Systemic Photography

I had a couple of crystallising moments recently where something I read contextualised everything I’ve been thinking about over the last few years in an incredibly useful way. The first was Vilém Flusser’s book Towards a Philosophy of Photography which came up during a talk by James George at Resonate this year. He’d recommended it to his friend Alexander Porter who found it a revelation, completely changing his view of photography. I figured I needed to read it too.

It’s good, and made a lot of sense, but the crystals that emerged were still small. I knew there was something there but I couldn’t quite articulate it, or turn it into a working practice of my own. Then Alexander pointed to an article about Flusser by Kenneth Goldsmith (the keeper of UbuWeb and someone who’s been on my radar for a while) called It’s a Mistake to Mistake Content for Content which is so much better than the cleverclever semantic title suggests. Here’s a key bit:

Flusser claimed that the content of any given photograph is actually the camera that produced it. He continued with a series of nested apparatuses: The content of the camera is the programming that makes it function; the content of the programming is the photographic industry that produces it; and the content of the photographic industry is the military-industrial complex in which it is situated, and so forth. He viewed photography from a completely technical standpoint. In Flusser’s view, the traditional content of the cultural artifact is completely subsumed by the apparatuses — technical, political, social, and industrial — surrounding, and thereby defining, it.

Suddenly the crystals were huge, so big it was a little bewildering. I told Jenny about this and she seemed surprised it was such a big deal as surely I’d been thinking about this for years, but that was sort of the point. I had been, but I hadn’t fully realised it. This is what really interested me about “social media” before it became impossible to work in that area thanks to marketeers and other eejits. And this is everything than interests me about photography in the 21st century, about how context, and the lack therefore, is essential to understanding the power of an image, and how that context is deeply embedded in the systems that enable it.

(I should also add that I don’t agree with all of Goldsmith’s statements, especially those where he appears to impose a value judgement, but that’s fine. It’s his perception that has value here, not his conclusions.)

So this is the flag in the ground for the first stage of working with these ideas in a more deliberate way. Here is my plan.

I want to keep things simple. Diving in an unpicking the myriad systems that inform a photo on Instagram is insane, though I hope to get there eventually. As Goldsmith says, the best way to interrogate these systems is “to break the system by doing something with the camera that was never intended by industry.” To hack it, in other words. So I’ll be looking for where that happens, particularly emergent community hacks rather than those make a political or artistic point. Alongside this is finding glitches in the systems themselves and examining those. The little moments where the ideology of a system bumps into the technical or commercial reality and causes us to raise an eyebrow.

Systems, of course, are all around us, so I’ll just be looking at those directly related to the creation, distribution and consumption of photographic images and writing a bit about them on this blog.

And, finally, I’ll be ignoring the value or otherwise of the visual content in the images themselves. I’ve been collecting vernacular photographs from Instagram for a while now and it’s become a dead-end. The images are not the thing - it’s the context, and I threw that away. Idiot.

Mission stated. Onwards.