Issue: 01/2019
Author: Bastian Reichardt

“But is a blurred concept a concept at all?” –
Is a photograph that is not sharp a picture of a person at all?
Is it even always an advantage to replace a picture that is not sharp by one that is?
Isn’t one that isn’t sharp often just what we need?

– Ludwig Wittgenstein

We will have a look at the ontology of the photographic image as well as the motivation for taking analogue pictures instead of digital pictures. This look will be comparative since it takes analogue and digital photography to be two different sorts of taking pictures. We will rely on an ontological claim by André Bazin—that photographs are not only representations of objects but, moreover, that photographs are the photographed object—and we will see that this thesis does not apply to digital photography when we consider some remarks by Jean Baudrillard about the illusional character of photography.

In 2004, for the first time more digital cameras were sold worldwide than analogue cameras—76 million compared to 43 million. Three years later, analogue photography was dead—with less than one million sold cameras (see Statista 1). Or maybe we should say: the industry of analogue photography was dead. Companies like Kodak and Fuji closed factories world-wide and took many brands of their photographic films from the market. The rapid development of digital photography and the accompanied affordability of digital cameras pushed analogue cameras and film off the market.

However, the success of digital photography also affects the way we handle pictures in everyday life: The single photograph seems to be disenchanted. In the digital age, pictures are forgotten as fast as they are taken and shared. In his “The Perfect Crime”, Jean Baudrillard expresses this disenchantment by characterizing it as the “proliferation of screens and images”:

“What we have forgotten in modernity, by dint of constantly accumulating, adding, going for more, is that force comes from subtraction, power from absence. Because we are no longer capable today of coping with the symbolic mastery of absence, we are immersed in the opposite illusion, the disenchanted illusion of the proliferation of screens and images.” (Baudrillard 2008, 4)

This seems to conflict with a general sentiment of the human condition: The desire to preserve the past although it is gone. Photography is itself such a way to preserve the past. In his philosophical essay “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”, André Bazin makes a remarkable ontological claim which explains this ability of photography to preserve the past. Bazin writes:

“Only a photographic lens can give us the kind of image of the object that is capable of satisfying the deep need man has to substitute for it something more than a mere approximation, a kind of decal or transfer. The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it. No matter how fuzzy, distorted, or discolored, no matter how lacking, in documentary value the image may be, it shares, by virtue of the process of its becoming, the being of the model of which it is the reproduction; it is the model.” (Bazin 1960, 8)

In a photograph, the past is not only preserved in the way that we have a representation of it in hand, but rather that we literally have the past object in hand—“the object freed from the conditions of time and space.”

I will argue that this feature of photography does not apply to digital pictures because the analogue process is qualitatively different from taking digital pictures. Interestingly, the rapid success of digital photography has created—as its dialectical downside—a revival of analogue photography. This revival can accordingly be seen as the uprising of the desire to get back to reality—to have the object in hand again.

During the last years, companies like Kodak, Fuji, or Ilford re-opened old factories and started to sell “dead” film again. Fuji developed new instant cameras like the “Instax” which comes in different formats and designs. The start-up company Impossible revitalized the old Polaroid film and designed their own cameras for it. And Kodak is even about to bring a new 8mm film-camera on the market. There is surely not only a revival or comeback of analogue photography but, furthermore, there is by now a very competitive market again. Interestingly, this effect is not only restricted to photography but can also be observed in other market-segments of “old technology”—for instance, the sales of record players and vinyl records.[1]

Uniqueness and the Dialectics of Exactness

The advent of photography coincides with the dawn of impressionism in arts. Due to this mere correlation, André Bazin even considers photography the “the most important event in the history of the plastic arts [because] it has freed Western painting … from its obsession with realism and allowed it to recover its aesthetic autonomy” (Bazin 1960, 16). What Bazin refers to, is a comparison between epochs in the history of painting like romanticism and classicism, on the one hand, and epochs like impressionism, expressionism, and Dadaism, on the other hand. While the former paintings tell stories of events (e.g. the crucifixion of Christ or the death of Socrates) in the most realistic way possible, the latter ones do not even try to depict things or persons realistically even if they “are about” a real event—think, for instance, of Picasso’s Guernica. Historically, the invention of photography lies between those two eras of painting. It is as if photography has revitalized the aesthetic potential of painting in the sense that painting (re-)discovers its potential to step back from reality rather than trying to trace it.

The comeback of analogue photography in an age of digital pictures may have similar causes as the revitalization of painting. At least, the general patterns seem to share similarities. Today, digital photography has developed so far that its representations of objects are just as adequately as the real objects themselves. Digital photography is a perfection of imitativeness—imitation of both photography and reality. But there is a dialectical downside to this perfection: In their exactness, digital pictures can seem inauthentic—more perfect than the world itself—and this impression is surely intensified by the use of pictures in social media nowadays. Like photography freed the “aesthetic autonomy” of Western painting, as Bazin writes, so digital photography—due to its perfection—opens the door for a suppressed desire for authenticity.[2] This can be conceived of as a desire for something unique in an age of mass-production and, especially, instant mass-reproduction of pictures. We want photographs instead of mere pictures.

Digital photography in an age of personalized mass-media is a paradigmatic example of an effect Jean Baudrillard called “the death of reality”: Digital pictures present an object that is “more real” than the real itself. The picture is more attractive, more appealing than reality. But, somehow, the comeback of analogue photography—with all its technical insufficiencies compared to digital photography—shows that at least part of the human condition is a longing for the authenticity which only reality itself can provide.

A huge deal of the authenticity analogue photography can come up with lies in its unique character—or, more precisely: in the uniqueness of the photographic negative. The analogue process provides us with one, and only one, original picture: the negative which was developed from the photosensitive material which was, in turn, touched by the light reflected by the object itself. In digital photography, there is no counterpart to this uniqueness. What shall be considered “the original” of a digital picture? The unaltered raw.-file? The product after processing this file? The uploaded picture in social media? Or even the string of 0s and 1s which represents the computers translation of the visual scene? Even when we consider the raw.-file to be the original output of the camera, then this “simulated original” misses the unique character of the photographic negative because identical copies of it (or better: clones) can be created indefinitely within seconds.

Hybrid Photography—What’s the Deal?

Photography is essentially objective.[3] This is even reflected in the name of the main part of every camera: the lens—which in, e.g., German or France is called respectively “Objektiv” or “objektif”, a linguistic nuance that is lost in English. The post-processing of digital pictures destroys this essential feature of photography. In post-processing programs like Adobe Photoshop this gets obvious even in the name of the respective tools: The digital photographer adds layers to the picture and, thereby, hides the nature of its object. (A nature that is, as we claim in the next chapter, always-already not the same as that of an analogue photograph but a mere “simulacrum”.) However, modern times provide the fascinating possibility to break with the objective character of photography by taking analogue pictures and sharing them in a digital way. The digitalization of photographs—scanning the original negative and creating its illusional counterpart—is, of course, a linear process, functioning only in one direction: Analogue photographs are turned into digital ones. But, trivially, there is no way to create an analogue photograph from a digital original. This is not only due to trivial technical reasons but it’s moreover the nature of the beast: There is a way to manipulate reality, to create an ideal reality, but there is no way to create reality out of an idea.

These two pictures share the very same specifications: Both were taken in a low-light studio situation. They show the same person. They are part of one and the same photo shoot with only minutes separating these moments from one another. Both were taken with the same camera (Hasselblad 500c/m) and the same lens (Carl Zeiss Sonnar 1:4 / 150mm). And they were both part of the same roll of film (Kodak Tri-X). However, their look could not be more different. Not only, is the model in the right photograph out of focus but, moreover, the digital processing of the left picture seems to turn the model into a different person—a person that actually does not exist. This gives rise to serious ontological questions: If a photographic portrait is the visual representation of a person, then who is represented in this portrait? Photographs seem to be more “realistic” than paintings. But which reality is displayed in this photograph? By digitalizing the original, we lose reality by covering it with our idea of an alleged idealization. Digital photographs add layers to reality. Analogue photographs are reality. And hybrid processes are bridges between reality and its idealization. Hybrid photography, thereby, reflects our nostalgic sentiment and our need to make reality in some sort ideal.

However, an important aspect of taking analogue photographs remains alive in hybrid processes. Since the “photographic event” happens to be analogue, the photographer stands in need to fulfil a requirement that only analogue photography demands: the strong necessity of pre-visualization. There is no screen that provides us with an instant impression of what we just photographed. Every aspect of photography needs to be considered before releasing the shutter. Nothing can be tested and deleted. If light touches the film, then there is no way undo the last step. Analogue photography always settles the matter once and for all. This is the photographer’s way over the bridge of the hybrid process: The photographic event is a moment in reality, while post-processing leads to ideality—into a non-existing world.

Towards a Transformative Theory of the Analogue Process

What is the actual difference between analogue and digital photography? Is there something additional in analogue photography compared to digital pictures, or vice versa? Or is analogue photography qualitatively different from digital photography?

Our claim is that digital pictures are no photographs at all. Following Bazin, we can say that unlike analogue photographs, digital pictures do not inherit the ontological status of the object in front of the lens. The mechanical process of taking an analogue photograph is qualitatively different from the production of a digital picture. During the analogue process, the photographer uses the photosensitive material that was literally touched by the object itself to produce a negative. Digital photography can only provide us with an illusion of this “photographic event”: The light-sensitive sensor always stays inside the camera and its function is to translate the photographed object into a string of 0s and 1s. The picture we see on the screen is, therefore, not the object itself but a mere simulacrum—a thing that shares features of an original and, thereby, tries to convince us that it is the original.[4] This “formal illusion of truth” (Baudrillard 2008, 2) stays what it is: an illusion.

This photo was taken in wide-angle with a Pentacon Six TL—the by-now iconic middle format-camera of the German Democratic Republic. It might be telling that this East-German camera, with all its technical insufficiencies compared to »Western« cameras, took this picture. It points out to the Real—or, in other words, it makes a dimension of the Real visible which is even in the moment of looking through the lens invisible to the photographer herself. After developing the film—in the wisdom of hindsight—the photographer gets remembered that she worked with photographic film. If we take the claim from Bazin cited above serious, that the “photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it”, then we must say that, in the moment of shooting the scene, this ominous “10” was also present—floating enigmatically over the person’s head—although no human eye saw it.

The camera itself is transformed from a pure recipient to an active agent. The technical process inside the camera and the texture of the photographic material themselves become a part of the scene. In capturing the moment, the camera shows that it is part of this moment. In this sense, the analogue camera is more self-conscious than any digital camera. This is not only true for pictures that show typical “mistakes” of analogue photography—like this light leak—but it is true for every photograph taken on photographic film—from plastic toy cameras via Soviet replica models all the way to high-standard cameras like the Hasselblad. Every photograph—digital as well as analogue—is shaped by the technical quality of the camera. Analogue photographs, however, are furthermore not only shaped by the physical characteristics of the film inside the camera but also by the distinctive, unique touch of the light reflected by the object. This unique moment of releasing the shutter—the photographic event—is what transfers the object itself onto the photosensitive material and which makes analogue photography a qualitatively Other to digital photography. If we want to keep this qualitatively Other alive, we must keep the only place alive where this Other can come into existence: the photographic darkroom. Only there photography (and ourselves) can come back to reality.

[1] During the last ten years the sales of vinyl records rose from 500.000 up to 3.1 million sold copies. See Statista 2. In media-theoretical debates, the revival of such alledgly “dead” technologies is discussed under the title “zombie media”. It is noteworthy that—in comparison to digital cameras—the planned obsolescence of analogue cameras is not nearly that drastic. Analogue cameras can perfectly well work for a lifetime. See also Hertz and Parikka 2012.

[2] An analysis of this desire with respect to model photography can be found in Jerrentrup 2018, 76. A further analysis of the relation between this desire for authenticity, on the one hand, and its alleged counterpart of overcoming one’s own identity by creating fictional characters can be found in chapter 6 of Jerrentrup 2018.

[3] See Bazin 1960.

[4] See Baudrillard 2008, Randle 2010, and Benson 2013.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. 2008. The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso.

Bazin, André. 1960. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” Film Quarterly 13(4): 4-9.

Benson, Peter. 2013. “The Ontology of Photography: From Analogue To Digital.” Philosophy Now 95.

Hertz, Garnet and Parikka, Jussi. 2012. “Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archaeology into an Art Method.” Leonardo 45(5): 424-430.

Jerrentrup, Maja Tabea. 2018. Therapie vor der Kamera? Zum Potential inszenierter Menschenfotografie. Münster: Waxmann.

Randle, Matt. 2010. “Warning: The Objects in the Photograph are not as Real as they Appear.” Philosophy Now 80.

Statista. 1. https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/165589/umfrage/absatz-von-analogen-und-digitalen-fotokameras-weltweit-seit-2002/

Statista. 2. https://de.statista.com/themen/3975/vinyl/