The photographic universe can serve as a model for post-industrial society as a whole and....a philosophy of photography can be the starting point for any philosophy engaging with the current and future existence of human beings. Flusser 2000 p75


The Photographic Universe is composed of a multiplicity of complex systems. It is a complex and multi-levelled web of interactions, connections and interdependencies from the processes involved in producing a photograph to the various systems and channels that distribute photographic imagery.

One first sees, the photographic universe as the product of cameras and distribution apparatuses. Behind these, one recognizes industrial apparatuses, advertising apparatuses etc. Each of these apparatuses is becoming increasingly automated and is being linked other apparatuses. The program of each apparatus is fed in via its input by another apparatus, and in turn feeds other apparatuses via its output.Flusser 2000 p71

In Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Vilem Flusser presents photography as a mesh of systems dominated by apparatuses, programs, agency and information. He explores the dynamic interactions of the photographic universe making explicit the function of the photograph; the photographer/camera relationship; the channels of photographic distribution; and the various programs that underpin the whole system.

His reason for this systemic approach to photography and for establishing the foundations for a philosophy of photography, is to ensure photographic practice is raised to the level of consciousness necessary for critique. For Flusser, photography is an allegory of post-industrial and post-historical thought. "If such a philosophy should succeed in fulfilling its task, this would be of significance, not only in the field of photography, but for post-industrial society in general". Flusser 2000 p75

Flusser identifies the invention of photography as an event as significant as the invention of writing. Writing ushered in History. History is a product of writing. It is the "setting of letters (and events) in a linear order. Before the invention writing, history was unthinkable. The new was not deduced from the old. Thinking was not causal. The rooster crowed and the sun rose"Wilson & Strohl. The transition from what Flusser terms magical, to historical thinking occurred so long ago, that thinking historically has become second nature. The invention of photography signified the beginning of a new kind of thinking, post-historical thinking.

Flusser believed that History in the philosophical sense (as temporal and social progress) "has a specific birth and is destined to have a specific death"Wilson & Strohl. He also believed that we are experiencing a transition between historical and post-historical thinking. "Linear thinking - based on writing and essential to history - is about to be put aside by a new form of thinking that is much more complex, multi-dimensional and visual, based on algorithms, and inspired by systems theory and chaos theory"Wilson & Strohl.

Rather than historical thinking being supplanted, Flusser believed that it would "undergo mutations and coexist alongside the new, just as magical (pre-historical) thinking has in the historical epoch"Wilson & Strohl. Wilson and Strohl point out that Flusser argued against the misconception that writing and historical thinking would suddenly and completely disappear in light of post-historical and visual thinking. "Instead, both tendencies will co-exist for a long time. It will take generations for this new way of perceiving and thinking to conquer the daily lives and the consciousness of the majority of people".Wilson & Strohl

Photography therefore, plays a key role in understanding the shift into post-historical thinking. Flusser identifies the camera as a prototype for the apparatuses that have become so much a part of our present existence. He uses the camera as a starting point for a general analysis of apparatuses including soft apparatuses of management etc. The photograph is viewed as the first post-historical image/object and is key to understanding the reassessment of value in post-industrial society. And photographers are "people of the apparatus future", their actions provide insight into how humans behave within this post-historical existence.

Flusser maps out the interactions between photographs and camera; camera and photographer; photographer and distribution channels. At the core of his thesis is the acknowledgement that programs and apparatuses govern the systems and relationships within which we operate; and the type of freedoms available to us. Flusser's approach has been dismissed as determinism by those who take exception to the idea "the product of all photographic media, still or moving tend to be determined principally by the template of apparatuses rather than the will of the photographer or the character of the world 'out there'"North 2000 p30. Flusser can be melodramatic at times, often presenting worst-case (even apocalyptic) scenarios to further his point. However, understanding his mapping of photography as a complex system, by its very (indeterminate) nature, is enough to discredit accusations of determinism and shift the focus to the insights that can be gained from Flusser's assessment of photography/post-industrial society.

Photograph \Camera

Michael Kohler points out that, as a consequence of photography being assessed in terms of art history, "the camera has become accepted as the modern substitute for brushes and pigment" Kohler 2002 p215. There is however a significant difference between a paintbrush and camera. Unlike the brush, the camera is an apparatus. Unlike paintings, there are factors that stand between photographs and their significance - for example the camera and photographer. The relationship between photographer and camera is rarely addressed in conventional critiques of photographs. Photographs are viewed "not as images but as windows"Flusser 2000 p17. As a consequence most critiques of photography are critiques of the world and not the interactions and processes of image production. Flusser points out, with photographs, even though it appears that information flows into the complex on the one side (input) and out on the other side (output), "what is going on within the complex - remains concealed; a 'black box' in fact"Flusser 2000 p16.


The interactions that occur within the photographer/camera relationship remains unexamined - and this is where technical images? such as photographs are actually encoded. Flusser deduces "any criticism of technical images must be aimed at an elucidation of its inner workings. As long as there is no way of engaging in such criticism of technical images, we shall remain illiterate"Flusser 2000 p16.

Photographer \Camera

The photographer/camera relationship is viewed as a complex which is defined by Gershenson & Heylighen as "two or more distinct parts that are joined in such a way that it is difficult to separate them". It is symbiotic - one cannot function without the other. The role of the camera and photographer are outlined as follows:

The camera is programmed to produce photographs, and every photograph is a realization of one of the possibilities contained within the program of the camera. The number of such possibilities is large, but is nevertheless finite: It is the sum of all those photographs that can be taken by a camera.........Photographers endeavour to exhaust the photographic program by realizing all their possibilities. But the program is rich and there is no way of getting an overview of it. Thus the photographer attempts to find the possibilities not yet discovered within it: They handle the camera, turn it this way and that, look into it and through it. If they look through the camera out into the world, this is not because the world interests them but because they are pursuing new possibilities of producing information.Flusser 2000 p26

If we understand the photographer/camera relationship as a system, the camera program facilitates the possibilities and constraints of the system. In terms of complexity, systems that are drawn to a particular state are said to be attracted to that state. An attractor is the name given to a stable configuration of a system, they reduce the number of possible behaviours of a system. A system governed by an attractor is strongly bound to behave in a particular way. The camera program pushes the system towards an attractor, encouraging a stable configuration, and at the same time limiting the possibilities or destinies of the camera/photographer complex. The camera program is goal-directed which means it is designed to ensure that there are no deviations in the system. Goal-directed systems must actively intervene to achieve and maintain its goals - this is achieved through feedback Heylighen 2001 p13. "The camera's program provides for the realization of its capabilities and, in the process, for the use of society as a feedback mechanism for its progressive improvement"Flusser 2000 p46 . The goals of the camera program are summarized below:

  1. to place its inherent capabilities into the image
  2. make use of a photographer for this purpose
  3. to distribute the images produced in this way so that society is in a feedback relationship to the camera which makes it possible for the camera to improve progressively
  4. to produce better and better images.

It is important to point out that the camera program, in fact all programs (in this context) are dynamic entities. They evolve in response to feedback; to changes to the elements within the system; and to changes to interrelated programs and systems. For example, we have seen the emergence of new camera programs as a result of the shift from analogue to digital cameras - the capabilities and intentions of the respective programs are quite different. More recently, factors such as consumer demand (feedback); and the drive to produce better and better images, has resulted in digital cameras with increased functionalities and megapixel capacities. "This progressive improvement of camera models is based on a feedback mechanism by which those taking snaps feed the photographic industry: The photographic industry learns automatically from the actions of those taking snaps. This is the essence of post-industrial progress"Flusser 2000 p57. Programs will continually evolve to maintain and extend the goals of the systems in which they operate.

Flusser acknowledges the interconnectedness of the camera/photographer complex to other systems and that the camera program does not exist in isolation:

Beyond these are further programs - that of the photographic industry that programmed the camera; that of the industrial complex that programmed the photographic industry; that of the socio-economic system that programmed the industrial complex; and so on. Of course, there can be no 'final' program of a 'final' apparatus since every program requires a metaprogram by which it is programmed. The hierarchy of programs is open at the top. Every program functions as a function of a metaprogram and the programmers of a program are functionaries of this metaprogram.Flusser 2000 p29


A more accurate representation of the process of producing a photograph.

In complex systems, no one element/individual has all the information about the system. Micromotives generate macrobehaviours. The programs, apparatuses and systems of the photographic universe emerge and there is no way of understanding the totality of the photographic universe since we are individuals in it. It is also difficult to predict how the programs, apparatuses and systems contained within the universe will evolve in the future. The randomness of our non-linear post-historical existence is misrepresented by the order of linear history. "We are no longer within a linear historical context - where nothing is repeated and everything has cause and consequence. We are now in a context "no longer ascertainable by means of causal but only means of functional explanations"Flusser 2000 p77. The indeterminacy of this context is described by Flusser as chance, and he describes the function of the photographer/camera complex as a game. In this context the camera (and the apparatus in general) is a plaything, and the photographer is a player. "Yet photographers do not play with their plaything but against it. They creep into the camera in order to bring to light the tricks concealed within.....photographers are inside their apparatus and bound up with it. This is a new kind of function in which human beings are neither the constant nor the variable but in which human beings and apparatus merge into a unity"Flusser 2000 p27.

The photographer/camera relationship is not a static one - it is temporal and spatial. The act of photography places the photographer/camera complex in time and space. Flusser describes some of the possibilities encountered in the act of photographing:

One time and space for close up; another for middle; another for long distance; one spatial bird's- eye view; another for frog's view; another for toddler's perspective; another for a direct gaze with eyes wide open...; another for a sidelong glance. Or: one area of time (shutter speed) for a lightning fast view; another for a quick glance; another for meditative inspection. The act of photography has its movement within this time and space.Flusser 2000 p34

Understood in terms of complexity, what Flusser is articulating is the phase space or state space of photography. Phase space is a space where all possible states of a system are represented, with each state corresponding to one point in the phase space. It is a multidimensional space, with parameters, known as degrees of freedom, represented on individual axes. In qualitative research, it is possible to plot the possibilities using a morphological box. For example, a 3-dimensional box, "contains one particular "value" or condition from each of the parameters, and thus marks out a particular state or configuration of the problem complex". Ritchey 2005

../Images/zwicky.png Diagram of 3-dimensional Morphological box

Understood as phase space, the act of photography is viewed as multiplicity of choices that exist as a result of the possibilities and limitations of photographer/camera complex in time and space. As the "photographer changes from one form of space and time to another", the phase space changes. Flusser refers to degrees of freedom (parameters) of the phase space as categories. The act of photographing is "a process which adjusts the combinations of time and space categories"Flusser 2000 p35.

Photographers select combinations of categories, it appears that the photographer can choose freely as if their camera were following intention. But the choice is limited to the categories of the camera, and the freedom of the photographer is a programmed freedom.Flusser 2000 p35

This also extends to the 'object' being photographed. Flusser identifies that the camera categories (as degrees of freedom) dictate what can be photographed. "Consequently it is true that the choice of the object to be photographed is free, but also has to be a function of the program of the camera"Flusser 2000 p36. Further Flusser suggests that artistic, scientific and political images remain subordinate to the camera program. "In the act of photography the camera does the will of the photographer but the photographer has to will what the camera can do".Flusser 2000 p35

Photographer \ Distribution Apparatus

Within the photographer/camera complex, Flusser acknowledges that the photographer also has goalsFlusser 2000 p45 . The photographers' intentions are summarized as follows:

  1. to encode their concepts of the world into images
  2. to do this by using a camera
  3. to show the images produced in this way to others so that they can serve as models for their experience, knowledge, judgement and actions
  4. to make these models as permanent as possible.

Flusser suggests the key to decoding a photograph, is to understand "the encoding intentions at work within the 'photographer/camera complex. Once one has read off this encoding from the photograph, it can be considered decoded"Flusser 2000 p45. Theoretically, "this gives photography critics the task of decoding these two interweaving codes in any photograph"Flusser 2000 p48. However this is complicated by photographic distribution apparatuses that are "attached to the output of the camera, they absorb the images flowing out of the camera and reproducing them endlessly, deluging society with them via thousands of channels"Flusser 2000 p53.

The division of photographs into channels is in no way simply a mechanical process but rather an encoding one: The distribution apparatuses impregnate the photograph with decisive significance for its reception. Photographers are involved in this encoding. Even at the time of taking photographs they have their eye on the specific channel of distribution apparatuses and encode their images as a function of this channel.Flusser 2000 p54

The symbiotic relationship between photographer and camera is mirrored in the photographer/distribution complex. Where the programs of the photographic distribution apparatuses dictate the possibilities and limitations to both the channels and the photographer. Critics within these channels come under scrutiny by Flusser, who believes they collude with the channels in what they choose to critique.

This is characteristic of the situation of intellectuals in post-industrial society in general. The critic, for example, asks questions such as 'Is photography art?' - as if these questions were not already being answered automatically by the channels. Flusser 2000 p56

"Every distributed photograph allows photography criticism to reconstruct the struggle between photographer and channel". However, Flusser suggests that conventional photography criticism "ignores the fact that the channels determine the significance of the photographs"Flusser 2000 p55.

Photographs as Information Surfaces

The evolution of photography, from its origins up to the present, is a process of increasing awareness of the concept of information: from an appetite for the continually new using the same old methods to an interest in continually evolving new methods.Flusser 2000 p59

Flusser states that photographs that are not yet electromagnetic (those that are attached to a material support) are the first of all post-industrial objects.

Until photographs become electromagnetic, they are the connecting link between industrial objects and pure information.Flusser 2000 p51

The value of photographs attached to a material support, lies not in the objects but in the information on their surfaces. Flusser believes that this is what characterizes the post-industrial. "The information, and not the thing is valuable"Flusser 2000 p51.

In the case of classical photographs, there are still valuable bromide prints - even today the last vestiges of value attach to the 'original photograph' making it more valuable than a reproduction in a newspaper. But the photograph bound to paper nevertheless indicates the first step on the road to the devaluation of the material thing and valuation of information. Flusser 2000 p52-3

With photographs, "the information sits loosely on the surface and can easily be conveyed to another surface". Flusser suggest that electromagnetic photographs, films and television images are not as successful in articulating the devaluation of materiality as well as the photograph and the concept of ownership. "It is not the person who owns a photograph that has the power but the programmer of the information who has the power."Flusser 2000 p52

The Photographic Universe

As inhabitants of the photographic universe we have become accustomed to photographs: They have grown familiar to us. We no longer take any notice of most photographs, concealed as they are by habit; in the same way, we ignore everything familiar in our environment and only notice what has changed. Change is informative, the familiar redundant. Flusser 2000 p65

Flusser describes the photographic universe as "a chance realization of a number of possibilities contained within camera programs". He goes onto say "as other programmed possibilities will be realized by chance in the future, the photographic universe is in a permanent state of flux and within it one photograph permanently displaces another"Flusser 2000 p69. A complex system like the photographic universe operates far from equilibrium, requiring a constant flow of energy to maintain itself, it contributes to and depends on other systems and its environment - it is in a state of flux, "on the edge of chaos". The energy in this system is the photograph. However, Flusser points out "these are totally redundant photos". Redundant images being those that carry no new information, those that are the result of the well explored areas of the photographic program. Informative images, therefore are those that provide the photographic universe with new information.

The automaticity of channels, programs, apparatuses and systems is a concept that Flusser continually refers to - from the automatic functions of the camera through to the programming of post-industrial society in general. In terms of complexity, the automaticity Flusser addresses, can be understood as self-organization. Self-organizing systems adjust and adapt to change easily and without central control. "Apparatuses now function as an end in themselves, 'automatically' as it were, with the single aim of maintaining and improving themselves"Flusser 2000 p73. It is this "functional automaticity" or self-organization that Flusser believes needs to be made the "object of criticism"Flusser 2000 p74.

Flusser describes this self-organized programming, as the 'eternal recurrence of the same'. It is reflected in images, apparatuses, programs and information of post-industrial society in general. He believes that the challenge of photographers (and humans in general) is to "oppose the flood of redundancy"Flusser 2000 p65. Photographers do this by producing informative images.

The informative photographs of photographers consciously playing against the program signify breakthroughs in the photographic universe - and are not predicted within the program.Flusser 2000 p69

Within the context of the photographic universe, informative images are the perturbations or disturbances to the complex system. Since they are not predicted by the photographic program, their inclusion into the system forces re-organization. In terms of general information theory which has close connections to complexity, the order in a system is equated to redundancy and the information is the measure of entropy. The more informative images (entropy) the more randomness or uncertainty in a photographic universe. Complex systems adapt easily to change, they can therefore absorb new information to the system without significant impact. Although robust, complex systems are also fragile, if the input of information happens at the right time and place, because of their non-linearity, small disturbances can have dramatic impacts.

A number of human beings are struggling against this automatic programming: photographers who attempt to produce informative images. i.e. photographs that are not part of the program of the apparatus; critics who attempt to see what is going on in the automatic game of programming; and in general, all those who are attempting to create a space for human intention in a world dominated by apparatuses. However, the apparatuses themselves automatically assimilate these attempts at liberation and enrich their programs with them. It is consequently the task of a philosophy of photography to expose this struggle between human being and apparatus in the field of photography and to reflect on a possible solution to the conflict.Flusser 2000 p74

Freedom is Playing against the Apparatus

How do we consciously engage with the apparatuses, programs, images and information that constitute our contemporary context? How can our actions impact the present and indeterminate future of the post-historical, post-industrial, complex systems that surround us? Flusser asks if life is coming to mean "feeding apparatuses and being fed by them"; where is the room for human freedom?Flusser 2000 p80

He suggests we look to photographers, as they are already 'people of the apparatus future'Flusser 2000 p80. In asking what strategies for freedom are available in relation the photographic program, Flusser identifies:

  1. one can outwit the camera's rigidity.
  2. one can smuggle human intentions into its program that are not predicted by it.
  3. one can force the camera to create the unpredictable, the improbable, the informative.
  4. one can show contempt for the camera and its creations and turn one's interest away from the thing in general to in order to concentrate on information.

Freedom therefore "is the strategy of making chance and necessity subordinate to human intention"Flusser 2000 p80. Freedom is playing against the camera. Flusser acknowledges, a collection of photographers that operate in this way - Experimental Photographers.

They are conscious that image, apparatus, program and information are the basic problems that they have to come to terms with. They are in fact consciously attempting to create unpredictable information, i.e. to release themselves from the camera, and to a place within the image something that is not in its program. They know they are playing against the camera. Flusser 2000 p81

In terms of complexity, by playing against the camera, it is possible to reach bifurcation. Bifurcation is a critical point in a system that transforms the number and type of attractors and increases the destinies available to the system. It changes the state of the system. "At the moment this transformation occurs, relatively insignificant fluctuations in the environment can have disproportionately large effects"De Landa . Bifurcation has the potential to transform the photographic universe as a whole.

Flusser believes "a philosophy of photography is necessary to raise photographic practice to a level of consciousness" because "this practice gives rise to a model of freedom" for post-industrial society in generalFlusser 2000 p81. Freedom is playing against the apparatus.


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