I was intrigued by the quotation on the course material from this book so thought it would be worth reading. It turns out though not to be quite I expected.
Although quite short it is pretty heavy going and requires the taking on board of a new language, or at least new meanings of already familiar words that are used throughout the text in a very particular way. Fortunately there is a glossary at the back! I had expected a work of theory but it is in fact pure philosophy. As such it is not about photography as such, not as an activity or practice but it addresses the significance of photography and the underlying role it plays in the modern world. The book is, I suppose, more than anything a critique (post-Marxian?) of post-industrial capitalism. I will not even try to summarise the argument but photography is effectively presented as being used by that capitalism to control society and is a precursor for the increasing robotisation of society.
Oddly, for all that this is an important role, the camera is nevertheless described as a plaything rather than a tool, but one that effectively controls the photographer. This is I suppose true to an extent in the case of fully automatic cameras, and indeed of any camera that has certain functions that do not require the active agency of the photographer for them to be applied.
Also oddly, for all of the significant role that photographs play, Flusser is pretty scathing about their quality, their banality, and of photographers in general. To that extent this is not a book to read if you want to feel good about your own photographic practice!
I do not agree with all of his points, particularly where he seems to suggest that cameras have an active agency of their own, almost a will of their own, nor about photographers’ reasons for taking pictures (a search for immortality), but I have to accept that this might be more due to the fact that I might not properly have understood all of the argument.
The overall picture that he paints is similar to the Matrix movies. What we as photographers perceive is not true and we are working, without knowing it, within a reality that is actually a construct of the system. We are in a way slaves to the system as whole and to the camera.
What I take away from the book is the idea that as photographers we need to be more aware of what we are doing and the pitfalls that we might otherwise stumble into, producing images that are effectively worthless, though serving the system. This is I suppose summed up by the quotation in the course book – what we need to do is try to produce images that have not been seen before. What I also get is the importance of not being a slave to the camera, not to let it make all the decisions – keep out of automatic mode! Technology being what it is, the way it is constantly developing and becoming more opaque to the ordinary user, and as camera manufacturers are at in a sense at the heart of the system, this is going to be hard and I cannot imagine that we are now all going to give up completely our all singing, all dancing digital cameras. This idea does though chime with what I have recently been thinking about in connection with going back to experimenting with film. My large format camera is about as far from the digital world as it is perhaps now possible to get and as I have written elsewhere it is sending me back to basics and first principles. I am already intrigued by the artistic possibilities this opens up, and am heartened by the increasing number of artists (people whom I suspect Flusser would regard as real photographers) who are suing film make their images.
The world is in chains: we cannot though smash the system. Perhaps though we can still find our own spaces where we are not a shackled to the system.
Flusser, V, (2000). Towards a Philosophy of Photography. London: Reaktion Books.