by Mark Frohman
The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-photographic Era
By William J. Mitchell
MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1992, 224 pages, $39.95
On the first page of William J. Michael’s study of the impact of digital technology on contemporary thought and practice, three short paragraphs (“snapshots”) traverse the history of image-making, taking us from Pliny the elder’s mythic account of the origin of painting to Henry Fox Talbot’s chemical fixing of a shadow in 1839 to scientist Russell A. Kirsch processing patterns of light and shadow for the first time into digital information in the mid-1950s.
Painter Paul Delaroche’s familiar proclamation, “From this day on, painting is dead,” upon seeing the first Daguerreotypes that appeared in Paris simultaneous with Talbot’s invention is quoted as an exclamation point to this decisive pictorial rupture (or is it perfection?) of Western modes of visual representation. Although no such statement of grand importance accompanies the discovery of Kirsch and his colleagues at the National Bureau of Standards, one can sense Mitchell beginning to mouth photography’s own epitaph. He continues mouthing, if not quite articulating it, throughout the book; but more on that later.
It is interesting to consider what while photography’s radicality was seen to toss painting into obsolescence due to its assumed verisimilitude, digital-imaging processes are not claimed to register the real more accurately, but, if anything, to traffic in the unreal; in fact, digital imagery bypasses the question—or more profoundly, does away with the distinction between fact and fiction altogether.
One would think that given the history of evolving representational strategies (even within painting and drawing), we would have expected this. Yet the future is difficult to foresee, and photography has done a fine job in shaping the appearance of the world to our conception of it—and vice versa. Besides, in the case of digital technology, what is possible today was barely conceivable a few months ago. It is not surprising then that the intellectual and artistic communities have been slow in acknowledging digital-imagery as the enormous paradigm shift that it is; while teenagers across the country have embraced it. Some of this, no doubt, has to do with its basis in computer technology—the humanities being generally intimidated by things scientific. Yet it also, I suspect, is related to the fact that we were just getting used to the way that photography functions, and dysfunctions, in the light of post-structuralist theories of meaning and representation without something as radical as digital imagery clouding up the waters again.
The Reconfigured Eye sets us up to delve headlong into such issues, following the ground broken by Fred Ritchin’s In Our Own Image: The Coming Revolution in Photography (Aperture, 1991) which took a more ethically-oriented and focused approach that Mitchell’s (Ritchin was concerned primarily with photojournalism). Mitchell’s book developed from seminars and design studios taught at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, is structured in ten chapters, then divided into smaller sections focusing on specific technological processes or ideas about the meaning, use, and history of images. For example, under the chapter “Intention and Artifice” are passages on “Claims to Credibility,” “Origins and Copies,” “Mutation and Closure,” and “Image Ethics Redefined,” to name just a few.
Issues of objectivity and truth, and the ends to which photography has been employed in their services, are raised thoughtfully, incorporating philosophical issues and historical examples. Mitchell has a working group if not a global knowledge, of visual history and photographic traditions. Although he is familiar with contemporary theories concerning the ways that a photographic image can be made to serve different meanings in various contexts, he gives the impression of being surprisingly free of any particular position or ideology on the matter.
He assumes the reader is as familiar with all the ideas as he is, dropping the names of theorists often without the slightest elaboration, but his writing is not weighted by jargon. The style has a casual matter-of-factness that makes it, for the most part, accessible to an unspecialized reader. The reader-friendly structure of dividing the book into small fragments, as though a handbook, allows us to skip around or read it selectively (random access being a primary feature of digital recording). And you might as well; although he begins with almost monumental scope, any thesis he purses gets lost among all his channel-changing. The questions raised and points made are on target, but Mitchell quickly drops them to move on just when we are beginning to be persuaded. In this regard, Mitchell’s book has at least a structural resemblance to that most seminal of works on Modernism and photography, Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
Many of the chapters with stunningly provocative statements: “A world-wide network of digital imaging systems is swiftly, silently constituting itself as the decentered subject’s reconfigured eye” or “We have indeed learned to fix shadows but not to secure their meanings or to stabilize their truth values; they still flicker on the walls of Plato’s Cave” which, for all their dramatic delivery, require the reader to follow up the line of thought on their own. Consciously or not, The Reconfigured Eye reflects the worldview promoted by its very subject: its individual parts are as relatavized and fragmented as the multitude of pixels that make up the digital image’s illusion of wholeness.\
Mitchell covers a lot of territory: the ways in which both artists and scientists have contributed to the development of visual conventions; the adaptation of the techniques of drawing, painting, and photography to computer software, which has simplified difficult and time-consuming processes to the push of a button or a roll of the mouse; the growing image banks accessible to anyone with a modem; and the countless other thought-bytes. However, between such observations, several chapters are solely concerned with explaining the many different capabilities of current graphics software in terms that seem too technical and specific for the book’s premise. Why such detail is necessary to get his point across is left without explanation and gives The Reconfigured Eye the quality of two very different books: one, a critical history of image-making, the other, a beginner’s guide to computer graphics.
The one idea that does recur throughout is that aspect of the new digital image process that most forcefully distinguishes it from chemically-based photography. Throughout the 70s and 80s, when photography came under greater critical scrutiny than it ever had before, theorists consistently remarked on the one quality of photography that could be claimed as an essential identifying feature—Mitchell even has a section titled after it—“The Adherence of the Referent.” In semiotic analysis, the “referent” is simply that which is referred to, that which a certain representation means to depict. For our purposes, the referent is whatever the photographer aims his camera towards.
In their various writings throughout the 70s, critics Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, and Rosalnd Krauss all came to the conclusion that photography is a “pointer,” an index to the referent, in the way footprints point to a human presence or smoke indicates a fire. Photographs in the modern era have served as proof that something existed in a certain spot at a certain time. In a section entitled “The missing Witness” Mitchell states: “The traditional photographer’s essential message is always, as John Berger trenchantly reminded us, ‘I have decided that seeing this is worth recording.’” With digital imaging, a referent is no longer necessary, nor is the photographer who previously served as witness and barer of the image’s origin in the objective world. People can be added, or removed, to evens they never witnessed, in places they’ve never been, with people they’ve never met, all without leaving one’s computer workstation. Images can be multiplied from a single source, as inNewsday’s October 27, 1989 cover showing eighteen Grumman F-14 fighter jets taking off in formation when there was really only one. Photographs of the rings of Saturn and the mountainous terrain of Venus have been shown to the public even though no human has ever actually gazed upon their real surfaces; the photographs were simulated from digital radar data collected in space.
It’s true that there have always been photographic manipulations, but the processes are difficult, and even the best results can usually be detected. With digital imagery, they can’t. It is a world of simulation that digital imagery most convincingly creates, and simulation that is Mitchell’s field of exploration. “This condition demands, with increasing urgency, a fundamental critical reappraisal of the uses to which we put graphic artifacts, the values we therefore assign to them, and the ethical principles that guide our transactions with them,” the author insists. He’s right, but this statement coming at the end of the book, indicates that Mitchell is not going to be the one to give it to us.
The Reconfigured Eye is not as important a book as we would like it to be (it’s no On Photography for the computer generation); it may not leave us with many conclusions, yet does offer a whole host of questions unglossed by either optimistic future-looking or apocalyptic dread. What it does best is give an account, almost an inventory, of the myriad complex ways humans have developed for representing not only the world, but in this day and age, simply representing.
Mark Frohman is a freelance writer based in Houston.