Academic journal article Afterimage

Analog to Digital: The Indexical Function of Photographic Images

Academic journal article Afterimage

Analog to Digital: The Indexical Function of Photographic Images

Article excerpt

Marshall McLuhan describes the impact of new media with the phrase "the medium is the message." McLuhan's "medium" is any extension of the human senses and he focuses on media such as print, photographs, telephones, and weapons throughout his text Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). McLuhan's "message" explains the way a new medium affects a culture, "for the 'message' of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs." (1) He provides the railway as an example. This medium "did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human function, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure." (2) Similarly, digital photography "accelerates" or "enlarges" traditional photographic processes. Digital technology allows for greater ease in editing than analog photography, because it transforms photographs from objects into data. Thus, digital imaging technology theoretically disrupts previous notions of the indexical connection between photographic images and "reality." Digital photography challenges the historical belief that photography is representative of reality. But have viewers' perceptions shifted in relation to theoretical discussions? While digital technology affects the theoretical notion of the photographic index, these theories overlook the appearance of the image and the social applications of transparent lens-based media. Viewers continue to read digital photographs as representative of reality, a function images maintain despite the transition from analog to digital.


The notion of the photograph as index relies on the physical and chemical processes that constitute the medium. In film-based photography, light bounces off an object and is recorded in the silver salts of the film's emulsion. This process depends on the presence of an object in front of the camera's lens in order to record its image through projected light. Roland Barthes describes the relationship between object and image and time as "that-has-been." According to Barthes, this characteristic is unique to photography:

  I call "photographic referent" not the optionally real thing to which
  an image or sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been
  placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph
  ... In the daily flood of photographs, in the thousand forms of
  interest they seem to provoke, it may be that the noeme "That-has-
  been" is not repressed ... but experienced with indifference, as a
  feature that goes without saying. (3)

Photographs are perceived to represent reality in their reference to a subject in time. As Barthes explains, "Show your photographs to someone--he will immediately show you his: 'Look, this is my brother; this is me as a child, etc."' (4) It was this physical, indexical connection to reality that resulted in photography's use as visual recorder in documentary contexts such as news imagery.

In contrast to the physicality of the analog photographic process, digital images are translated into code. This occurs at the moment the image is taken if it is photographed with a digital camera; during the editing process if the film is scanned to be altered, printed, or displayed; and in the distribution of the image if it is displayed on a computer or screen. The lack of physical connection between a digital photograph's subject and image suggests digital images function as pure iconicity. (5) Mary Ann Doane argues:

  The index makes that claim [of its connection to reality] by virtue
  of its privileging of contact, of touch, of a physical connection.
  The digital can make no such claim and, in fact, is defined as its
  negation ... Digital media emerges as the apparent endpoint of an
  accelerating dematerialization, so much so that it is difficult not
  to see the very term digital media as an oxymoron. … 
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