More Notes on Vilém Flusser’s (1983) Book: Towards a Philosophy of Photography

I have decided to reread Vilém Flusser’s (1983) book: Towards a Philosophy of Photography for the reason I previously found it inspiring in my Documentary module and I hope to gain some more insight. In particular the concept of informative images as opposed to redundant images and how these two types of images effect us as we are enveloped in the ‘Photographic Universe’ – (Flusser, 1983).

The Image

Pg. 8 – Photo books seem like a solution to making the ‘scanning’ process last longer. Nowadays photographs are often glanced at as users scroll downwards on Instagram. Both mediums can be used creatively: photo books can be viewed (usually) chronologically to add extra meaning to the series. Meanwhile Instagram feeds are more immediate as they are often frequently updated and can show someone’s progression on a project. In addition I believe photo books also hold the potential for unique magic – for instance using the front cover, where a photo appears, in the real world context.

The Photograph

Pg. 44 – Regarding black and white photographs, Flusser states that these are easier to decode from the real world than colour photographs. This is because the colour green for instance doesn’t reflect exactly the chemical green and so an extra layer of processing is required by the viewer to decode it. I find this an interesting concept because black and white photographs don’t look like the real world whereas colour photographs do.

Pg. 47 – Don’t let the camera control your intentions as a photographer!

The Distribution of Photographs

Pg. 51 – ‘The concept of the original, in the context of the photograph, has scarcely any meaning anymore.’ – (Flusser, 1983:51). Like Walter Benjamin’s concept of aura, Flusser suggests the original has no aura or that it has been diminished greatly. Flusser argues that the photograph lacks value as an object, rather it is its meaning contained in the information on the surface that is of value.

I have been reading ‘Consuming Life’ by Zygmunt Bauman (2007) and while it doesn’t focus on photography so far it brings in the concept of ‘liquid modernity’. Like post-industrialisation the commodity is highly transient – information rather than solid objects. As Flusser puts it: ‘This is what characterizes the post-industrial: The information, and not the thing is valuable.’ – (Flusser, 1983).

Pg. 52-53 – Flusser highlights the devaluation of the object – in particular the photographic print and likens it to a flyer – though with valuable information contained on the surface.

Pg. 55-56 – Flusser suggests the distribution channels – apparatus of the media – are winning the battle of apparatus over human being – programming the receiver ‘under a magic spell.’ – (Flusser, 1983). This is helped by the critics of photography who allow the media to remain invisible by ignoring ‘the fact that the channels determine the significance of the photograph’ – (Flusser, 1983:55-56).

The Reception of Photographs

Pg. 58-59 – In the glut of information provided by ‘people taking snaps’, otherwise known as ‘redundant images’ by Flusser, there is the documentary photographer. The documentary photographer is looking for ‘new moves’, new ways of seeing things. According to Flusser, because the camera produces memories of the past it is not information. Therefore even the documentary photographer is sucked into the trap of the camera as apparatus being victorious over the photographer. Somewhat frustratingly for me Flusser doesn’t provide answers to how to overcome the camera being victorious as apparatus over humans.

Pg. 62-64 – I feel like on these pages Flusser is being perhaps justifiably negative about the function of photography without offering solutions. Effectively he is saying we in the post-industrial society are put under a kind of bad magic spell by photographs because of our need to function. He calls this magic spell the ‘magic circle around us in the shape of the photographic universe’ – (Flusser, 1983:62-64). He says we need to break this circle and one way I could envisage the circle is broken is to become more literate about photography as a collective people.

The Photographic Universe

Pg. 65 – ‘What would be informative, exceptional, exciting for us would be a standstill situation: to find the same newspapers on our breakfast tables every day or to see the same posters on city walls for months on end.’ – (Flusser, 1983:65). This is one of my favourite quotes of the book and I agree that a standstill situation would indeed break out of the run of the mill state of flux. How feasible it would be is another matter!

Pg. 71 – This book (Towards a Philosophy of Photography) was written in 1983 and it does show its age a bit in this passage in my opinion: ‘New robot-like actions are observable everywhere: at back counters, in offices, in factories, in supermarkets, in sport, dancing’ – (Flusser, 1983:71). While he was correct, a more obvious example nowadays might be social media. Indeed Flusser’s arguments seem to accurately predict the future with regards to photography and other apparatuses behind photography. ‘Each of these apparatuses is becoming increasingly automated and is being linked up by cybernetics to other apparatuses.’ – (Flusser, 1983:71). This sounds a lot like social media and Instagram from a photography perspective where algorithms within the apparatuses behind Instagram dominate how it is used as a photography platform.

Why a Philosophy of Photography is Necessary

Pg. 81 – Flusser talks of ‘playing against the camera’ – (Flusser, 1983:81) and experimental photography as a means to providing informative images and addressing ‘the question of freedom in the context of apparatuses in general.’ – (Flusser, 1983:81). I found Flusser doesn’t answer the question directly but instead provides the reader with the ‘rules of the game’ in terms of making less redundant images. Therefore he provides a basis for thinking about breaking the cycle of apparatus over humans and gives incentive that freedom and informative images are forthcoming.

 

This book relates back to my work in particular because I have often wondered if the images I’m creating are largely redundant images and if so, how to thwart this trend and instead produce informative images.

I have since attended a study hangout about this book which I hope might inspire me to know more about this by bouncing ideas around with my fellow students.

References:

Bauman, Z. (2007) Consuming Life. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Benjamin, W. (1999) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ In: Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) Visual Culture: A Reader. London: SAGE Publications Ltd, pp. 72-79.

Flusser, V. (1983/2014) Towards a Philosophy of Photography. 3rd ed. London: Reaktion Books.

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