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Photomediations: An Introduction

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Joanna Zylinska


It is perhaps not too much of an overstatement to describe photography as a quintessential practice of life. Indeed, over the last few decades photography has become so ubiquitous that our very sense of existence is shaped by it. In the words of Susan Sontag, ‘To live is to be photographed, to have a record of one’s life, and therefore to go on with one’s life oblivious, or claiming to be oblivious, to the camera’s nonstop attentions’ (Sontag, 2004). We regularly see ourselves and others represented by the photographic medium, in both its formal and informal guises – from the documentation of our life in its foetal stage via medical imaging, through to the regular recording of our growth and maturation in family, school and passport photographs; the incessant capture of the fleeting moments of our life with phone cameras; and the subsequent construction of our life’s ‘timeline’ on social media. We also make sense of the world around us through seeing it imaged. While photography used to be something that others – professionals equipped with large machines that allowed them to capture a better image of the world out there, advertisers trying to sell us chunks of that world, photojournalists dispatched to the world’s remote corners that few of us could regularly access – did, we can safely say that, in the age of the camera phone and wireless communication, we are all photographers now. With ‘the lighting, optics, resolution, dynamic range, storage capacity and display of professional digital cameras [being] continuously improved’ (All Our Yesterdays, 2014: 17), the technological developments rapidly cascade down to everyday consumers.


Yet we are all not just photographers today: we have also become distributors, archivists and curators of the light traces immobilised on photo-sensitive surfaces. As Victor Burgin aptly points out, ‘the most revolutionary event in the recent history of photography is not the arrival of digital cameras as such, but rather the broadband connection of these cameras to the Internet – in effect turning every photograph on the Web into a potential frame in a boundless film’ (2011: 144). One could perhaps go so far as to say that the availability of relatively low-cost storage and networked distribution of digital data has changed the very ontology of the photographic medium. Photographs function less as individual objects or as media content to be looked at and more as data flows to be dipped or cut into occasionally. The intensity and volume of photographic activity today, and the very fact that it is difficult to do anything – order food, go on holiday, learn about the Moon, have sex – without having it visualised in one way or another, before, during or as part of the experience, gives credence to Sontag’s formulation that ‘the photographs are us’. ‘Andy Warhol’s ideal of filming real events in real time – life isn’t edited, why should its record be edited? – has become a norm for countless Webcasts, in which people record their day, each in his or her own reality show’ (Sontag, 2004).


But, in spite of the embedding of the imaging process in the experience of life on so many different levels, the traditional scholarly and curatorial way of discussing photography still maintains a relatively narrow set of positions and discourses on the topic. The plethora of activities in which photographs are involved as not just objects but also participants of events still tend to be subsumed under one of the two general rubrics: photography as art or photography as social practice. The first rubric, rooted in the methodology of art history, is encapsulated by numerous histories of photography – from Beaumont Newhall’s modernist classic The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present (1939) through to Michael Fried’s 2008 volume, Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before – presented as stories of the evolution of the medium, enacted by those separate few deemed ‘artists’. Photography is seen here as an extension, or even overcoming, of painting. In this view, photographs are positioned as discrete objects that yield themselves to being framed and displayed, individually or in series, on flat surfaces in galleries and other cultural institutions. Photographs positioned as art objects are then analysed in aesthetic and semiotic terms, i.e. in terms of how they affect us and what they mean. Photography functions here as ‘the “auristic” artefact…, in which concepts such as “pure vision”, “intelligent eye” and “significant form” are privileged’ (Gil Glazer, 2010: 8). The value of photographs as singular items is also increasingly tied to the market, with news outlets regularly reporting stories about ‘the most expensive photograph ever sold’. Photographs as art objects are therefore always potential commodities, with their singularity and uniqueness validated by the transaction between established auction houses, art galleries, collectors, and, last but not least, artists themselves.


The second rubric under which photography tends to be categorised is the one inspired by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s book, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art (1990). This more contextual perspective offered by Bourdieu looks not so much at how people take and make photographs, as at what they do with them: how they store images in family albums; how they join camera clubs; how ‘professionals’ are different from ‘amateurs’; how they all contribute to the emergence of ‘popular taste’ around photography. The area of photography as professional practice – mainly in the documentary and photojournalistic tradition, but also in fashion and advertising – falls in-between these two traditional rubrics, with the market once again acting as an adjudicator of appropriate categorisation. And thus the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson or Richard Avedon becomes ‘art’, while many street or fashion photographers who showcase their work for free on public platforms such as Flickr or 500px are seen as hobbyists. Portrait or wedding photography largely remains outside the ‘art’ designation, with the latter’s expectations of ‘aura’ and ‘pure vision’. The outcomes of such professional practice tend to ‘conform’, instead, ‘to a photographic program’, to cite Vilém Flusser (2001: 56). Indeed, their success relies precisely on this conformity. The work of wedding or portrait photographers is therefore rarely analysed as ‘work’ but more as ‘labour’ (as in the widespread lamentations about the devaluation of the photographic profession, the falling rates for images, etc.). It is principally ‘read’ in sociological terms and perceived as a tool for capturing and archiving personal memories, and thus, again, as a conduit for social behaviour.


The inadequacy of this rather rigid binary categorisation of photography into art and social practice has been put into question by many. Attempts to open up the narrowly defined category of ‘photography as art’, and to cast light across the spectrum of various photographic practices, beyond the artist-professional-amateur triangle, have been made from various corners. Geoffrey Batchen, for instance, has called for a new history of photography that ‘traces the journey of an image, as well as its origin’, ‘acknowledges that photographs have multiple manifestations and are objects as well as images’, and ‘sees beyond Europe and the United States, and is interested in more than the creative efforts of a few white men’ (cited in Glazer, 2010: 3). The idea of the photograph’s journey raised by Batchen has been taken up by various artists, curators and scholars in their attempts to position photographs as unstable objects, always involved in the process of movement. As curator of the 2011 Paris Photo fair Chantal Pontbriand has put it in the exhibition’s catalogue titled Mutations, ‘The image becomes flexible, polymorph, more than ever temporal, but also corporeal’ (Pontbriand, 2001: 13). This altered perception of photography as an unbounded mobile object has also led to the exploration of photography’s links with cinema, and to the embracing of the media ‘contamination’ of the current photographic landscape as an artistic and a conceptual opportunity.


One book that deserves a mention is the aptly titled Photography Changes Everything published by Aperture in 2012. A unique manifesto for the transformative power of photography put together by curator and writer Marvin Heiferman, it arose out of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative’s project during which theorists, artists, scientists, professional photographers and members of the public contributed short postulates on the changing photographic condition. Heiferman’s own entry sums up this condition most adequately:


By its very nature, photography slows time to a standstill in order to corral and flash-freeze information. But just as impressively and importantly, photography is active; it keeps things moving …


Photographs don’t only show us things, they do things. They engage us optically, neurologically, intellectually, emotionally, viscerally, physically. …


[A]s photography changes everything, it changes itself as well… (Heiferman, 2012: 16-20.


This Photomediations: A Reader is part of a larger editorial and curatorial project called Photomediations: An Open Book (photomediationsopenbook.net), whose goal is to redesign a coffee-table book as an online experience. The project takes off from these recent development around the technology of photography and around different ways of theorising photography as a diverse practice that not only changes ‘everything’ but that also undergoes constant change. Yet it is perhaps even more ambitious and daring in its approach than the projects mentioned above. Responding to the inadequacy of the rigid formulations and categories through which photography has been perceived and approached, it proposes instead that it may be time to transform radically, rather than just expand, the very notion of photography. The concept of photomediations is therefore offered as a richer and more potent conceptual alternative. To think in terms of photomediations is not to try and offer just a new art history of photography, as attempted by Burgin, Batchen and Ya’ara Gil Glazer, but also a different narrative about the medium, one that remains more attuned to its radically changing ontology. Indeed, the notion of photomediations aims to cut across the traditional classification of photography as suspended between art and social practice in order to capture the dynamism of the photographic medium today, as well as its kinship with other media – and also, with us as media. It therefore offers a radically different way of understanding photography.


The framework of photomediations adopts a process- and time-based approach to images by tracing the technological, biological, cultural, social and political flows of data that produce photographic objects. Etymologically, the notion of photomediations brings together the hybrid ontology of ‘photomedia’ and the fluid dynamism of ‘mediation’. Allowing us to sidestep the technicist distinction between analogue and digital photography, as well as – more radically perhaps – that between still and moving image, the concept of photomedia foregrounds instead what is common to various kinds of light-based practices under discussion. As Jai McKenzie argues, ‘regardless of technological change, light is a constant defining characteristic of photomedia intrinsically coupled with space and time to form explicit light-based structures and experiences’ (2014: 1). For McKenzie, photomedia encapsulate not just photographic cameras but also cinema, video, television, mobile phones, computers and photocopiers. This definition takes cognisance of the fact that, to cite Jonathan Shaw, over the last decade the photographic apparatus has been ‘reunited with its long lost child, the moving image, … (arguably) … having given birth to it many years ago’ (2014: 4). The concept of mediation, in turn, highlights precisely this intertwined spatial and temporal nature of photography, pointing as it does to a more processual understanding of media that has recently been taken up by scholars and artists alike. In Life after New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process Sarah Kember and I make a case for a significant shift in the way we understand so-called ‘media’. Rather than focus on analysing discrete media objects, such as the computer, the camera or the iPad, we suggest a richer perspective will open up if we understand media predominantly in terms of processes of mediation, and see them as always already entangled and networked, across various platforms and scales. For Kember and I,


Mediations does not serve as a translational or transparent layer or intermediary between independently existing entities (say, between the producer and consumer of a film or TV program). It is a complex and hybrid process that is simultaneously economic, social, cultural, psychological, and technical. Mediation, we suggest, is all-encompassing and indivisible. This is why ‘we’ have never been separate from mediation. Yet our relationality and our entanglement with nonhuman entities continues to intensify with the ever more corporeal, ever more intimate dispersal of media and technologies into our biological and social lives. Broadly put, what we are therefore developing in Life after New Media is not just a theory of ‘mediation’ but also a ‘theory of life’, whereby mediation becomes a key trope for understanding and articulating our being in, and becoming with, the technological world, our emergence and ways of intra- acting with it, as well as the acts and processes of temporarily stabilizing the world into media, agents, relations, and networks. (Kember and Zylinska, 2012: xv)


Following from the above insight, we could perhaps go so far as to conclude that the photograph as such never just exists on its own. Instead, what emerges are multiple and ongoing processes of photomediation. Photography can therefore be seen as an active practice of cutting through the flow of mediation, where ‘the cut’ operates on a number of levels: perceptive, material, technical, and conceptual. In other words, photography can be described as a practice of making cuts in the flow of imagistic data, of stabilising data as images and objects. Performed by human and nonhuman agents alike, with the latter including the almost incessantly working CCTV cameras, Google Street View equipment and satellite telescopes, those cuts participate in the wider process of imaging the world.

In its coupling with movement, the notion of photomediations foregrounds another key aspect of photography: its embeddedness in the flow of time, duration and hence life itself. Seen in this light, photography as part of the process of photomediations presents itself as an inherent part of life in a stronger sense than the one discussed at the beginning of this Introduction: photography does not merely represent life but also participates in its active cutting and shaping. To say this is to make an attempt to wrest photography away from its long-standing association with mummification and death, and to show its multifarious and all-encompassing activity – which does include moments of cutting, freeing, stoppage, decay and even demise, but which is not limited by them. Indeed, the conceptual framework of photomediations allows us to move beyond seeing photography as just a tomb, a fossilised version of the past the way modernist theorists of the image such as André Bazin (1960) perceived it. It also allows us to challenge the image of photography as first and foremost a placeholder for the memory of the deceased, the way Roland Barthes defined it in the now classic Camera Lucida – a volume that arguably set the melancholy tone for the academic discourse on photography. Yet, in the words of Catalan photographer and writer Joan Fontcuberta, photographs can perhaps be seen more productively as ‘exclamations of vitality’ (2014: 27).


The recognition of the on-off activity of the photographic process, which carves life into fragments while simultaneously reconnecting them to the imagistic flow, may allow us to conclude not only that there is life in photography, but also that life itself is photographic. As Claire Colebrook puts it, ‘All life … can be considered as a form of perception or “imaging” where there is not one being that apprehends or represents another being, but two vectors of creativity where one potential for differentiation encounters another and from that potential forms a relatively stable tendency or manner’ (2010: 31). This idea has its root in the philosopher Henri Bergson’s book, Matter and Memory (1896), where our experience of the world, which is always a way of sensing the world, comes in the form of images, before it is transformed into concepts. Life is thus always photomediated – or even, we could say, life is a sequence of photomediations.


The notion of photomediations has made its way to an online platform called Photomediations Machine (photomediationsmachine.net), set up by myself and Ting Ting Chen in 2013, which has served as a first practical testing ground for its conceptual and visual working. Taking the inherent openness and entanglement of various media objects on board, Photomediations Machine is a curated online space where the dynamic relations of mediation as performed in photography and other media can be encountered, experienced and engaged. First and foremost, Photomediations Machine serves as an online gallery for unique projects, both recent and historical, that creatively engage with the technological and socio-political dynamism of the photographic medium. The site also features short critical essays on recent developments around photomedia by international writers and artists. Last but not least, Photomediations Machine showcases books and other publications that comment on, or even enact, the current multiple mediations of photography and other media, such as sounds, painting, video, or, indeed, the book itself. The site is run on a pro bono basis by a group of academics and artists. The project is non-commercial, non-profit and fully open access. Its machinic affiliation signals that photographic agencies and actions have not always been just human.

Photomediations: An Open Book (of which this Reader is part) is the next step on this experimental journey with and across the photographic medium. Even though Photomediations Machine and Photomediations: An Open Book are open platforms, they certainly do not associate openness with an ‘anything goes’ (or, worse, ‘everything is up for grabs’) approach. Part of the academic movement of ‘radical open access’ that promotes open access to knowledge and culture (see Hall, 2008; Adema and Hall, 2011), the platforms advocate informed and responsible curatorial activity. They also recognise the need for singular ethical and political decisions to be made, over and over again, with regard to both the medium and its institutions, such as publishers, galleries, online spaces and intellectual property/copyright, in the current media landscape.


The goal of Photomediations: A Reader that you currently have in front of you, in its online version, as an ebook or perhaps as a paper copy, is to participate in this process of experimentation, while also trying to shift the traditional debate on photography beyond many of its established parameters and frameworks. The Reader contains a selection of scholarly and curatorial texts on photography and other media that all explore, but also simultaneously perform and postulate, the vibrant dynamics of photomediations. It consists of four thematic sections. Section I, ‘Photography, Optics and Light’ tells a history of photography as a story of vision, while the subsequent section, ‘The Image in Motion’, investigates properties of movement as a process that both brings together and separates the interrelated histories of photography and cinema. Section III, ‘Hybrid Photomediations’, highlights the diversity of media engagements, in early photographic practice as well as in more recent, and more knowing, experiments with the image-making apparatus. Last but not least, section IV, ‘The Networked Image’ goes beyond looking at a photograph as a discrete object to consider it as part of the interconnected – and constantly changing – media ecology. Photomediations: A Reader is published by Open Humanities Press: an international, scholar-led, not-for-profit open access publishing collective whose mission is to make leading works of contemporary critical thought available worldwide. It is being made available on an open access basis, to anyone with access to the Internet, with print-on-demand paper copies being sold at cost. As part of a broader experiment in open and hybrid publishing – as well as a celebration of the book as a living object – an online version of this Reader also exists online in an open ‘living’ format, which means it can be altered, added to, mashes-up, re-versioned and customised.


‘Permutation, combinatorics, poetry from a machine; cutting up, taking apart, and putting together again’ were, according to media historian Siegfried Zielinski, gestures used by the literary avant-garde in the 1960s ‘to creatively attack the bourgeois tradition of the post-war manufacturing of culture’ (2013: 58). In the early twenty-first century culture of the supposed image and text deluge, predefined camera programmes and Instagram, an avant-garde gesture can perhaps lie first and foremost in efforts to remap the photographic landscape – and to rewrite its discourses. Rather than pursue the possibility of taking an original photo of a wedding or a unique selfie, we would be better off engaging in the creative activity of photography by trying to arrange different routes through the multi-layered landscape of photomediations. The editorial and curatorial paths proposed in this project are only one possible way of tracing such a new story of photography. They are also an invitation extended to our readers to engage fully with the spirit of this book and to mark their own photomediations routes, well beyond its covers.




(2014) All Our Yesterdays. Life through the Lens of Europe’s First Photographers (1839 – 1939), EuropeanaPhotography exhibition catalogue. Rome: ICCU.


Adema, J. & Hall, G. (2013) ‘The Political Nature of the Book: On Artists’ Books and Radical Open Access’, New Formations, Number 78 (Summer): 138-56.


Barthes, R. (1981) Camera Lucida. New York: Hill and Wang.


Bazin, A. (1960) ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Summer): 4-9.


Bergson, H. (1911) Matter and Memory. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd. (First published in 1896)


Bourdieu, P. (1990) Photography: A Middle-Brow Art. Stanford: Stanford University Press.


Burgin, V. (2011) ‘Mutating Photography’, in Mutations: Perspectives on Photography (ed.), C. Pontbriand. Gőttingen: Steidl.


Colebrook, C. (2010) Deleuze and the Meaning of Life. London and New York: Continuum.


Flusser, V. (2001) Into the Universe of Technical Images. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


Fontcuberta, J. (2014) Pandora’s Camera: Photogr@phy After Photography. London: Mack.


Fried, M. (2008) Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Gil Glazer, Y. (2010) ‘A New Kind of History? The Challenges of Contemporary Histories of Photography’, Journal of Art Historiography, Number 3 (December): 1-19.


Hall, G. (2008) Digitize This Book!: The Politics of New Media, or Why We Need Open Access Now. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


Heiferman, M. (2012) ‘Introduction’, in Photography Changes Everything (ed.), M. Heiferman, New York: Aperture/Smithsonian.


Kember, S. & Zylinska, J. (2012) Life after New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process. Cambridge: MA, MIT Press.


McKenzie, J. (2014) Light and Photomedia: A New History and Future of the Photographic Image. London: IB Tauris.


Newhall, B. (1982) The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day, 5th edition. New York: The Museum of Modern Art. (First published in 1939.)


Pontbriand, C. (2011) ‘Introduction: Mutations in Photography’, in Mutations: Perspectives on Photography (ed.), C. Pontbriand. Gőttingen: Steidl.


Shaw, J. (2014) ‘Hybridity and Digital Transformations’, NewFotoScapes (ed.), J. Shaw. Birmingham: The Library of Birmingham.


Sontag, S. (2004) ‘Regarding The Torture Of Others’, The New York Times, May 23, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/23/magazine/regarding-the-torture-of-others.html, accessed on January 7, 2015.


Zielinski, S. (2013) [… After the Media]. Minneapolis: Univocal.

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