at the onset of the 1990s – and then developed at a break-neck speed and very publicly, not in the least because politics (mainly American) did not stand in the way of bringing the technology into the public realm by means of injunctions or other restrictions. The technology had ceased to be a matter of military magnitude and therefore the system could be released for civic and commercial use.
The technologies that were often used in military contexts (as weapons, or tools for camouflage or communication), and which had to remain painstakingly hidden by the spies and secret services of the world during the Cold War, could now be commercialized. The massive technological arms race of the Cold War could now be competed on the market. The commercialization of the internet and the introduction of the first digital cameras available for the mass market went parallel, and immediately caused a stock market high. Some may remember the burst of the first “dotcom” bubble.
This surprisingly rapid development triggered a range of questions, of which I will take on a few, with Florian Rötzer in mind. He described the state of photography at the end of the 1990s as follows:
“Photography, today, suffers the same fate as all analog media, whose autonomy is annulled by the integration into digital code. Photographs or cameras only provide data for digitization, to be processed by computers and then changed at will. The most remarkable property of computer technology is the potential to process anything that can be digitized, i.e. translated into numbers, and connect the outcomes with any output device available. This property of computers, which makes it a veritably universal machine, because it can principally mimic any other machine, deeply affects our understanding of reality.”
Besides, Rötzer wrote already 20 years ago: “Deceit is the fundamental principle of the technical image, and its realism is always self-deception. Digital photography produces images, which are only appearing as realistic, in which all manners of image production can be merged at will, and which can be manically and willfully manipulated: photography as the perfect painting of a digital surrealism; the image a naked canvas for imagination, open to subjective depiction. No more submission to the object, to given lighting conditions, to prevailing colors.” Florian Rötzer, „Betrifft: Fotografie“, in: Hubertus von Amelunxen (Hg.), Fotografie nach der Fotografie, Dresden/Basel: Verlag der Kunst 1995, p. 13–25
Rötzer’s last sentence is decisive: “no more submission to the object, to given lighting conditions, to prevailing colors.” One cannot express more easily the reversal of the modern/modernistic photographic principle to post-modern digital photography. Better would be more complicated. Today, our image of the world is less imprinted by the world outside as by the photographer’s imagination or interest or at least that of his commissioner. Baudrillard, the theoretician of simulation, of the simulacrum, would shout: “Welcome!” Welcome to a world of images, which severs the ties with any external reference, with reality, and builds its own, self-referential empire: the empire of signs. In a piecemeal abstraction of the real world, we arrive at a field of signs that only reference other signs.
Voilà. Ever since, the industry has wallowed in numbers. In 2012, the amount of photos produced that year exceeded the total photographic production in previous years since photography’s invention in 1839. The speed at which images engulf the world in effortless multiplication makes Speedy Gonzales – the world’s fastest comic mouse – look like a pillar of salt. What is the current function of these images, this explosion of photographically and videographically produced data? What do they want to be, or what should or might they be? A large chunk of photos appearing in social media seems to hardly fulfill aesthetic purposes. Rather, they seem intended to act for a few seconds as social and individual-psychological triggers. Taking pictures in stead of remembering. Taking pictures in stead of experiencing, thinking, knowing, talking, reading, loving. Taking pictures in stead of acting. Taking pictures of the hotel on fire, and only after that call the fire brigade. Taking pictures seems to replace the original experience. But what is ‘original’ anymore, anyway?
Digitalization, in this conceptual context, on the one hand leads to a shift in the perception of photography and on the other to a shift in our agency with, through and triggered by photography. Aesthetical view points are far less important than the perspective of event dynamics, of mnemo-techniques, of archiving the present.
The death of photography is often announced. But photography is like the king: le roi est mort, vive le roi! Photography is dead, long live photography, also with and after the digital turn! But what photographic images (can) mean is now constantly being redefined.