Why is taking a digital image more like painting than analogue photography? Media artist Paul Kneale investigates the fundamental difference between the two modes of production, and sees us as painters stepping back to review the latest brushstrokes of our just-taken selfies. Looking through the haze of his own “optical migraines” Kneale argues for a new form of painting.
Digital image technologies mark a radical break from film-based photographic processes. But the popular conception of the digital image is almost always still framed within the discourse of analogue photo materialism. A narrative of continuity with the analogue image is important for the marketing of this technology, as it is easier to transfer the pre-existing demand for photographic images into an improved and updated platform than to confront this radical break – or to understand what it means, which is that no one is really taking photographs any more. Our world is flooded with billions of examples per minute of what corresponds far more closely to the conceptual frame of painting.
With an analogue film image, there is a causal link between the light that is reflected from, say, the subject’s face into the camera lens, and the final printed image of that face. Digital images are fundamentally, ontologically, different. At the moment when the external reflected light is focused inward by the lens, that light is absorbed by a CCD or CMOS sensor that converts the incoming light into an electric signal, which in turn is used to create a binary code, which is read by a processor, which is used to alter and optimise the image according to preprogrammed standards based on a database of millions of images that have already been categorised according to painterly notions of genre: landscape, portrait, night portrait etc.
By such means, digital photo sensors and processors (working in conjunction) have become good at mimicking what we understand as naturalism – correspondence with our embodied binocular vision. But to understand this as producing an equivalence to the causal trace of an analogue film image is merely a convenient extension of the mythology of the picture as fact or the magical stagecraft of silver halide and chemical baths.
As processor speeds for digital sensors became increasing able to handle the large amounts of electronic information required to convincingly make a digital image look like an analogue one, social media popularity and portable device integration dovetailed to supply consumers with both the means and the motivation to produce these images in unprecedented quantities. Our ability to present an image of ourselves has multiplied, making it easier to be anyone as an image, an avatar, in reproduction. As a result, there is an anxiety to our participation in this proliferation of images; the material basis of the digital image has made us suspicious of its truth claims, which nonetheless lie at the core of the contemporary presentation of the self.
This growing sense of the dishonesty of the digital photo is spinning out into all manner of cultural phenomena. Many Instagram filters mimic historical film stocks, but since its mostly teenage and young adult users have no personal experience of them, their aesthetic is a colour-cast-based form of historical dress-up, which serves the purpose of inscribing a false sense of a collective relationship to reality: the 70s looked like this. (Even the tag #nofilter, typically used to denote a claim of reality, relies on the viewer’s familiarity with the look of filters to then negatively attribute its #nofilter veracity.)
The representational claims of the digital image are also under suspicion IRL. It has now become standard behaviour to immediately review a digital photo upon taking it. Like a painter stepping back to see the latest brushstroke in the context of the whole composition,
the review of the just-taken selfie isn’t so much an enchanted glance at reality captured, but rather an editor’s cold gaze upon a constructed image
which is evaluated to the extent that it has satisfied the desired and intended outcome. If not, delete it and try again. More pout. A better angle. Ok that’s good, now let’s increase the contrast…
Based in the public’s understanding of the previous mode of analogue photography, the digital image functions like a hologram that points toward a vanished body which can only ever be ideal, archetypal, counterfeit. Tupac at Coachella. This is why the digital image today is ageless. The indexical relationship to time, analogue photography’s “decisive moment”, has become an aggregate, mediated act, thrown into doubt by the doubling and layering of temporalities. Digital images are still made by time (in conjunction with light) – but its status in the optimised and restructured image has become ambiguous. As it is possible to layer multiple exposures into one file (which becomes the real medium) – the multiple moments of the various exposures are flattened into and limited to the time of their appearance on the device’s screen. Does the digital image exist when you’re not looking at it? Pics are its only happening. [sic]
Up until now mainstream digital image production and consumption has been characterised by both techno-utopianism and blandly uncritical deployments which served to further other ideals (perfect skin, dramatic scenes, smile recognition). But especially now that specialist, technical discussions of these systems of representation and distribution are widely available online, we can imagine a form of painting that both engages the technical side (sensor function) of this productive format and opens this engagement as a comprehensible world in dialogue with earlier, comparable approaches to surface, within and outside canonical art history.
This returns us to the relationship between a painting’s surface and a material world in which it inhabits a web of relations. As digital images increasingly perforate every aspect of our experience, artists have an opportunity to desublimate this chimeric ontology: by approaching this process as painting and materialising the results in a way that is reflexive towards the apparatus. The image texture produced by these devices directly exhibits the liminal aesthetics of its production networks. The devices which produce the images are themselves so resolutely embedded in a global production chain that spans from the factories of the Far East to the manufactured desires of consumers.
In a recent series of works I’ve been producing using cheap consumer scanners, it became apparent that the various individual models – for example a Canon3500 vs. HP1510 – have distinct image personalities. And these personalities, while able to produce miraculous, way-beyond-human-vision 3000 dpi scans, also come packaged in a brittle plastic shell: a sign, one suspects, of how these machines are designed to break and malfunction. By rupturing their prescribed usage and allowing their historically and commercially determined aesthetics of acid cyans and improperly processed motion to unfold in the material space of a painting format, the contingency of their technological framing becomes articulate. That is to say, there is an important role of techné in the subjective production of images. A machine in the ghost.
To my mind, the contemporary image-making system is also related to the embodied experience of vision, in the form of “optical migraines”, which I’ve had many times. Like a very intense LSD trip accompanied by shattering pain that can last for hours, these occurrences are little understood, but involve a cascading, pulsing and doubled world of visual distortion. Rather than being an external disturbance, like mud sprayed onto the windscreen of a car, these images are in fact the disordered bits of how one’s perception is actually functioning. They effectively relativise one’s normal visual experience, which is ordered by consciousness to address subjects according to their perceived importance, with the aid of memory, as in the case of a familiar face, where our rods and cones sometimes supply only a small percentage of “live” or novel information in the cognitive construction of the image. Likewise, if we consider the image-producing faculties of digital sensors and processors as selective and conditional, opening up the manner in which this occurs paradoxically broadens our notion of the “real” while composing it in infinitely variable terms. This is the new painting. Why not get it onto canvas?
Paul Kneale is an artist based in London. For more information visit his website.