New visual world order

September 14, 2011

“Like guns and cars, cameras are fantasy-machines whose use is addictive. However, despite the extravagances of ordinary language and advertising, they are not lethal. In the hyperbole that markets cars like guns, there is at least this much truth: except in wartime, cars kill more people than guns do. The camera/gun does not kill, so the ominous metaphor seems to be all bluff – like a man’s fantasy of having a gun, knife, or tool between his legs.”

Susan Sontag “On Photography” 1977.


It is difficult to imagine what the world would be like today without the invention of the camera and photography. Photography was not a sudden success of an inventor. It emerged on the background of complex processes of ideas, circumstances, intellectual conditions, technical competence, and numerous individual contributions.

Until the middle of the 20th century, the camera was referred to as “the record of the real”, or “the witness of the real”. Today, the camera lies massively, and the resulting images depend on the kind and amount of information we deposit in them. These contradicting readings of the camera leads to a number of questions: Are we affected by the camera’s visual representation, can the images change us, and, if so, in what sense?

Images are information transmitters. They can transmit political opinions about conflicts and human conditions. They can invite us to form an attitude against suffering or pain. They can mobilize consciousness and feelings and they can be used to intervene and protest against something.


The digital revolution 

The use of new media has a tendency to move beyond “traditional arts” – from drawing, painting and sculpture to photography and video – to illusions of everyday scenarios. The new media developed rapidly during the last decades of the 20th century and gained enormous prominence, however, the history of new media in art is closely connected with developments in photography.

Time and memory are essential issues of photography, and with still as well as moving images, artists were introduced to a new way of visualizing time and events. With photography, they were able to manipulate time itself: capturing it, reconfiguring it, and making variations on it. The digital revolution has brought new power and meaning to the image. With the increased usage of personal computers, artists often regard the photograph as a primary source before it is transformed by the new language of the computer.


The impact of photography

Photography is a medium of incredible power that can produce even stronger, more persuasive, and more intuitive effects on people than words. Photography has a profound impact on every aspect of our lives and it plays a major role in our personal lives as well as in public history.

The photographic image has affected us significantly, from the way we remember our past, choose our leaders, and catch criminals, to what we wear, what we buy, how we get the news, and our perceptions of war, peace, medicine and science. Photography also has many roles in society. It records public events, performs as a family historian, meditates as a medium of artistic expression, could be used to influence public opinion, and so forth.


Photos changing the world

In the early years of the camera, photography became synonymous with the truth. This may explain the continued effect of photography on our perception of the world. Take as example the recently published book, “100 Photographs that Changed the World”, selected by the editors of Life Magazine in 2003.

The collection is divided into four chapters, The Arts, Society, War and Peace, and Science and Nature. Every picture is followed by a short text and description of its background. After becoming familiar with photographs from this book, one could argue that photographs, no matter if they are beautiful, informative, ugly or anything else, are not only documents and landmarks of a certain time. They can inspire us, have a profound effect on our lives and memory, and establish the influential nature of photography.


The more you watch, the less you know

In our time, photography is integrating into the digital code. Photography can be easily processed and digitized through the use of computer technology. This raises the question as to whether new technology will cause traditional photography to disappear in future.

Looking back into history, photography faced a great challenge with the invention of the film. Today, every home has a television and a video recorder, and the amount of moving images increases continually. However, painting and graphic art have not disappeared with the invention of photography, neither have books disappeared with the increasing production of audio CD ROMs. Also photography has remained and expresses its individuality through art and new media, and seems to be indispensable.

It is possible that photography and other artistic media will eventually be absorbed by digital media. However, it could also be argued with a great confidence that rather than being absorbed, photography is making use of digital technologies as tools, translating a variety of aspects of its language and aesthetics.