What Comes First

Silver nitrates, the Brownie, Kodachrome film, the Polaroid, digital CCDs– the history of photography finds itself everywhere reduced to technological determinism: here comes some new technology, what can we make of it? If we include social, political, and philosophical developments in the history of the medium, they are mentioned as effects rather than causes. The birth of this Camera Club, for example, seems to follow from a historical boom in the availability of camera equipment and technological know-how to amateurs; and even this photography blog, born from the possibilities of digital optics and communications. As a writer and a curator, I’ve devoted my career to exploring the ways in which technology drives aesthetic innovation. I care a lot about the current role of technology in the arts and that’s why I’ve decided to try and destroy it.

What I mean is that I want reverse the way we talk about cause and effect in the photographic discourse. I want to figure out ways to talk about technology in relation to photography without falling back on technology to explain photography. How have historical social and political changes prompted the development of new tools and techniques in photography? How do certain social behaviors emerging today call for photography to innovate untold new aesthetic forms?

In running this blog for the next few months, my underlying premise will be that all of photography’s technological paradigms–all its tools, techniques, and ways of understanding–are generated by the contemporary habits of the community of artists, activists, and amateurs that use the medium, not the other way around. This goes as much for Nadar’s ingenious aerial photographs of 19th century Paris as for the public domain archives NASA maintains of its space photography program today. To invert a saying of the political philosopher Jacques Rancière, communities create forms of Art equal to themselves, no more and no less. People don’t suddenly stumble on a new idea or device like an alien artifact and then decipher its use–imbedded in every innovation is a human history of desire, struggle, and participation. Yes, technologies quickly outpace our intentions and expectations but only by being adapted through the ever-changing needs of its community of users.

In a sense, I think this means we have to stop relying so much on technology in aesthetics and beyond. I’m not asking for us to use less technology going forward–that would be like asking for less weather tomorrow–but I think we should stop imagining that technology and/or the experts who “invent” it magically supply us with everything we need to push the boundaries of Art, and our world. Instead, let’s work to create the type of community that is capable of imagining new tools and ideas, of calling forth forms equal to itself. On the one hand it means no one, specifically, will be responsible for inventing the future of photography and its place in the world; on the other, it means this future is already in the hands of everyone, regardless of if they realize it.

I didn’t invent this idea and below you’ll find some sources that convincingly argue for and against it. But I’m not worried about proving to you that my position on all this is original, or even the right one. My only goal is to try to use this chicken-and-the-egg question to temporarily bring the giant, unwieldy field of photography down to a level where we can explore the workings of its community, preside over its history and its future in equal measure, and find new ways of looking at and through the camera.

social, political, and philosophical histories of photography:

Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On vision and modernity in the 19th century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990)

Geoffrey Batchen, Burning With Desire: The Conception of Photography (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997)

Francois Lauruelle, trans. Robin Mackay, The Concept of Non Photography (Paris: Sequence, 2011)


technological determinism:

Frederich Kittler, Optical Media: Berlin Lectures (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010)

Paul Virilio, The Vision Machine (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994)

Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics (London: Continuum, 2004)