Visual Authority in the Post-Photographic Era by Siobhan Ramos

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As soon as we boot up a computer or begin to surf the internet, we are greeted by digital images. There is nothing more important to the digital world than pixels – images make up the majority of our digital experience, and therefore carry a certain amount of expected authority and imbued meaning. Symbols such as the Facebook “like” convey meaning on many different levels – to many it is merely a thumbs-up. But those of the Facebook community recognise it as a symbol of community, a positive response and a way of communicating. Though imaging processes and photography specifically have evolved and adapted to fit into our digital era, it is a topic of controversy as to whether a digital image can really contain referential authority. In an age of computer manufactured graphics, photo manipulation and airbrushing, how do we derive meaning from an image that we can no longer call “true”? Does the camera, in fact, lie?

This invites discussion into the nature of a photograph. In the good old days of analogue photography, a photograph used to be the physical result of a long and arduous process of composition and adjustment in order to produce a theoretical representation of reality. Photographs were seen as being existentially important – a mediator between referents and subjects. The French philosopher Roland Barthes claimed that “the photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here.” (in Bolter and Grusin, 111). Photographs held this phenomenological authority over reality – the ability to accurately capture, and allow transcendence of, the referent. They were used as evidence, empirical and judicial, in demonstrating an absolute “truth” about reality, as “we are inclined to trust them in a way that we are not inclined to trust even the most accurate of drawings and paintings.” (Meskin and Cohen, 1). It was, and still is to some extent, assumed that they were not retouched at all, but a pure referential, transparent medium. They displayed both subjective, contextual meaning from the viewer as well as an apparently objective reality.

Into the sun

As technology and ideals of consumerism and global availability developed, so the advent of digital photography came about. Digital cameras were first developed in the 1970’s and 80’s, running parallel to the development of home computer systems, and became available “with associated image-processing software” (Mitchell, 18) by 1991. Occurring alongside the era of space exploration (Mitchell, 11), photography and digital media in general became intrinsically linked with the idea of new spaces of creation and expression from one’s own home – rather than waiting for the result of your photographic composition, the results could be observed on a screen instantaneously, whether on the camera itself or on one’s own computer. It could then be manipulated or retouched as necessary. The hallmark of digital information is that it is malleable, and photography was no different – they became a product of instant gratification, and “by virtue of its inherent manipulability, it… [presented] a temptation to duplicity.” (Mitchell, 19). With the ever changing and sophisticated technology, suddenly you could change any picture with the touch of a button, thus breaking the tenuous link that the original photograph held with its representative reality.

As digital photography grew as a medium, so too did digital imaging, soon replacing the idea of photography altogether with the coining of the phrase “post-photographic era” (Mitchell, 225). Post-photography is the idea that we can no longer imbue a photograph with intrinsic meaning and realistic authority. If photography represented an innate “desire for immediacy” (Bolter and Grusin, 110). Photo manipulation is so widespread nowadays that it becomes difficult to tell if an image has been retouched or not – in fact we are almost always suspicious of digital images when they make such claims as “photographic evidence” or “the truth is revealed”. The truth often becomes hidden beneath layers of editing nowadays, acting as a “spatially agnostic” (Meskin and Cohen, 2) entity merely informatory rather than containing intrinsic meaning.

cottingley fairies

Or is this really the case? Have photos ever been completely trustworthy? Bolter and Grusin argue that the manipulation of contrast on a digital image is not so different from leaving film negatives in a developing bath for longer to make them darker (110). Does that mean both of these photos can be considered retouched? And photo manipulation has been going on long before we had the digital tools to do so elegantly. From the Cottingley Fairies of the early 1900’s and their use of “combination printing” (Bolter and Grusin, 106), to UFO’s and the Loch Ness Monster, photographs have always been both a medium of a “truthful”, accurate reality and an idiosyncratic distortion of such. This disparity of epistemological realism and an innate ability to deceive dictates we gather meaning from both so-called untouched photos and manipulated images using only our subjective interpretations and understanding its context temporally and spatially, as well as culturally (Walden, 92). Photographic realism can thus be approached as “the result of favoured norms and oppressed alternatives in the service of ideology.” (Brietbach, 38). Rather than expect an accurate representation of reality, the image should be considered in both the realm it is created and that in which it is presented.

We also need to take the differences in media into consideration. Of course there will be noticeable differences between a film photograph and a digital photograph as dictated by their creation and production. In this post-photographic age however, these media can be interconnected and transmutable – it is unclear whether a photograph is presented in a “pure” or “hybridised” form (Breitbach 31). A film negative can be scanned to create a digital image, while an image created on a computer can conversely be printed out as a physical manifestation. Shapely suggests that they are not independent of one another, but rather causally interlinked (17). Where post-photography seems to imply a scepticism of all digital images, I would argue for a critical evaluation of them much as one would a piece of literature – not as an individual “hollow signifier” (Shapely, 7) independent of time and context, intent on tricking us, but as an interconnected, dialectic process; a dialogue between past and present and the mediator of new media.


Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1999. Print.

Breitbach, Julia. Analog Fictions for the Digital Age: Literary Realism and Photographic Discourses in Novels after 2000. New York: Camden House, 2012. Print.

Meskin, Aaron and Jonathan Cohen. “Photographs as Evidence.” Photography and Philosophy: Essays on the Pencil of Nature. Ed. Scott Walden. New York: Blackwell, 2008. 70-90.

Mitchell, William J. The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1992. Print.

Shapely, Greg. “After the artefact: Post-digital photography in our post-media era.” Journal of Visual Art Practice 10. 1 (2011): 5–20. Web.

Walden, Scott. “Truth in Photography.” Photography and Philosophy: Essays on the Pencil of Nature. Ed. Scott Walden. New York: Blackwell, 2008. 70-90.

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