The Footprint and the Readymade

By Lutticken, Sven | Afterimage, July 2001 | Go to article overview

The Footprint and the Readymade


Lutticken, Sven, Afterimage


From its inception, photography has been placed within narratives of illusionism, of the increasing mastery of the depiction of the visible world. As a new medium, it was feared that it would make painting obsolete. While such assumptions have been criticized in postmodern theory, the developments in new media in the last decade seem to bring them back to life. This time, however, it is photography that is outdone, reduced to a chapter in an ongoing story of a quest for images that give the greatest sense of immediacy and transparency. In their 1999 book Remediation, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin analyze how contemporary new media enthusiasts are claiming that new technologies (mainly within the field of virtual reality) offer an ever greater experience of "immediacy" that fosters "a sense of presence" in the viewer. [1] These accounts remain basically within the teleological paradigm that earlier saw photography as an improvement over painting in terms of the level of realism it offered.

Nonetheless, there has been a change of accent. After all, photography was uniquely valuable to the discourse that traced an ever greater realism in the history of art because of its status as an imprint, as an index. It shared this status only with its younger relative, cinema. Lev Manovich has succinctly described pre-digital film as the attempt "to make art out of a footprint"; the footprint is, in Charles Sanders Peirce's classification of signs, an index, like the photographic image or the film image. [2] In texts such as "Rhetoric of the Image" (1964), Roland Barthes analyzed both the "coded iconic message" and the "non-coded iconic message" of photographs--the former being indexical and the latter cultural. [3] However, in Camera Lucida (1980), Barthes focused on those elements of photography that espace the clutches of culture, of codedness. In this late book, he contrasted studium with punctum: studium is the analysis of a photograph as a cultural, coded artifact, whereas a punctum occurs when the v iewer is touched by some detail that has escaped the photographer's control. The detail that creates the sensation of punctum appears to be--for a moment--pure indexicality, a point that escapes the code. [4]

Bolter and Grusin make it clear that this approach to photography becomes problematic at a time when computer images are becoming indistinguishable from photographs: "An image could be synthesized without the need for the objects in the image to have existed or to have been together at any time, which was exactly the condition that Roland Barthes considered the definition of photography in Camera Lucida." [5] Pragmatically, Bolter and Grusin note that "because a digital photograph can sometimes be regarded as transparent, it too can express our desire for immediacy." [6] This may be true, and it certainly is true that pre-digital photography has many means of manipulating the image and many photographic practices have focused on this. The question still remains if this "desire for immediacy" will be so easily swayed to accept the loss of the (illusion of) indexical truth. "Whatever else its power, the photograph could be called sub- or pre-symbolic, ceding the power of art back to the imposition of things," Rosalind Krauss stated in her "Notes of the Index: Part 1." [7] The self-assurance of such a statement--made well before the impact of digitization--indicates how much has changed in a comparatively short time. What is the status of photography when "things" are no longer necessary, when the "photorealistic" simulation of reality (as in Hollywood special effects) is considered by some to be more "real" than indexical images because it gives a greater sense of "immediacy"?

For photography to be accepted as an art, "ceding the power of art back to the imposition of things" was never enough. It was even a threat. Technical and formal mastery, a signature style in the selection and ordering of the things shown, were of the utmost importance in establishing photography as an art. …

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