a reflexion about still image and photography in the digital transition
• picture here over : Gustave Le Gray
In our actual time of transition, how the changes appearing in photography help us to build new models for literature. But how the changes appearing in photography induce also new models in the world of image by itself, and the gap between photographing, writing and filming. Twenty dots or open trails.
First, how permanently remember that image has always and first been, from the start, a story. Literature and film have built their own story as an object of time. The still image, today widening to film without changing is nature, accepts to become time by itself, and we just are slowly becoming to understang the new story that begins. By changing ourselves to accept a renewed image, what new stories begin ?
There has never been an image with no duration. Shoot people waiting on the platform from an Underground railway at a ten thousandth of a second, and it will become a strange sculptural issue. What lies under our temporal field of perception is also a significant space.
Can we say we are ourselves the limit of the photography ? Beyond fifteen pictures a second, we can no longer see or read. The illusion of continuity which the movie creates was born of this principle. But certain experiences are evidences prove the contrary : launch a projection at 40 pictures second, and insert a single slide of an immediate danger, your central brain will respond, you will be able to press a red button – a classical experiment. So, when images and narratives become today a flow, how to be sure that our story keeps its grip on the world, where the invisible or abstract part grows with each new technology ?
In reducing the duration of the exposure, we used to produce the illusion that the image was – as a snapshot – instantaneous. But a constantly variable dimension : Baudelaire posing for Carjat’s photographic chamber, it’s several minutes of total immobility – what happens there in the poet’s thoughts ? Do we enough practice and know, in our own brains, the pathes which turn back from the instantaneous to establish each one of our common photographic images as duration ?
Consequence for the narrative technicality : a sentence (I would prefer to keep our french word phrase, as it’s used for music) can be simultaneous of its referential time : the action of Joyce’s Ulysses goes on 24 hours, and requires 24 hours to be read. But the narrative is able to amplify its referential time : add everything Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet do, and they would live for two hundred forty five years. Odette, in Proust’s Search of lost time, makes love despite being hundred and sixteen years old. Conversely, a whole narrative can apply to a referential time of no duration : a great Bernard-Marie Koltes’s narrative for exemple – Solitude dans les champs de coton – is a full one hour and half play just refering to a single glance between two guys, one walking, the other one sitting. When our daily experience of the time – particularly with our digital uses – has considerably amplified our relationship with time (compared to one or two generations ago), and when for example we have to learn there is no longer distinction between the still and the moving image, how should it be possible to tell stories in the same way ?
The speed as experience has been constitutive of the narrative’s contemporaneity : writing the automobile speed sensation for Proust, the increase of the speed (and driving yourself, despite his missing arm) for Cendrars, apprehend mental speed when using drugs for Michaux. Paradoxically, in Faulkner’s 1925 Pylon, the plane rocks the literature far more than all subsequent descriptions (landing in Chicago in the Fall of America of Ginsberg, and his flights descending on every greatest cities around the world after his Nobel prize in Le jardin des Plantes of Claude Simon). Two Japanese photographers teach us a language to tell the speed with an image protocole that stays independent from the image by itself : Hiroshi Sugimoto who filmed those wonderful old and empty aAmerican theaters, exposing his film only by the screening of the chosen movie in the empty hall, on the whole and exact duration of this movie), and the hand lifted photographs of Daido Morayama, where the transcription of the reality is reached by the transcription of his own mobility and movement to do his shooting. What a new and different relation to speed requires to be told, to increase the vocabulary of our photographical gesture. A photography from an aircraft window is an archetype : but telling what has changed in our speed perception has become a challenge both for the narrative and the image simultaneously...
So how to mentally get used to what the image has no more edge in time than in it’s own frame (what we learned a long time ago). If image doesn’t provide by itself it’s sound context, we are accustomed to rebuild it mentally – our personnal sound library probably widened in the same scale, compared to our parents or grand-parents, than our internal picture library. Are we able to keep mentally the difference between micro-sequences often reduced to less than a second in the complex narrative constructions which are the vocabulary of the movie, video and clips, and an image that presents itself as a still photographic picture. Many flagship applications are based on such a displacement : video inserts in the sequential flows of Instagram or Twitter, even after Vine or Periscope have vanished, or how Facebook direct live becomes a political and communicational tool of primary importance or have a look at the recent Apple’s ad about their new app where, by clicking on a still image, you get the video loop associated with it.
Which opens to a parallel consideration on the media as supports, the suite of technologies that transform the real into a material image. If, from its very origin, the image is never separated from our own reading and what we reconstruct from it, if we have to re-project internally what it is supposed to represent as real. And what has always been constitutive of the history of the image, but takes a new dimension in our times of transition : to question this reading itself, recognize what it expresses from what we have inherited mentally, and the effort it takes to think pragmatically what has established there that we can not know in advance, and offers to see the real in a new way – what would be the mark of our time, in a major and unpredictable transition, where their technical nature affects all media, is how this protocol is now tied to photography, image and text together, each inseparable from the medium by which they manifest through your own uses, and flows that bring them to us. To read an image or read a text is also, nowadays, to read the media that embodies them, and the circuit that makes them accessible – neither photography nor the film nor the text can no longer be considered as « representation », this is perhaps precisely what allows their to be fiction, invention, or at least gives them their autonomy as objects, and makes us able to not submit ourselves to reality. Have we begun to learn to behave in the real without the old need to represent it, knowing that no representation can no longer be relevant ?
One of the Vilém Flusser’s axis, in Philosophy of the photography, long before the advent of digital cameras, is to think about how the technical device has been from the first an active system, interacting with the person using it. The technological change has radicalized this autonomy of the device, independently of the image itself : the image is no longer as a standalone file, but primarily an algorithm, treated as such by the software set as circulation or fixed materiality (screened or printed). These algorithms are submitted, as other computer equipments, to a globalized standard that includes predetermined archetypes : it concerns Instagram filters as well as compression terms of the best sensors, and the various viral publishing contexts. Even in RAW format, the most complicated and elaborated sensor is always related to the specific algorithm, depending of each brand, who produces the image as a visible frame. And it has to be a specifical part of a critical education to the making of images – how do we deal, upstream of our capture, to counter this own algorithmic activity. And knowing the growing role of algorithms in the economic and social organization of the reality, and the information we receive from the world by the flows with which we interfere, or even how the smallest requests we make of a book or music, the algorithmic understanding of the image is obviously an essential workshop also for the narrative.
Immediate corollary : this preliminary and mental making of an image, conscientized or not, just before the shooting, applies to the image in our full relationship and process of its making, thus including two dimensions that were not as affirmed in pre-digital times : images data banks, including FlickR that was at a time their most symbolic figure, and now replaced by another very complex mechanics : the images queries Google search algorithm, and no need to recall the huge pan of artistic invention which today has its camp in these banks of found images – and an other dimension, apparently more objective where the images result from devices without direct human intervention, surveillance cameras or body images (from the 3D modeling of the brain used by surgeons, to the use of prenatal ultrasound scans which has become socialized pictures. What telescope has ever seen the color of the space ? Certainly not Hubble visual reconstruction of galaxies, and even the surface of Mars, is never free from the projection of archetypes from our representations historically constituted on the collected data banks.
The image without camera comes long before the first technological appearance of the photographic chamber, whose story (see the invention of the portable device by Nadar, his « Detective »– used for example by Zola, who will leave 7000 photographic plates without ever writing on his photographic practice), supports the history of photography and still a very active core practices in art schools. Surprisingly, a more and more skilffull capacity of our miniaturized devices has enabled the survival of dedicated cameras, where music has for long lost its own specific equipments. Yet at every stage of the photographic history, this relative dissolution – miniaturization, integrated picture function – creates practical areas whose aesthetic is unique to each, without any possible hierarchy in their impact. The freehand photography with a simple iPhone has become the best notebook to the author or the filmmaker, as it allowed the painter to relay watercolor as instant capture and documentation. And opened new creative spaces, where the relative poverty of the devices and media can be part of the project by itself.
How to grasp the still image as duration ? Just think how the movie and even the painting has already explored it : static shots of Chris Marker in La jetée, and the formal novelty of Hopper’s paintings on the inside of a cinema in New York, the snapshot set by the body position of the opener at rest, while the duration of the film is transcribed by the grayscale variations on the screen corner. When literature works on time, it integrates the expanded vocabulary of image playback for those she built with her own sentences material.
The art of Madame Bovary (which is not entitled novel but manners, provincial manners – as well as Stendhal’s Le rouge et le noir is simply called manners, and Balzac entitled his books social studies, or philosophical studies, or scenes of private life), to build that on which the novel works – these gnaws inside human beings in their friction with the world – must also build what the novel represents : the school, the village, the pharmacy, the coach, the operation of the clubfoot. The issue of documentation, and the emancipation of the representation, is the same in the novel than in the image as art. Nowadays, these representations are not only available, but saturating : Flickr or YouTube are not only flows, but encyclopedias. Integrate them into the story would crush it, they would be redundant. Follows a double movement : we are so familiar with these images encyclopedias they in turn become fiction, by their mere attendance and description – and so are the multiple literary projects proceeding from the arbitrary recordings of Street View. Or the possibility of holding an entire novel about a mall escalator, since everyone can instantly restore critical data we need to represent it.
Everyone can do this exercise : looking for what are the five photographs that you watched the longest. Personly, certainly Baudelaire’s portrait by Carjat, and the waves of Gustave Le Gray. If Le Gray amazes me so, of course it’s due to the scarcity of images issued from his time, but also because they show the invention, the crossing : images which invent their technology (Le Gray makes separate shootings of the sky and the water to fix photographically the moving waves in a chemical processes) and included this technological leap in its very expression. I first used Instagram as a propulsion tool for my Facebook wall : for a few months, I use it as a fully aesthetic medium – the choice of my subscriptions, expansion and refinement of the accounts that I follow, and of course questionning what I’m myself propelling. The linear flow of Instagram, reported to the quantitative but still flow of FlickR, places the image in a delivery method that is more akin to the radio. I never watched an Instagram picture as long as Le Gray, certainly not. But for every photographer that I follow, the time the multiplicity of images is worth the time spent on a small collection of images. What in ten years has revolutionized the world of photography, text is following it by now – widespread access, propulsion algorithms and social virality as part of its organic constitution as narrative. Overall, the movie has not yet taken this path : YouTube virality is not the fact of the filmmakers but has already got the ability to replace them, overturning the status of the author as for photographs or authors in the digital age. Reading quickly, reading more profusely and fragmentedly, is not reading less – by what mental work, meditation, slowness or otherwise – should we compensate ?
We have been the contemporaries of a new paradigm : the image includes as one of its own content its broadcast mode and accumulation mode – in France, the founding approach of Andre Gunthert – makes the image becoming stream, and our own use and perception of the image another stream. It was latent in the history of photography before the digital era, but when virality and the database become the own image elements, it provides us a new indication for the fate of texts in the digital age. Three generations, two or a single generation from ourselves, of how many images is made photographic memory of our parents or grand-parents ? And based on what main archetypes ? And if we see this growing pool of stored images, what become the stories and legends associated with them ? And are they sorted in our brain as in our hard drives ? Do we memorize them as single shots, series ? Is our brain infinitely extensible, and how proceeds he to classify the non verbal information that constitutes an image ?
Meanwhile, what our own mind change, for storing and sorting of images, changes our memorization of writings ? What our own mental change for storage and sorting images changes and interacts with our immediate perception of reality ? How what the movies and pictures we have memorized, becoming matter of our own reality, modifies the territory and ways of our stories ? What we act in the world, becoming desire and form of fixed or filmic images, moves our imagination concerning the world ? What images do we dream, and how do they move the texts and stories we also dream ?
The very long list of writers who have early practiced photography : Hugo, Nerval, Gautier, du Camp, Rimbaud, Zola. And yet have not written about photography. How could it interfere, including Lovecraft or even Julien Gracq – all amateur photographers –, or Claude Simon, art photographer, with the operation mode of their sentence in its assault on the world ? Zola photography mopeds, or the construction of the Eiffel Tower – when he died in 1902, he has just received from Seattle the very last new Kodak, leaving behind him 7 000 glass plates. And the question for today : when the image gets into the writer’s notebook, into the writer’s story (Sebald), what do we have to cross in our head so that it is no longer separable ? We know what event is the essential breaking off : when he went to Harar, Rimbaud, who overthrew our french literature, no longer intended to write. Hardly he gets a little money, a few months later, he sent his mother a requirement for a photographer full equipment. He also needed a topography manual, to map the routes that allow him to join the tribes to which he selled guns and cartridges. His mother sends him a photography manual. The stingy Rimbaud grumbles : the photography manual, he already has it. He left Europa without photography equipment, but with the book that explains how to – Photography for dummies, sort of. To apologize, four weeks later, he sends his mother the first photograph he achieved : a self-portrait. But he erred in fixing doses, photography is missed, all white. He accompanies his sending by a letter explaining what she would see in the picture, if it was not missed : that truely day – we are in may 1884, only hundred and thirty years from now –, a photograph (not present) becomes genesis and matter of a text.
So there is a dead body, the writer becoming amateur photographer – which of us refuses nowadays to use the photographical funtions of his smartphone but without even having to consider himself as a photographer ? And a new settler : the photographer who writes as well as he films (in France Raymond Depardon’s La Ferme des Garets is a wonderful narrative as well as a photographic work, elsewhere Allan Sicula’s Fish Story or Daido Moriyama’s urban notes). Or the emergence of a third party : photography and text proceeding from the same gesture. What a strange story that Let us praise famous men, the book James Agee wrote not on the photographs of Walker Evans, but about his trip with Walker Evans in the farms they explore together. The writer’s notebook has always involved drawing and sketches, prints, reproductions – at least from the sixteenth century. The writer’s notebook today includes a composite material – links, films, e-mails, Google Book excerpts, and of course the image that we said documentary image, photographed by himself or tapped into databases. The revolution is only in the concept of publication. A large part of the history of the text (but which does not cover the entire history of writing), which is called « book » was done by constructing the narrative according to its future projection on a support dedicated to writing, where the image has an illustrative or supplementary role. But the video is also apt nowadays to integrate the same composite elements, and even index them. So , what are the narratives we can invent in these new forms of publication, where the image, still or moving, as well the texte and the code are only primary components in a larger entity ? In this transition period, we are in the prehistory of a new pact between text and images : reason to be attentive to what is actually born, fragile, insufficient, but outside the traditional text and image report in and by the book.
A switch amplified by the digital age : literature is no longer limited to books. As the technical image (using the Vilém Flusser’s definition, to separate photography and painting) is not more limited to photography. For example, we have often described the film as assembly of still images, made possible by the flexible support first invented by Kodak. But the moving image, as narrative exists as the magic lantern since the seventeenth century, and the Cinematheque in Paris has 15,000 of them in its collections : the cinema as a moving story was not born of photography, he only integrated it into its technical development. So, in our own heads, how make the mental leap that challenges the concept of technical image without predetermining it through photography ? Vine or Periscope, or the perfect equality of the fixed or film images on Instagram or Facebook, can we apprehend them with the same inner receiving process – and how it affects our idea of the world – that what the photography has accustomed us ? What challenge then for the short, the fragment, the sentence, the kinetics of the sentence in contemporary literature ?
And such a chance that we can always learn backwards : there are one hundred ninety eight references, quotations or interventions of photography in Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, written between 1906 and 1923. Paradoxically, it passes next to the cinema, while very well mark the importance of the technical reproduction of the voice. This is also an indication for the unpredictability of the new and complex mental leap that we face. Remember Roland Barthes’s last book, La chambre claire (Camera Lucida), who in 1982 distinguished forty two different modes for photography : Proust, already fifteen archetypes (portrait, posing session, the body X-ray work photographed by art, the landscape, the robbed photography) as it integrates telephone, air and electricity. Each of these uses was still in its awkward begininnings, or was already sentenced to a near technical obsolescence. How can we inherit this approach, in a context where all indicators are moving so fast, but where text, image, and the experience leading to them, as well as publication and propulsion are inseparable, as historically they have never been ? In other terms, is YouTube the future of literature ? (It’s about two years than I have chosen to say yes – what do I lose or win ?)
1ère mise en ligne 21 avril 2017 et dernière modification le 1er septembre 2019
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