Vilem Flusser – Again!

And now even OCA itself is onto this with a new course that sounds interesting, but that would be a distraction for me right now:

I really do think this is an important, and in some ways worrying, issue for photography and one that needs to be addressed afresh.  Fluster did the groundwork but it needs to be addressed again now in the light of the technological and social developments that possibly not even Flusser could have anticipated.


Vilem Flusser: Towards a Philosophy of Photography – Book – Postscript

Having recently posted about this book, quite by coincidence an article has just appeared on the LensCulture website about the role of Artificial Intelligence in photography.

The article, by Alexander Strecker, is a review of an exhibition in New York by Trevor Paglen that features photos taken, or created, by machines.    These are pictures taken by and effectively for, to be read by, machines.  Except to the extent that it is humans who write the software and feed these machines the data sets from which they work, these images are taken without human intervention of agency.  As such they are a somewhat chilling vindication of Flusser’s argument.  When you think about it there are increasing numbers of ways in which photos are taken by machines alone:  for example, and perhaps most troubling, by drones, particularly those used by the military to identify and strike distant targets; face and vehicle number plate recognition systems; security camera systems.

What is most worrying, bearing in mind Flusser’s argument, and is borne out to an extent by this exhibition, is that although these AI systems are programmed by humans they are programmed in ways that reflect the interests and prejudices of the humans involved, and most particularly the organisations that employ them so that the resulting images are not objective but meet the requirements and serve the interests of those organisations.

It used to be that the demon at the heart of capitalism was the military-industrial complex.  Then it was (and to an extent still is) big pharma as well.  Is it now the tech giants?

It was also just the other day that I came upon something on the OCA Discuss forum about an algorithm that purportedly assesses the aesthetic quality of a photograph.  This seems to me to be part and parcel of the same move towards robotisation and automation of photography, for the purposes of and in the interests of those that create the algorithm in just the same way as the AI in the exhibition.

As the article itself recognises, all of this opens up serious questions, and the need for an urgent and informed debate about the role of photography in the developing digital environment.  Personally I have no idea what the answers to those questions might be though I can now see that it is not simply going to be a simple matter, as I thought in my previous post, of just striving to produce work that is new and previously unseen as suggested by Flusser.  I can also see more clearly now that there is a major dilemma for any photographer who uses the digital realm in any way.

It is happening right now, right here with this blog, and I am a part of it.  This blog is an educational tool recording my development and progress through an academic course.  It is though putting out into the wider digital world images that I have made that would not otherwise be seen by anyone other than me and my tutor and assessors.  They are open to anyone who cares to look.  How the people who have found my work without being directed to it by me is beyond me.  Recently someone from a discipline completely divorced from photography looked at one of my posts.  Of course I do not mind, why should I? But how?  Why?  My best guess at the moment, though I have not looked hard enough to find out, is that it is possible to get the system in some way to look out for certain key words or phrases and to send an alert and link whenever they are found.  

Once something goes into the digital realm your personal control over it is compromised if not lost.  I would expect that mostly this is not a problem, that it is a relatively benign state of affairs.  However, we already know from looking at the issue of context that once an image is in the public domain it can, at the very worst, be used, interpreted, and manipulated in ways that can be completely alien and counter to the intentions of the originator.

The digital realm is though where, almost inevitably, as photographers we have to operate.  That is where and how those seeking to make a living from their art have to work.  I note that Magnum have an article on their website titled “How can photographers harness the digital space?”.  It is an important environment and not one that can be ignored or avoided.

Yes it could be possible to, as it were, go off grid but then how would you disseminate your work? Given that the digital realm is now so pervasive would it actually be possible really to remain disconnected or aloof from it?

I honestly do not know.  For now all I can do is try to hold good to Flusser’s injunction and make the best work that I can.  Oh, and avoid spaces such as Instagram which seems to me to be home to so much of all that is banal and worthless in the taking of pictures today.  Yes, there is some good stuff in there and I can see that it can be a useful tool for some creating good work.  But I do fear it is drowned out by the dross.

Lastly, for anyone out there who does come across this, excuse me if it sounds like a bit of a rant.  I do not mean to be doctrinaire or puritanical about this.  This is a serious and deeply important topic, not just within the realms of photography, but for society as a whole, and this is just a first attempt on my part to start straightening out my thinking.  My thinking is clearly rather inchoate at the moment but I feel I have to start somewhere.

Assignment five – “Photography is simple”

I have decided to effectively take photography itself as the subject for this assignment and also, in line with my recent musings on film photography, to make the subject an example of photography at its simplest.  I have therefore decided to focus on (literally) my large format 4×5 camera.  Paradoxically, although it is a very simple piece of apparatus, it is quite complicated to use, or at least is involved in the sense that there are various steps that need to be taken in a particular sequence in order to create an image, with which the camera itself, unlike a digital one, does not help.

Bearing in mind the limits set by the brief I have chosen a sequence of pictures of those parts of the camera that each have a particular function, or which give a specific piece of information.  To keep the view narrowly focused on each element I have used a macro lens (Canon EF 100mm 1:2.8) set throughout at f/2.8 to keep the depth of field as shallow as possible.  All were shot in natural light, ISO 100.  Exposures varied between 1/6s and 2s.

Taking some inspiration from Rinko Kawauchi, to further limit the information contained in each shot, to decontextualise them as much as possible, and also to bring a little more artistic effect to what otherwise might be quite a dry subject, I have overexposed each shot using the camera’s Exposure Compensation function, increasing exposure by between one and three stops.  I also wanted to emphasise, in a literal way, the importance and central role in photography of light. In my initial experiments I found that going beyond that washed out the image too much, producing something more akin to Sugimoto’s  “nothingness”, which is not what I wanted to achieve.  I had thought about using flash to achieve overexposure but because of the choice of a macro lens, which was focused down to about a foot, I did not think this would work, without an off camera flash (the facility for which I still do not have). 

It is also ‘about’, in a way, what Flusser has to say in his book about trying to make something new, something that has not been seen before.

Contact Sheets

Here are the contact sheets.  They show all but one of the shots taken.  As the sheets show I played around with a few different sequences and it was only at the end that I realised I needed an extra picture, which is now the last photo in the final sequence.

Final Sequence

The sequence of the final set is itself determined by the steps taken to take a picture, each function of the camera involved, and the progression of light through the apparatus from lens to film.

As indicated on the contact sheets this is my chosen final sequence:

Assessment Criteria

So far as the assessment criteria are concerned, I do feel with this assignment that I have made progress on all fronts.  There were certainly technical issues that needed to be addressed and I feel the approach I adopted has worked quite well.  I also think the final outcome represents progress with, in particular, conceptualisation, contextualisation, and a more creative approach to the subject.


Flusser, V, (2000).  Towards a Philosophy of Photography.  London: Reaktion Books.

Large format – first attempts

Following my earlier rumination about film I have now had my first go with my new large format 4×5 camera.  I have tried both 4×5 sheet film and 120 roll but have so far developed only a handful of 4x5s as I have yet to finish a roll of 120.

I was not expecting much to come of these first experiments but I have been pleasantly surprised with some of the results.  Here is just one example:

f/22, 1s, ISO 125

This is far from perfect but nevertheless I find the outcome quite encouraging.  Firstly, the composition has come out well despite the fact that I found it hard to view the scene properly through the back of the camera.  I think the issue here is that I need a focusing cloth.  Secondly, although it does not necessarily show up well here, the amount of detail that has been captured is amazing.  I used Ilford FP4 Plus which is generally regarded as a good all-round film that captures detail well.  In addition I was impressed by the depth of field.  The lens on my camera goes all the way up to f/64 and I expect that at that level the results will be almost hallucinatory, as I find with a lot of Ansel Adams’s work.

The big problem with this shot though is the exposure.  Although I quite like the almost antique feel to it, and the way it reminds me of the work of Samuel Palmer, there are clearly large areas in the upper half that are over-exposed.

From a learning point of view this is probably the most important thing that I get from this experiment.  Modern digital cameras meter the available light automatically.  My Canon is generally set to evaluative metering so it is measuring the light right across the field of view.  I have no idea how the process works but it choses apertures and shutter speeds that result in the picture being properly exposed (by and large) right across the range.  What I did with the 4×5 is take a single reading from the centre of the view and set the camera accordingly.  Clearly though this resulted in those parts that were in more direct sunlight being overexposed.  Therefore what I think I need to do with the next round of pictures is take a series of readings from various parts of the scene, particularly the brightest and the darkest, and then set the camera to the average.  Probably I will need to buy a decent spot meter, though those I have looked at so far are pretty expensive, even second hand.  That might well result in some parts being underexposed but I suspect will give a better overall balance.  I can of course also make some adjustments in Photoshop but I would rather get things as nearly right as possible when taking the photograph itself.

Above all what I learn from this experience is that I need to be much more thoughtful and aware of the processes involved with analog photography and make more considered judgments about how each shot should be approached as there is nothing that can be left up to the camera to decide.  Hopefully that will in turn start to inform my approach with the digital camera as well.