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Once A Certain Notion

1.
For a while, a certain notion held sway. This notion equated the advent of
digital optics with a severing of the anchor that had previously moored the
image to some foundation of reality. Establishing a correspondence between
the pixellation of the photograph and a loss of authenticity was a task
enthusiastically undertaken by a wide variety of commentators. Each of these
could be distinguished by their particular concerns, by the level of cogency
they achieved, by the specifics of their own portfolio of evidence and,
ultimately, by which of the two warring camps – one for and one against –
they chose to identify with. In parallel to these discursive skirmishes, and in
many cases inspired by them, artistic practice offered its own negotiation of
the representational terrain. Was the emergence of digital photography a new
dawn in which surface, artifice and sublime invention could be celebrated or
did it instead augur the dusk into which reason, truth and trust were rapidly
descending?
I wonder, however, whether this notion is beginning to lose its critical bite,
whether, rather than being in some way ontologically opposed to the real, the
visibly digital image is, in certain cases, acquiring its own form of
authenticity, its own testimonial gravity.
2.
If such a shift in perspective is underway, a contributing factor may be
located in a convention that has been adopted within other areas of popular
media. This is the convention by which audiences are presented with material
whose texture – in terms of apparent grain, stock, colour balance or implied
shutter speed – is intended to evoke the operation of previous, less highresolution technologies. This convention is frequently employed as a device
for ‘flash-back’ sequences in fictional work; for a peculiar attempt to register
both immediacy and the potential presence of eye-witness (better:
camcorder-witness) in dramatic crime reconstructions; and to impart a level
of credibility to faked archival footage in the endless parade of documentaries
that appear on The History Channel and its peers.
From this angle, jittery black and white images invoke a certain period in time
and the sun-drenched saturatation of Super-16, the mottled glare of VHS tape
and the strangely muted tones and never-black-blacks of Hi-8 still others.
Thus visibly digital images, where the medium’s characteristics are readily
discernible, might constitute no more than the latest instalment in the
creative association of technology and temporality. Were this to be the case,
then that certain notion holds sway once more since this is not the return of
the real but rather a staged authenticity which at its very worst offers no
more purchase than that to be had from the ‘sepia’ setting that persists –
against logic and, I’m sure, desire - in digital camera’s menu settings.
3.

I don’t believe, however, that this is the full story, that long exposure to
popular media convention alone accounts for changes that might be taking
place in the perception of the realness of digital images. On the contrary, it
may well be the case that this aesthetic convention itself draws sustenance
from a prior association, one that the digital camera, especially the digital
camera embedded in a mobile phone, is now inheriting.
Returning to the list of evocative image types offered earlier, it is noticeable
that the various anachronous technologies that are supposed to have
originated the visual sequences that have been inserted into the main body
of work – whether it is a drama, crime reconstruction or documentary – are all
technologies which have been equated with amateur image-making or, at
least, image-making conducted outside of the confines of professional
budgets and expertise.
Perhaps it is here where the realness of the visibly digital image resides. Thus
authenticity might no longer be constituted – as it seemed to be in the
debates on the digital – according to an invulnerability to manipulation.
Instead, authenticity could be engaged with as a function of the image’s
discernible absence of those visual features which speak of professionalism –
of high-end equipment and of culturally-encoded ideas of good composition.
If professionalism renders the successful image transparent, working out any
artefacts that betray too boldly the technology through which they were
captured and eschewing any overt indications of any human behind the lens,
it may also extract that image from the realities of its origins, transporting it
to an impersonal place where authenticity has less presence. For the
unprofessional image, like the many captured on the digital mobile phones
that have migrated to orthodox news media in recent months, technological
origins are in plain sight and the results detectably embodied ones.
I remember watching CNN as the obliteration of Fallujah reached its bloody
pitch. By this time, most journalists and camera crews had abandoned the
city to its devastation yet images were still coming through, caught on mobile
phones by ‘unilaterals’ or interpreters-turned-journalists. The images, their
resolution resampled for broadcast, certainly left little doubt as to their
technical provenance, nor was there ever any ambiguity about the presence
of the image maker as the camera ducked and bobbed, was extended from
then hurriedly brought back to a breathing body.
Other, less kinetic images, have been uploaded into the public domain from
mobile phone cameras, among the most powerful of which were those
captured in the aftermath of the ‘London Bombings’ of the summer of 2005.
Both those taken in the immediate chaotic proximity of the detonations and
those that represented a city aghast in the hours and days that followed
exhibit many of the qualities of the unprofessional image. The two
photographs included in this issue, for example, although resampled or rescanned before their appearance in the higher definition realm of print or
broadcast media, nonetheless possess a recognisable texture that means
they wear their technical genealogy on their sleeves. More than this, these

are resolutely emdodied images. Although they might share elements of their
subject-matter with, for example, the shelter drawings of Henry Moore or
aspects of their composition with disaster reportage, what renders these
photographs different from any potential parallels is the utter lack of distance
adopted by the photographers. What, for me, makes these images especially
potent is the fact that amidst the blood and dust and smoke and fear for their
life, someone took them. Someone who wasn’t paid to be there, someone
who couldn’t be certain that either they or their images would ever be seen
again yet someone who, although never within the frame, is present through
the domestic, digital technology they have employed.
At this point in this short essay, I wanted to offer some speculation on the
motivations that may have provoked these images, especially those derived
from the confusion closest to the explosions. Despite having dutifully included
a section for this speculation in my provisional structure and despite, too,
having wrestled responsibly with alternative explanations both alone and with
others I can find nothing articulate to say about this; not a single thing that I
could commit to print.
4.
As these images – the work of what Wired magazine called the “bush-league
shutterbugs with digicams and cellphones … the new proletariat press” – find
a more comfortable home within established media, perhaps future
motivations might coincide with those that propel the professionals: payment,
prestige and personal fulfilment. This might seem to be corroborated by the
very recent establishment of the ‘civic media press agency’ Scoopt dedicated
to material sourced from mobile phones; and the fact that appeals by
legitimate operators in terms like “If you are on the spot when news happens,
please send ITN News any images or video you take on your mobile phone”
seem less startling than they once did.
If visibly digital domestic images – as ‘civic media’ - do become more
regularly incorporated within the fourth estate then, perhaps, there might be
a reinvigoration of one area of the image world, a reinvigoration that places
the proximate, immediate and incarnate alongside the more professional as
bears of realness and authenticity. Yet such a reinvigoration may only be a
temporary one, structurally akin to the first appearance of unscripted,
uncoached and demotically-accented witnesses and opinion givers on the
radio and television in the middle of the last century. This would appear to be
the tenor of BBC director of news Helen Boaden’s remarks in The Guardian
after the July 7th bombings when she indicated that the “user-generated
material” would prompt a “gear change” because it “shows that there is a
terrific level of trust between the audience and us, creating a more intimate
relationship than in the past”. Her words still resound with the notion of the
established media agencies retaining the editorial prerogative in a world that
remains one of the “audience and us” (perhaps in a similar way that the
curator retains her legislative authority in spite of the ostensibly democratic
appearance of vernacular images in the gallery).

This is not to say that mobile technologies of word and image will not have an
impact: they already have, in the world of media activism where every
demonstration is now accompanied by its own indie press corps, where each
abuse cannot be assured its anonymity. What an assimilation of “usergenerated” or “civic” media into mainstream media may do, however, is to
rub away some of the authenticity and realness that visibly digital images
appear to have. Once such images, with their distinctive “grain” (both as
image texture and as the roughness that Roland Barthes attributed to certain
song styles) become customary inhabitants of the legitimate image world,
then they will have lost some of their arresting difference. Indeed that grain
may itself disappear as the resolution and light-sensitivity of mobile phone
cameras continue to be enhanced.
Returning to the conceptual coupling which I alluded to in the opening
sentences of these remarks, I believe that, for the moment at least, the
visibly digital image can no longer be unproblematically associated with the
unreal, or even the hyper-real. The gravitational hold of the two images
printed here is one that depends as much upon their embodied veracity as it
does upon the circumstances they portray. Perhaps the whole category of ‘the
digital’, for so long a catchword of the academic take on photography, has
itself become untenable as a meaningful marker of difference. Perhaps we
need to unlearn our certain notions.