Tag Archives: Jean Baudrillard and photography

A Plague of Images

In my quieter moments, I’m finding myself more and more averse to photography. I’m pretty much sick of it. That’s what too much of a good thing will do. I’m overwhelmed by the constant bombardment of images via the internet, on my phone and computer, all made effortless by cel phones. Images have no value anymore. They’ve become the visual equivalent of junk mail, usually now in the service of someone’s idealized version of themselves or their lifestyle.

I’ve found myself painting again, probably because I’m increasingly frustrated by the lack of satisfaction photography offers me as a creative outlet. The photo above is a case lesson in why. I took it with a large film camera in 2005. I thought it was pretty cool, so it hung in my house. 15 years ago I could think it might say something about how I see things, something unique about me, both my creative vision and competence in the medium as a means to accomplish that vision. Now, it’s just another phone pic with a filter, something a 12 year old can do with an iPhone. Tell me why anyone should be impressed or even care.

And then there’s the sheer volume of images constantly inundating me everywhere. I’m bombarded with vulgar, banal and stupid images. It’s worn me out. I want to go back to a time when a single picture could move me with its unique beauty. Usually, the photos that did were relatively small and framed and hung on a wall someplace special. They were simple technologically – usually black and white – but they felt like precious jewels. See, for example, the exhibited work of Jacques Henri Lartigue, Walker Evans or Josef Koudelka. These works enriched my life, maybe because they were rare and beautiful and thus possessed a value that transcended their aesthetic worth.

Now, nothing can have that value anymore.

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James Lovelock talks of the serious malady affecting ecology, what he calls ‘Disseminated Primeatemaia’, the “plague of people” that threatens to overwhelm ecological balance. I immediately thought of the photographic analogy, ‘Disseminated Photomaia’, the plague of images overwhelming us. I’ve elucidated its subjective effects above.

This plague of images contains the kernel of a more existential transformation as well. It threatens to overwhelm and transform our conceptual reality. If you think about it, this is a plague unique to industrialized modernity. Prior to the 19th century and the advent of technologies of inexpensive reproduction and dissemination, images were rare things, encountered in churches and, more rarely, as artistic creations in the service of social and/or political power. Your average peasant very rarely encountered images in his daily life, maybe 10-20 in his lifetime. We encounter that amount every minute or so.

Unfortunately, we haven’t yet really internalized what this has done to our understanding of what’s ‘real.’ We naively consider ‘reality’ as being separate and distinct from images that reflect it; we think ‘reality’ creates its images. In fact, it’s the opposite. Even prior to the internet age, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) noted that we post-industrial moderns inhabit a world created of constant and pervasive imagery, what he termed ‘hyperreality’. Baudrillard claimed that this hyperreality has reversed the relationship of image and reality: images now precede and shape reality as opposed to reflecting a prior reality. The image creates the reality; hence, the rise of the absurd phenomenon of internet “influencers” and other moronic Gen-X agit-prop airbrushing the real. No wonder kids are mainlining heroin, jumping off buildings and shooting up schools. Their ‘reality’ is an incoherent, fucked-up mess of false perfection, self-aggrandizement and consumerism.

Our experience of the world is filtered through preconceptions and expectations that are products of media culture. As John Divola notes in Continuity (1997), the images we see offer a representational ground on which we base our sense of reality, “the millions of such images seen in a lifetime form the internal visual index of what we accept to be real.” In a world saturated with reproductions, representations, and imitations, it becomes very difficult to conceptualize a ‘pure reality’ to which we can contrast the myriad of simulated realities we create out of image environment we’re imprisoned in. Simulations have transformed modernity’s conception of what is real, in our behavior, our bodies, our buildings, our procedures, and our environment. The arrow between the real and the image has been reversed: now ‘reality’ is an effect of images, rather than images springing from something prior to and deeper. Instead of art imitating life, life now imitates art.

Life Imitating Art, or Reality Imitating Images

The Real is No Longer Real” – Jean Baudrillard

French philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) was interested in the essential falsity of the world we as moderns inhabit. Much of what we take for ‘reality’ isn’t the product of our direct experience of people and things but rather comes to us via images mediated by various media – advertising, movies, magazines, the internet. Our reality – what we consider real – is constructed from this image world. The reality we construct via all this imagery Baudrillard calls ‘hyperreality, ’ a composited reality created by other people to influence you for their own ends, whether it be how you should look and dress, what sort of car you should drive, what gadgets you need to live properly.

In Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard claimed that in our modern media-saturated society, where we are constantly bombarded by images, all human experience is now essentially a simulation. Our image-based reality is like an infinitely detailed map existing in a one-to-one relationship with the real territory it describes. The problem is that we take these ‘maps’ of reality presented via images as more real than what actually exists. This is what Baudrillard calls “the death of the real”; all that exists for us are simulations of reality, the representations more important than the ‘real thing’. The massed collection of these simulations has resulted in the condition of ‘hyperreality’, where the distinction between the ‘real’ and simulations has collapsed.

One of Baudrillard’s core arguments is that our world is so thoroughly saturated with images that there’s no longer any way to access a ‘real-world’ that might precede this image world. The image world is our ‘real world, a world we can’t escape or opt out of. It’s now literally impossible to conceptualize a ‘reality’ that precedes and stands apart from the image reality. The causal direction between the real and the representation is now reversed; ‘reality’ is an effect of the image, rather than the image springing from a reality prior to and deeper than it. Instead of art imitating life, life now imitates art.

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We naively think of reality as being separate from the images that claim to represent it. Documentary photography – and traditional notions of photography in general – have considered the relationship of images to reality as follows: there exists reality, and then images are created that reflect that reality. But is this still true in the digital age, where photographers present bright orange trains running under aqua blue-green moonlit skies? In The Evil Demon of Images (1984) Baudrillard claims that that relationship has now become inverted: now it’s the image that comes first, preceding and creating the very reality it claims to reflect, a reversal of the traditional causal relationship between reality and the image.

If you believe Baudrillard, then it raises all sorts of issues re: photography. First, if our reality is already media created, can we speak in any meaningful sense of photography as being a means of documenting a reality that precedes the photograph, or is the phot then an image of an image world, something doubly removed from an inaccessible objective reality? Is it possible to ‘believe’ a photo accurately represents a prior state of affairs? What does it do for Barthe’s understanding of the referential nature of photography as a medium, its authenticity based upon its indexical reading? It also calls into question your rights and responsibilities as a photographer. Your role as an image-maker becomes really important. Baudrillard would say you’re contributing to the creation of realities. The question then becomes: what is your responsibility in that process?

This Person Exists. Maybe.

This Woman Seems Like a Nice Person, or at Least She Looks Like One

“Photographs furnish evidence,” wrote Susan Sontag in On Photography. “A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened.” Sontag went on to admit that photographs might sometimes misrepresent situations, but the basic premise went unchallenged: Photos show us things that exist. It’s because of what we perceive as the photo’s truthful reliability, the “indexicality” issue we’ve beaten to death in the last post and accompanying comments. That’s a photo of me, over there; Sontag would say it’s evidence I exist. (I do.)

Of course, Sontag wrote in 1977, before digital photography was a thing. Now, go to the website “This Person Does Not Exist”. There you’ll see nice, unmanipulated photos of different men and women, normal looking people you’d expect to meet during your day, people just like me up there – except that the photos aren’t of real people. The people in the photos do not exist and never have existed (one of these non-existent persons is shown in the photo heading this post).  Their existence has been generated via an algorithm, in this case, a “generative adversarial network” which produces original digital data [read: a new photo] from existing sets of digital data [read: 1’s and 0’s created by a digital camera]. The generative algorithm scans photos of real faces and creates new photos of new faces from them. Voila! A real photo of a fake person.

Now, take a look at that photo. If I hadn’t told you the above, if I were to tell you that was my wife, or a friend, or a family member, and that’s what she looked like, you’d believe me. All you readers arguing with me in the comments section about indexicality, you’d believe me because photos, film or digital, basically tell the truth, right? OK, it’s digital, so maybe it might have been photoshopped a bit, a few pimples removed, eyes brightened, a few crow’s feet smoothed over…but the person is real, they stood in front of someone with a digital camera, obviously they exist, and they probably look something like that. Right. You guys crack me up, unable as you are to see past the outdated conceptual blinders you wear. For those of you arguing against the idea that there really isn’t much difference between the presumed truthfulness of film versus digital photos, go to the website and look around.

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in 1945, film critic André Bazin (1918-58) wrote an essay entitled ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’. ‘Ontology’ is a word you’ll see a lot in philosophy. It’s the study of the ultimate “being” of a thing (e.g. “What do we mean when we say a thing is an animal?”).  To discuss the ontological status of photography is to consider what particular kind of thing a photograph is. Kazin’s interest in the ontology of photography leads to Susan Sontag (On Photography, 1977) and Roland Barthes (Camera Lucida, 1980).

I’ve already discussed Barthes at length elsewhere. In Camera Lucida, Barthes employed a philosophical method associated with Jean-Paul Sartre called “phenomenology”, Barthes himself noting the book was written “in homage to L’Imaginaire by Jean-Paul Sartre.” Sartre wrote L’Imaginaire in 1940, a few years before Kazin’s essay, wherein he applied the ideas of Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, to investigate various kinds of images, including photographs.

Sartre’s point in  L’Imaginaire is that there are different kinds of apprehending, correlated with different kinds of objects. Sartre says that when looking at photos we must “intend pictorially”; i.e. apprehending something as a picture is different from apprehending something as a simple object. “If it is simply perceived, [the photo] appears to me as a paper rectangle of quality and, with shades and clear spots distributed in a certain way. If I perceive that photograph as ‘photo of a man standing on steps’, the neutral phenomenon is necessarily already of a different structure: a different intention animates it.” That’s classic phenomenology, where every conscious experience has “intentionality,” which is a fancy way of saying that everything we think is shaped by the category we place the thing thought about.

Barthes, following Sartre, notes the difference involved in perceiving a photo versus perceiving it as a photo. For Barthes the essence of perceiving something as a photograph is ‘that-has-been’: “In photography,” he writes, “I can never deny that the thing has been there”. The person in the photo exists, Barthes is saying; the photo is the proof. By contrast, no painted portrait can compel me to believe its subject had really existed. Hence “This-has-been; for anyone who holds a photograph in his hand, here is a fundamental belief… nothing can undo unless you prove to me that the image is not a photograph.”

So, what of the analyses of Bazin, Sartre, Sontag, and Barthes in the digital age? I’ve discussed the implications of Barthes’ thought here. Listen again to what Barthes considered the ontology of photography: “This-has-been; for anyone who holds a photograph in his hand, here is a fundamental belief… nothing can unless you prove to me that the image is not a photograph.” Using this definition, a digital photograph is not a photograph in Barthes’ sense of the word. This is true of all digital photos, and not just the real images of fake people on “This Person Does Not Exist,”  because the necessary connection to the real thing photographed has been severed and replaced by its connection with a string of 0s and 1s stored in a computer file. With the onset of the digital age, in the words of William Mitchell, there is now “an ineradicable fragility of our ontological distinctions between the imaginary and the real.”

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Jean Baudrillard, Enjoying a Gitanes While Thinking Deeply

So, if digital images are not photographs in the traditional sense, what is their ontological status – what kind of thing are they? According to Jean Baudrillard (1929 – 2007), French philosopher, cultural theorist, political commentator… and photographer, digital images are “simulacra.” Baudrillard was a Semiotics guy like Barthes, who wrote about diverse subjects, including consumerismgender relations, economics, social history, art, Western foreign policy, and popular culture. He is best known, however, for his thinking about signs and signifiers and their impact on social life, in so doing popularizing the concepts of simulation and hyperreality. And, luckily for us, he was minimally aware enough of his surroundings not to get run over by a truck, like Barthes, and so lived to see the digital age.

Baudrillard’s post-digital world is made up of surfaces populated with self-proliferating “simulacra”, which are not copies of the real but their own thing, the hyperreal. Where classic philosophy saw two types of representation— 1) faithful and 2) intentionally distorted (simulacrum)—Baudrillard sees four: (1) basic reflection of reality; (2) perversion of reality; (3) pretense of reality (where there is no model); and (4) simulacrum, which “bears no relation to any reality whatsoever.”  Digital photos are in the 4th category – simulacra – and are generated “by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map… it is the map that precedes the territory. It is … whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are… ours. The desert of the real itself.”

The problem with our new digital world, as Baudrillard sees it, is that our sense of reality is in the process of being inexorably altered by the endless profusion of non-reality based images, “simulacra.” In phenomenological terms, the categories we assign things to have been altered; that is to say, digitization has altered our ontology. As Sartre noted, from a phenomenological perspective, photographs form a distinctive category of objects. To see a picture as a photograph is to put it in a category. Now, for Baudrillard, to see something as a digital image is to locate it within the category of simulacra, the not-real, if only subconsciously (Baudrillard would say that we will gradually transition consciously once we’ve realized the ruse is up). This is the radical opposite of Sontag’s claim for analog photography. For Baudrillard, with digital’s severing of indexicality, we can never be certain what kind of image we are seeing, and so, by default, we must assign it to the category of simulacrum. Where once the image world provided us with windows onto reality, the image world now surrounds us in fictitious landscapes that heighten ontological uncertainty by eradicating the distinction between real and not real.

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A Photograph Taken with a Film Camera. These People Exist

So, back to the “generative algorithm scans” creating real, unmanipulated photos of fake people.  Yes, as some of my readers have noted,  film photographers have been able to manipulate images too, although such marginal abilities that exist have had, at best, a marginal effect on how we perceive the world.  And when we suspect a film image has been altered, we can generally find the original – the negative – to check. Now, in the digital age, we can create absolutely real photos of unreal people, what is referred to as “deepfakes,” generated by algorithms, and there’s no original to go back to compare –  the fake is the original.

As Susan Sontag wrote, when we take a photo or share one with others, we are creating and sharing “a tiny element of another world: the image-world that bids to outlast us all.” As to the truthfulness of the digital image-world which we’ll share with others and bequeath to future generations, this remains an open question.