Even before the invention of the camera, the master has always been entwined with its image – in coinage, sculptures, paintings, drawings, and other media – but it seems that photography has both continued and complicated the master-image relation. As before, a master can stage portraits and public performances to secure domination through a public circulation of its image(s). But photography’s “contribution” to the master-image relation was not merely to enhance the intertwinement of the master with its image.
At least since the beginning of the 20th century, it has become apparent that photography can simultaneously capture something else – the unexpected, the unwitting, the excess that eludes control. Moreover, the mass proliferation of image-making in the early 21st century and the changed information and communication ecosystems have made the control of one’s public image a precarious process, dictated to a large extent by an image-generating social apparatus and algorithmic logic. To a large extent, the age-old dialectic between the master and the servant seems to be flipped on its head – the master being evermore the servant of its own representation, of its most shareable common public visual denominator, be it likable, hated or reviled. Is the master becoming ever more the servant of its own representation? Is this representation being hollowed-out, becoming “merely” an abstract visualisation of power, detached from any of the master’s traits? Have we entered a new era of a master figure without any grandeur or charisma, a master lacking any sign of dignity – a master for which the denomination only holds true in terms of political power, lacking any “grand” visual signs of the historical personas of the past? This issue of Membrana journal investigates the role that photography plays in the creation, strengthening, or subversion of (the images of) the master.
Since the invention of photography, our relationship with the medium, the image-taking apparatus and photographs as objects has always been invested with a set of beliefs in the excessive, pervasive, almost magical power of photography.
From early belief in the photography’s “soul-stealing” capabilities to the contemporary belief in photography’s “data-stealing” ones, our understanding of the origin of medium’s special power changed and evolved – for example from being anchored in the magical emanation of the objects onto paper to datafied signification within the omnipresent apparatus of social surveillance. But the belief in some sort of special power of photography persists, our continuous investment with mystical qualities making it one of the most enchanted technologies of present day.
This investment goes well beyond vernacular fascination with photographs of loved ones being something more than their mere pictorial representations and extends beyond professional and institutional settings into the very foundations of photographic theory. The magical element of photography was addressed in Benjaminian fissure between the shamanistic and chirurgic, in Barthesian insistence on photography as magic rather than art, in Piercean simultaneity of iconicity and indexicality, in Marxist and psychoanalytical notions of photography’s fetishism etc. In practices as diverse as photojournalism and spiritualism, photography has been invested with the notion that it can reveal more than the human eye, piercing the reality and turning unseen into seen, absent into present, distant into close, transgressing both the limitations of human perception and physical limitations of space and time. It is no surprise that it was and is intensively used to grasp the world further removed from our own senses but at the same time it could never be reduced to just being an extension of our senses.
It conjured up new dimensions of seeing – distinctly photographic ones – and had never stopped stirring the search for the unknown, unseen, incomprehensible, excessive, enchanted – the magical of the world, be it through spirit photography, UFO photography, cryptozoology, or even “thoughtography”. Through such “excessive” investments, photography came to be used as an object of societal magical rituals – either explicitly, as in voodoo practices, healing and curing rituals, spiritualistic rituals, or occultism, or implicitly, in its everyday uses, such as family photography, documentation of the rites of passage, or post-mortem photography.
Throughout the twentieth century, political and social protests have become one of the most widespread forms of political contention and collective social action and are to an ever greater extent shaping the contours of public debate since the beginning of the new millennium. Unsurprisingly, within the present milieu of crumbling social consensus, growing political polarization and legitimacy crisis of key institutions of modern state, various forms of political and social protests are on the rise. Visual capabilities of new communication technologies have not only significantly changed the nature and extent of documentation and challenged the institutionalized mediation and communication, but also contributed to codification, even standardization of the visual representations of protests. Strained between symbols (e.g. tank man), metaphors (e.g. protesters giving flowers to police/military) and visual clichés (e.g. rock-throwing masked protester), images of protests and protesters play an important role in struggles over interpretation of the events, legitimacy of protester’s demands and their status as either citizens, crowds, “the people” or mobs. Moreover, protest visuals are not simply part of representation of events; they are increasingly becoming tools of political mobilization, resistance and even modes of protesting themselves through image-based activism, documentation and archiving projects and more.
The notion of being human revolves around our perception of what it means to be an animal or beast – and this relationship is constructed through the medium of photography (among other media). Photographs of animals always held a significant presence throughout the history of the medium, a testimony of particular fascination and desire to either decode or ascribe meaning to the non-human. The sheer number and diversity of photographic representations of animals (and non-photographic pictorial tradition of representing imaginary beasts) testifies of co-dependency of the relationship. Whether used as commodities for exchange, marketing tools for commodification, tools of scientific research or tokens of domestic familiarity, silent trophies from exotic places or city zoos, the images speak of a certain process of domestication of both a sign and a referent. Nowadays there seems to be a shift from the old photo-humanistic belongingness of The Family of Man to the growing disillusionment of Anthropocene. A certain demand for a new kind of responsibility, a new kind of belonging arises – not only trans-cultural but also trans-species.
Throughout its relatively short cultural history, photographer’s studio backdrop has, alongside different props, served as a creative and imaginary place of wish fulfilment, aspirations or nostalgic longing. It has created and followed pictorial conventions, and at the same time broken with them. Lastly, in the digital age it has evolved into the ever and instantly changing backscreen in which the frivolous creativity seems to be unleashed in its fullness. Regardless of its form – either as a part of a fancy 19th century attic studio, characterless shopping mall cubicle, a makeshift setup in student admission office or as the portable backdrop of a street peddler portraitist – photographer’s backdrop is first and foremost a place of exchange of mastery of technique, desires, conventions and money. Guided by the wish it is a reproduction of prevailing social norms and conventions, or a temporary shelter from them. Even today there seems to be a certain charm in the sociability and ritualistic nature of old photographer’s studio backdrop practices. Not only that – backdrop always served as a background, a frame, an ideological grid – artistic and scientific – on which the object of interest, desire or investigation itself was superimposed, thus delineating, exposing, accentuating its features.
Today, the digital augmentation to personal worlds and public spaces revolutionises how we experience both each other and ourselves. With historically unparalleled acceleration, photographic technology is ever-more immersive and interactive. This principally visual medium can react dynamically and blend realistically with our environment in real-time to add layers of novel data (across sensory modalities auditory, haptic and olfactory). Thus, with the application of the augmented photograph within a smartphone app, social network, or some other channel, our perceptual-cognition becomes increasingly embedded (between our interactions) and extended (beyond the organism). The affordances of enhanced viewer-made-participant experience, immersed in a composite visuality superimposed over the “real world,” have already begun to inspire: visual activism, protest representation, and contested identities; photo and documentary journalism; counter-information and dataveillance; remediation or reconceptualization for the iconic historical imaginary; family as well as social histories by way of shifting album paradigms; and other areas of inquiry. The notion of augmentation combines the indexical qualities of the “traditional” photographic image with “new” digital forms and functionalities.