In the film era, the photo was valued as a record. The photograph resulted in a fixed image. The best of these fixed images contained the aura effect of the image, what Roland Barthes calls ‘the punctum’, the thing that takes us outside the image to the reality it stencils. Analog was representation of the real.
Who today, except for a few film photographers pushed to the margins of irrelevancy, still respects the Barthian punctum when taking a photo? According to French philosopher Roland Barthes, the ‘punctum’ is the thing that jumps out at the viewer within a photograph creating an ‘element which rises from the scene’ and unintentionally fills the whole image. Punctum is the rare detail that attracts you to an image, Barthes says ‘its mere presence changes my reading, that I am looking at a new photograph, marked in my eyes with a higher value.’ What’s important for Barthe’s argument is that the photo itself be a faithful rendering of something “out there”, that it have some connection to the thing photographed, much as Sontag talks of a photograph as a “stenciling from the real;” the instant, the conjunction of events, the link with time. In Camera Lucida, Barthe’s discusses this in the context of a photo of his mother; in some sense, the puctum of that photo for Barthes is that it was directly stenciled from his mother’s body and in some sense still partakes of her (now vanished) corporality.
Digital is the age of the reworked image. It’s no longer essential to catch the eye when the importance of the shot is only relative. You can ad lib the punctum later with Photoshop. But in doing so you’ve disconnected it from its truth value. The photo is now not a material thing directly connecting us to the real but an algorithmic formula. As such, are photographs still capable of being repositories of truth? No. Photographic digitization requires each of us to reconstruct the world, in Paul Ardenne’s words, “using image-games rather than trapping it in image-pictures.”
The transition to digitalization in image making sweeps away Barthe’s punctum: the right to trust the photo as a witness, proof “that was.” There is no truth in a digital image, the stenciled connection has been severed. The digital image can be, at best, “that could have been.” The consequences of this destruction of the photo’s essential link to truth are two-fold. First, we now must always entertain, to our enduring discomfort, that what we are being offered may, probably is, false to reality. Is this photo deceiving us? We have no way of knowing. On the other hand, subjectivist imagery has become the norm. Modifying images is no longer taboo; a few clicks of the mouse and you can reconfigure the image to go well beyond the source image in its fidelity to what’s “out there.”
Along with the removal of the “sacred aura” that traditionally attends a photo, there is now an infinite potential for playing with the photo. No regrets, no remorse. Photography is no longer a repository of images plucked from the real but a combinatory and endlessly fluid medium of self-serving half-truths i.e. lies.