Photography is "something always caught in the process of becoming". Geoffrey Batchen


Post-photography is a concept frequently employed to articulate photography's contemporary condition. The term was first used in 1991 in the exhibition and catalogue PhotoVideo held at The Photographer's Gallery, London. Post-photographic discourse developed out of a need to reflect upon and critique the relationship between photography and digital imaging technologies. It is the more recent developments in the discourse that are of interest to this research project, in particular David Tomas' use of post-photography.

Early post-photographic critique focussed on anxieties, and was responsible for such claims as "From today photography is dead!". This end-game mentality, stemmed from the belief that photographic simulation technologies diminish our collective faith in photography's indexical relationship to the real (and truth) and will ultimately lead to the death of photography as an autonomous mediumBatchen 2000 p109 . Digital photographic technologies stand accused of undermining the belief, as Susan Sontag put it, that "a photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened"Sontag 1979 p3. As Fred Ritchin states:

Photography used to serve as a reality test. One saw something, or even thought one saw something, and the photograph was there as confirmation or denial; or at the very least to be argued with, for the photograph could not be dismissed. Ritchen 1991 p8

Martha Rosler explains that decades of semiotic analysis have already undermined photography's links to truth and discredited its indexical relationship Rosler in Kembler 1998. Furthermore, Martin Lister is critical of analysis that places too much emphasis on the evident technological differences between photography and digital processes since it "obscures important elements of continuity in the cultural meaning and uses of technologies". He states that to assess the significance of new image technologies we also have to look at how images are used, by whom, and for what purpose.Lister 2003 p317

The difference between analogue and digital image technologies is only one factor within a much larger context of continuities and transformations .Lister 2003 p317

Geoffrey Batchen believes that a change in imaging technology will not in itself cause the disappearance of the photograph and the culture it sustains. "Photography has never been just any one technology; its nearly two centuries of development have been marked by numerous, competing instances of technological innovation and obsolescence without any threat being posed to the medium itself" Batchen 2002 p140. He points out that even if we do identify photography with particular technologies such as film and cameras, that these technologies themselves embody the idea of photography as an economy of photographic desires or concepts:

The concepts inscribed within this economy would have to include things like nature, knowledge, representation, time, space, observing subject and subject observed. Photography is the desire, conscious or not, to orchestrate a particular set of relationships between these various concepts.Batchen 2002 p140

Just as Howard Halle suggests that painting is a "philosophical enterprise that doesn't always involve paint"Halle 2001, Batchen perhaps identifies that photography is a philosophical enterprise that doesn't always involve photographs, photographic images, subjects or mediums. For Batchen post-photography exists as a rich vocabulary of conventions and references which he considers to be "after but not yet beyond photography"Batchen 2002 p109

David Tomas transforms the concept of post-photography, by developing it into "an effective counter-practice in the visual arts and beyond". He begins this task by identifying and critiquing the conventional ways in which the history of visual arts are criticized within practice. He lists the strategies typically employed as:

  1. drawing attention to the way we look - proposing different viewpoints
  2. challenging traditional media on their own terms - large photographs of intimate subjects
  3. offer unknown or marginalized subjects
  4. propose different readings of subjects e.g. feminist, gay, post-colonial
  5. try repositioning photography within existing hierarchy of media - large scale photographs that compete with painting or photographs that are sculptural in form.

Tomas admits these strategies produce different results, however they are "limited to a particular dimension or arena of activity"Tomas 2004 p231 . He goes on to say that importing new subject matter doesn't guarantee "a radically different subject; it might simply extend an existing repertoire" which in itself in not infinite. Furthermore because most images in visual art "operate with highly restrictive pictorial and thematic codes/norms", new subject matter has to be "recognized as radical" in relation to a common "imaginary map of the discipline and its tradition". A similar problem arises when introducing new imaging technology, Tomas arguing that, for example, the transition from analogue to digital imaging "has taken place within well-established pictorial conventions." He also observes "it is surprising to note how the images produced by these new technologies are situated in relation to, or remain within, existing subject repertoirs"Tomas 2004 p234 . For a counter-practice to be effective:

Truly radical change would challenge the coherence and cohesion of a discipline.Tomas 2004 p231

Tomas attempts to develop a viewpoint and vocabulary that suits the production of visual works and that are based on a different set of premises concerning subject matter and pictorial logic all together. "The key resides in a different model of the relationship between organism, artifact and ideas"Tomas 2004 p238 Tomas employs a cybernetic model to do this. Cybernetics studies how complex systems organize and function. In many ways, cybernetic science is the precursor to the sciences of complexity. In fact, Heylighen points out that many of the concepts and methods the sciences of complexity use, are derived from cybernetics Heylighen 1996. Cybernetics focuses on how systems use information and feedback control to maintain goals and counteract disturbances to the system. "Cybernetics is concerned with those properties of systems that are independent of their concrete material or components"Heylighen 2001 p6. This allows different systems to be described using the same concepts. Information is the key to this approach, which has been famously defined by Geoffrey Bateson as, "the difference that makes the difference"Bateson 2000.

Whether the difference is carried by material objects, spoken language or electrical impulses in the brain is in se irrelevant: what counts is how far it helps the system to understand its actual situation and take appropriate action so as to reach its goal-in spite of constantly changing circumstances.Gershenson & Heylighen

Within a cybernetic model, the focus is on the information flow across, between and through interacting elements, systems, and environments, independent of what the elements are. In using this approach, Tomas believes it is possible to have an ecology which integrates "a circulation of ideas across biological and cultural boundaries and throughout a socio-environmental context."

Any system would henceforth be defined in terms of operational goals, explanatory objectives and interfaces between inner and outer environments. By inverting the relationship between product (photography's teleological objective) and process, one can find oneself in a position where context and processes become product.Tomas 2004 p238

In accepting an ecological (complex system) approach - which embodies non-linear patterns of connections, Tomas comments that "the camera becomes a node in an expanding system of ideas concerning this picture-making process. These ideas and their pathways in space and time are a new dynamic form of subject-matter".Tomas 2004 p238

For Tomas "post-photography is based on the premise that critical and strategic transformations in the cultural dimensions of photographic modes of production lead to the development of alternative representational practices"Tomas 2004 p247. This requires a significant change in approach and thinking. As Batchen and Tomas have already alluded to, "Even if a computer does replace the traditional camera, that computer will still depend on the thinking and worldview of the humans who program, control, and direct it, just as photography now does"Batchen 2002 p140. For Tomas, the practical application of a post-photographic theory requires a gestalt shift in traditional photographic relationships. Tomas argues that a culture of photography does not necessarily have to be defined in terms of images that have come to embody much of its current historical and social value. Photography's historical-epistemological identity can also be defined in terms of cultural dimensions of its processes of production. He confirms:

After all, photographs do not simply appear; they are produced by a complex transformational process that might be impregnated with a range of symbolic values.Tomas 2004 p241

The foundation of Tomas' approach lies in a strategic inversion of one of the primary oppositions governing a photographic culture: the traditional hierarchic opposition between the PRODUCT of photographic activity and the PROCESS of its production. He states:

A strategic inversion in the process/product hierarchy that governs current photographic practices clears the way for the development of an ecological approach to the production of images in a culture that involves a considerable widening of the boundaries that have traditionally defined photography. Instead of seeking legitimation in terms of a narrow, institutionally sanctioned 'history of photography' or defining itself as a history of subject/images and chemical processes, lens designs or camera forms, post-photographic practice seeks to trace the networks of its operational cultures conceived with broad spatial, temporal, social and environmental contexts. Thus through the photographic process one can now enter the various worlds of its contexts of production.Tomas 2004 p247

With the adoption of a post-photographic ecosystem, the "emergence of different and plural cultures of representation" produces a number of important changes in the relative values that have been granted to traditional photography. For one, in a post-photographic culture, conventional photographs have no hegemonic role or position because they no longer serve any of their traditional functions. Post-photographic precipitates the post-historical - there is "no need for a testify to the significance of events by organizing and fixing them according to a chronological code of before and after"Tomas 2004 p249. Tomas points out there is no need for a point of view, when instead there is visual context.

Tomas' own post-photographic practice is driven by his interest in the ritual and socio-symbolic nature of photography. To that end, he uses anthropological methods and tools to pursue his research. At the core of his post-photographic practice, is the act of negation which "consists of denying the subject/image's access to a photographic surface"Tomas 2004 p238. He employs the Nietzschean strategy of historical and cultural amnesia - to subvert the traditional values that surround products of conventional photographic activity. For Tomas, post-photography operates under the guidance of an art of forgetfulness. In this way, his new subject matter "takes place through the manifestation of an act of negation that is triggered within the movement between an historical and an unhistorical consciousness". Representation is "conceived as a movement of ideas concerning the nature of imaging technologies and their cultural infrastructures throughout a cultural ecology of technology that ultimately links different artifacts together"Tomas 2004 p238.


David Tomas - Contact sheet of Brute photographs, 1980.

An example of Tomas' negation and exploration of ritual in photography, can be seen in his Brute photographs. These photographs are subjectless images, produced by radiated light.

One can point a 35mm camera at the sun and take a series of overexposed photographs. The resulting photographs have no discernable differences inscribed in their surfaces; they are completely white and therefore it is impossible to equate them with a specific place or time, however vague this equation might be. Since they have no visible differentiating information, even if this undifferentiated condition is presented in the form of an excess of data, a spectator cannot recognize them as photographs or immediately place them in any category of picture. Tomas 2004 p89.

Tomas points out that although his approach is "emblematic" of post-photographic practice, "there is no predetermined portal to this world". Because post-photography is a complex ecosystem of different elements, interconnections and contexts, "post-photography is thus able to redefine its culture and practice continually".Tomas 2004 p238-9

Tomas' ecosystemic approach involves prioritizing the process of photography over the products of photography. It is the information, ideas and patterns that emergence between across and through processes of the post-photographic system that offer new kinds of subject matter, and new kinds of photography. Understood as a complex system, post-photography becomes a practice that focuses on interactions, connections and processes. Post-photography understood in this way, compliments Vilem Flusser's notion of playing against the apparatus - it plays against the photographic program in general. It challenges traditional photographic relationships and goes on to reflect, articulate, critique and continually redefine its own operational logic, practice and existence.


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