Spectres of Early Forms: On the Limits of Digitisation

“Survival” is the central concept, the Hauptproblem, of Aby Warburg and the Warburgian school of art history. In Warburg’s work, the term Nachleben refers to the survival (the continuity or afterlife and metamorphosis) of images —as opposed to their renascence after extinction or, conversely, their replacement by innovations in image. Formed within the context of Renaissance studies – a field deeply embedded with ideas of revival and innovation – Warburg’s concept of survival assumed a temporal model for art history different from all preceding ones. He introduced the problem of memory into the history of the image: a problem that transcends turning points in historiography and boundaries between cultures.

Warburg’s idea of afterlife or survival differed widely even from that of Anton Springer. Warburg’s model presupposed a way—a decidedly anthropological way—of envisaging the historicity of culture. At this level, Warburg was extending Jacob Burckhardt’s analyses and renewing the value of Burckhardtian dialectical notions like “history and type,” “form and force,” “latencies and crises.” On the other hand, Warburg’s model suggested a new way—a decidedly archaeological way—of representing the anthropological field of images. And at this level, Warburg was extending Edward B. Tylor’s analyses, finding value in donors’ testaments, genealogical trees, astrological themes, the borrowings of High Art from artisanal techniques—features of culture entirely neglected by any history of art founded on aesthetics. What I am suggesting is that Warburg’s position is necessarily in opposition to, say, the kind of history presented by Vasari or Wincklemann who would consider time as a succession of direct relationships (“influences”). As a counterpoint to chronology, he pursued, as Didi-Hubermann illustrates, a ‘ghostly and symptomatic time’ – survivals of image and motif into a period beyond their own.

When Walter Benjamin takes up a similar idea of the afterlife (uberleben/fortleben), he considers the same problem from a different perspective. He proposes that the certain forms become recognisable at certain points in time. The underlying idea of “now of recognisability” suggests a serendipitous recognisability of a form – a moment (which is beyond the creator’s control) where the Work becomes identifiable within a context. One assumes that the preoccupation with this idea of the afterlife, or rather, survival, that many in the Frankfurt school display (Benjamin, Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse etc.), stems from an anxiety of preserving German liberal values in the face of fascism. Musings on the afterlife, then, is as much about the survival of the image as it is about its preservation. Is preservation at all possible in the electronic space? With the amount of time, money, and energy invested in digital preservation, I feel it is important to pose certain fundamental questions to this activity. I would like to frame this talk within the context of Photography and I will attempt to trace the tensions or anxieties in the afterlife – the fortleben – of photographic objects. The complexities of meaning and the problems of context are magnified when we consider digitisation. Digitisation – rather, uncritical digitisation – I suggest is a greater threat to the object than the slow passage of time.

There are, really, two questions to be posed at this time:

  1. In the act of preservation through digitisation, what is it that we are really digitising?
  2. To make the object cognizable within the electronic space (in order to retrieve it) we must be able to describe it. How do we describe the photographic image? Rather, is it at all possible to find photographic meaning?

Photographic meaning

In approaching the issue of photographic meaning through these different but related vectors, my underlying argument is that images – even analogue photographic images carrying Barthes’ (1984) obstinate imprint ‘this has been’ – do not have fixed or settled meanings. Meaning is always transactive: it is the result of complex and dynamic processes of interpretation, contestation and translation. Evidence and testimony is always to be actively produced in the complex present. The need to continually restate such a point relates to one of the defining paradoxes of the technological image, evident at least since the industrialization of photography in the 1880s. This concerns the photograph’s combination of unprecedented visual detail, which seems to anchor the image in a particular time and place, coupled to the endless capacity for images to travel into new times and places. This issue has been central to long-standing arguments over the stability of photographic meaning. Separation between the moment represented and the moment of viewing has fuelled myriad debates and controversies, and photographic history is littered with images that have their meaning altered by entry into a new setting. Loss of context is the fundamental danger that animates Susan Sontag’s (1977: 71) insightful but ultimately pessimistic elegy on photography. She argues: ‘A photograph is only a fragment, and with the passage of time its moorings come unstuck. It drifts away into a soft abstract pastness, open to any kind of reading.’ Following this logic, Sontag ends up being quite dismissive of the capacity for any image to make a difference in political and social terms, declaring instead her preference for words and narrative. Digital images, with their ease of copying, susceptibility to manipulation and potential for rapid circulation, accentuate this condition.

The frequent abuse of images has often led to demands for ‘restoring’ the context of a photograph in order that its evidence can be read properly. While this is an understandable response to photographic excess, it is a demand that needs to be carefully negotiated. Too often when we talk about ‘context’ in relation to a photograph, it is as if there is a finite set of connections that might be fully reproduced, if only we had the time or resources. In other words, the polysemy of the image is given a cursory and limited acknowledgement, in the hope that it can be thereby tamed. Rather than this partial, rather defensive acknowledgement of the fragility of meaning, I am arguing that we need to begin with acceptance of the irreducible openness of technological images. This quality is integrally related to the capacity of any image to circulate and appear in new situations. Acknowledging the impossibility of ‘locking down’ context is not to simply accept Sontag’s grey future of endlessly drifting meanings, but to argue for the need to shift focus from protocols of retrieval to those of construction. In other words, interpreting an image is never a matter of simply ‘restoring’ some original context, as if there is only one, but is an undertaking that will always remain unfinished. It has to be revisited time and again in the particularity of the moment.

The openness of images, then, poses a significant problem in providing descriptions in our efforts to preserve them. What are we to describe, if the scope of photographic meaning is outside human comprehension?

Material form

While  the  image  imprinted  on  photographic  paper  is  important,  it  would be  an  error  to  assume  that  the  photograph  may  only  be  understood  as  an image;  scholarly  study  of  the  photographic  image,  specifically  with  the ‘material  turn’  in  anthropology  and  cultural  studies,  has  attempted  to inspect the photograph as a physical object. This ‘material turn’ expresses the   complexity   of   the   social   existence   of   objects   and   allows   the investigation  of  the  photograph  as  a  physical  object  whose  understanding is augmented by its form. Photographs have specific modes of circulation, production,  and  consumption,  and  their  inspection  has  potential  beyond the  critiques  of  representation  alone.  The  inherent  bias  of  the  indexical qualities  of  the  image  over  its  material  properties  may  overlook  the  social and cultural contexts within which the photograph is born and used. ‘[A]s material objects whose “currency” and “value” arise in certain distinct and historically   specific   social   practices’   (Tagg   1988),   the   stability   of photographic  meaning  remains  a  descriptive  challenge.  Arjun  Appadurai (1986)  explains  how  objects  and  the  practices  within  which  they  are embedded are interwoven, cannot be read independently of each other. He writes  (1986:  5),  ‘things  have  no  meaning  apart  from  those  that  human transactions,  attributions,  and  motivations  endow  them  with.’  Geoffrey Batchen (1997: 6) contends that the meanings of photographic objects are dependent  on  the  context  in  which  they  find  themselves  at  any  particular instance.  He  argues  that,  ‘[a]  photograph  can  mean  one  thing  in  one context and something else entirely in another’ and that the identity of the object  is  contingent  on  its  ‘use’  in  the  physical  world.  Gillian  Rose  (2010: 18)   echoes   similar   sentiments   when   she   says,   ‘what   people   do   with photographs  is  not  an  optional  analytical  extra;  it  is  fundamental  to exploring   photographs’   effects   in   the   world.’   The   examination   of photographs,  as  material  objects,  appears  to  present  two  inter-related concerns: the first discusses the ‘plasticity of the image itself, its chemistry, the paper it is printed on, the toning, [and] the resulting surface variations’ (Edwards  and  Hart  2004).  The  rationale  here  is  that  the  choices  made  in the  making  of  photographs  are  rarely  random.  As  Schwartz  (1996:  58) expounds,  ‘the  choice  of  ambrotype  over  paper  print  implies  a  desire  for uniqueness,   the   use   of   platinum   over   silver   gelatine   intimates   an awareness  of  status,  the  use  of  gold  toning  a  desire  for  permanence’.  The second  concern  is  that  of  the  presentational  forms  — cartes  de  visite, cabinet  cards,  albums,  mounts  and  frames  are  intrinsically  linked  with photographs  and  have  constituted  a  major  consumer  market  since  the twentieth  century,  especially  after  the  Kodak  revolution  of  the  early twentieth century (Edwards and Hart, 2004).Digital   objects   (both   born-digital   and   digitised   artefacts)   present   a conceptual   challenge:   Joanna   Sassoon   contends   that   ‘[b]y   the   direct conversion   of   light   into   a   digital   format   to   create   a   stable   image “photographs” that only exist in the digital form can be seen in one context as  a  truer  version  of  photography  (writing  with  light)  than  those  that require  the  creation  of  a  physical  intermediary  to  view  the  image  in  a material  form’  (2004).  The  central  rationale  of  Sassoon’s  argument  takes premise on the assumption that digital objects have no material existence. This  reveals  a  fallacy  in  our  inspection  of  digital  objects:  the  digital artefact, without question, is a material object. To observe this materiality, a  separation  between  content  and  carrier  of  the  object  is  required.  The photographic image is printed on paper, and this paper is the carrier of the content  image.  Similarly  the  content  of  the  book  is  carried  in  the  physical form  of  the  book  —  the  paper,  glue,  and  ink  that  hold  it  together.  In  the physical  object  (as  opposed  to  its  digital  counterpart)  the  content  and  the carrier  are  closely  inter-linked  to  the  point  where  their  separation  is difficult.  However,  the  carrier  may  change  at  different  moments  of  time, which  may  provide  the  object  with  different  contexts:  consider  an  image that was first printed on photographic paper, then printed in a newspaper, and  then,  perhaps,  in  a  coffee  shop  book,  displayed  on  a  bookshelf,  never quite read. The different material existences of the image provide contexts that  locate  it  within  different  points  in  history.  The  digital  object  is, similarly, carried by electronic circuits — a complex creation of technology that  is  able  to  house  a  large  amount  of  data  within  a  tiny  space.  That  the digital  object  has  materiality,  then,  is  undeniable.  The  problem,  perhaps, in identifying this materiality lies in the degrees of separation between the circuits  and  the  perception  of  the  object.  To  view  an  electronic  image,  a screen  —  an  enabler  —  is  required.  The  experience  of  the  object  then  is governed  by  an  intermediary  system.  The  dislocation  between  the  carrier of  the  object  and  the  experience  of  the  object  is  perhaps  the  source  of  the material  fallacy.  If  it  is  acceptable  to  think  of  this  separation  between  the content  and  the  carrier,  it  is  possible  to  argue  that  the  digital  object  is merely one iteration of a different carrier. The digitised image, then, is the original   image,   in   a   new   material   form.   However,   it   must   also   be recognised, that the materiality of the digitised object does not mirror that of  the  original  photograph.  Within  our  current  technological  limitations, the  only  possible  method  of  attributing  the  material  specifics  of  the original  photograph  to  the  digital  referent  is  through  textual  means.  The metadata  of  the  digital  object  relates  the  materiality  of  the  original.  The process   of   digitisation   focuses   on   the   content   image,   converting   the original image into a series of pixels, while the carrier of the photograph is described  through  the  metadata  of  the  object.  Sassoon’s  investigation  of the process of digitising photographs addresses some major concerns. She writes (2004): 

[I]t  is  no  longer  an  accepted  canon  that  a  photograph  is  merely  a print  on  paper,  nor  is  it  a  simple  and  uncomplicated  translation between   reality   and   its   mechanical   representation.   […]the digitising  process  can  no  longer  be  seen  as  merely  changing  the physical  state  of  a  photograph  from  the  material  to  the  pixel.  If  a photograph  can  be  seen  as  a  more  complex  object  than  simply  an image, digitising can be seen as more than simply a transformation of  state,  or  a  transliteration  of  tones.  The  process  of  digitising involves  a  more  complex  cultural  process  of  translation  —  or  a change between forms of representation.

What  Sassoon  identifies  in  this  transformation  is  the  complexity  that  lies in articulating details about both the content image and the carrier, even if this distinction is not explicitly made. The metaphor of translation, or even transliteration,  that  she  uses,  is  perhaps  not  entirely  convincing;  the transformation  from  physical  to  digital  is  a  re-configuration  of  state,  one that is consistent with any other similar transformation — from the shellac disc  to  the  audio  tape  or  from  celluloid  to  the  video  cassette.  Translation, even  if  the  word  is  used  loosely  in  Sassoon’s  work,  indicates  an  inherent change  in  content and  carrier.  As  discussed,  digitisation  (or  effective digitisation) is focused on preserving an accurate content image, even if an accurate  representation  of  materiality  is  beyond  its  purview.  What  the word  ‘translation’  does  point  towards  is,  in  fact,  the  tension  between original  and  the  copy,  in  the  accurate  representation  of  the  source.  What she  stresses  on  repeatedly  in  her  essay  is  the  importance  of  cultural contexts within which these material objects reside. Any transformation of state, whether physical or digital, creates a new context for the object; the digital state has its own context, while our attempt is to record the context of the source within the digitised.  

All  digitisation  activities  are  carried  out  for  some  specific  purpose.  For the research archive, however, the need to record more than the content seems to be necessary. The focus of digitisation, then, cannot be only on a singular aspect of the photograph — the  indexical  quality  of  the  image.  The  relationship  between  the  negative and  the  paper  forms  of  the  photograph  may  reveal  visible  clues  about  its technical  origins.  The  physical  dimensions  of  the  photograph  may  reveal details  about  the  kind  of  camera  used,  the  negative  size,  and  a  possible date  of  production.  The  tonal  ranges,  and  the  photographic  texture  may indicate  the  type  of  process  used  to  develop  the  image.  All  these  point  to the social existence of the object. Viewed on computer screens of different sizes  and  different  calibrations,  it  is  easy  to  lose  sense  of  the  proportions and tonal hues of the original image. Digitisation effectively alters the way the  photograph  is  viewed;  using  a  loupe  to  magnify  the  details  of  the content  image,  we  are  far  readily  aware  of  the  material  aspects  of  the photograph  than  that  of  the  digital  referent.  The  use  of  keyboards  and mice  might  allow  new  interactions,  and  the  ability  to  magnify  to  extreme points, but they fail to offer the tactile response of the physical object. The fundamental   difference   in   viewing   the   digital   object,   brought   about through  mediation  (the  computer  screen)  might  lead  to  questions  about the perception of the object. Beyond the material peculiarities, the imprint of time on the object — the dirt and the tear, the slow fading of chemicals on   paper   —   is   evidence   of   the   lives   of   the   photograph,   about   the provenance of the image. Paratextual material such as captions, scribbles on the back of the photograph, hand-colouring of black and white images, are   invaluable   to   its   contextual   understanding.   While   research   on advanced   techniques   of   image   representations   point   to   the   future   of digitisation,  it  is  rarely  available  for  average  consumer  use. How are we to   record   these   elements   —   the   material,   the   contextual,   and   the paratextual  aspects  of  the  image  —  with  the  range  of  technology  afforded to us?

Presentational Form

The photograph has multiple lives; it exists within socio-cultural contexts, and to understand it, the content image must be seen in conjunction with its   material   form.   Since   the   inception   of   photography,   photographic images have been used in a variety of contexts, and have been presented in a multitude of ways; the carrier often determines the use the content image is  put  to.  Whether  preserved  in  photo-albums  (arranged  thematically  or sequentially),   sold   as   postcards   for   the   curious,   or   published   as documentary  evidence  the  presentational  form  of  the  photograph  weighs heavy  on  the  readings  of  the  image.  Presentational  forms,  in  particular, guide  the  way  in  which  photographs  were  used  after  their  inception,  and also  the  way  they  were  understood.  It  is,  here,  important  to  distinguish between  the  carrier  and  the  presentational  form:  the  carrier  is  always material,  while  the  presentational  form  is  ideological.  The  materiality guides the technical production of the image, and bears the imprint of time on  it.  The  presentational  form  reveals  the  social,  political,  cultural,  and religious  contexts  within  which  the  photograph  is used.  The  ideological and the material may exist in the same form. To elaborate on the affect of presentational forms, and to see more clearly the  separation  between  the  carrier  and  the  presentational  form,  it  may  be prudent  to  inspect  the  photographic  album.  The  photographic  paper  is attached to the album; the album is the presentational form that is imbued with ideology. Photo albums are unique cultural artefacts in the sense that they  look  beyond  the  content  and  the  creator  of  the  photographs  to  the creator  of  the  object  in  which  the  photographs  reside.  Glenn  Willumson (2004),  in  an  essay  on  the  displaced  materiality  of  photographic  objects writes:

The  performance  of  thumbing  through  the  photographs,  selecting and sequencing, and gluing them into an album breaks the bond of the  materiality  of  the  photograph  from  its  links  in  commerce  and mass   production.   In   choosing,   sequencing,   organising   and captioning  the  photographs  for  the  album,  the  person  responsible transforms   the   meaning   of   selected   images   into   an   intensely individualistic  expression.  At  the  moment  of  creation,  the  photo album is a personal artefact, a record of people and events that are rich with biography and personal memory.

Photographic  albums  are  embedded  with  the  traces  of  their  owners  and their practices. The family album, for example, is immersed in ‘mnemonic frameworks’   (Langford   2001).   It   is   argued   that   while   textual communication  (captions,  titles  etc.)  may  aid  the  reading  of  photographs, oral  communication  plays  an  important  role  in  the  experience  of  family albums.   The   oral   stories   surrounding   the   family   albums   are ‘performatively  intertwined’  with  the  photographs  (Edwards,  2009:  39) and  thus  are  construed  within  the  etiquettes  of  social  interactions.  From this,  it  can  be  observed  that  presentational  forms  bring  photographs  into use,  immersing  them  within  social  practices  and  cultural  contexts.  The travel  album  —  a  form  so  ubiquitous  in  the  nineteenth  century  that  they are  sometimes  invisible’  (Nordstrom,  2004)  —  exist  as  a  presentational form  that  provides  layered  subjects  for  examination.  They  bear  testimony to  the  use,  and  consequently  the  context,  of  the  photographic  images. Though  the  examples  in  this  thesis  are  mostly  derived  from  South  Asian contexts,  the  nature  of  photography  and  photographic  presentation  is remarkably  similar  is  other  spatial  contexts.  Nordstrom’s  study  of  the Tupper  scrapbooks,  specifically  the  material  aspects  of  it,  highlights  the distinction between the photographs and the album as an object. Made by hand,   the   albums   are   visually   unremarkable   in   comparison   to   other surviving  examples  from  the  time.  What  is  remarkable,  however,  is  the precision  and  detail  with  which  extended  captions  have  been  afforded  to each  photograph.  The  presentational  form  has  its  own  history,  its  own purpose, its own intent: the way a series of photographs are collected and presented in an album can relate a tale on its own accord. At this point, an important  question  arises:  how  do  we  record  the  material  information within  the   existing   structures   that   digital   technology   offer   us?  

If digitisation is problematic, why do we pursue it at every chance? The answer most often given is that the option of digitization out of analogue states is the best chance of survival of much data. If the idea of having such archives are very much in the air these days, it evidently focuses attention on frightening prospect of inoperability in the analogue domain. Yet paradoxically, it is digital archivists who are often the most driven by the prospect of loss, ineffectual prophets of the need to hold on to analogue records, be they contained in shellac or paper, celluloid or bromide. While digital technology offers a convenient solution to many problems of recording – in terms of affordability and reproducibility, it would be unwise to think that once music is digitized it is assured of uninterrupted survival. In fact, the pressure of technological obsolescence is experienced in this field at an immensely heightened form. Neither the media nor the equipment is likely to last very long in physical terms too, and the feeling among enthusiasts that it digital media can be quickly and without appreciable loss copied, must be offset by the depressing awareness that every effort needs both human will and monetary support, and these are after all factors that one cannot assume as being easy to come by. What Walter Benjamin’s angel sees is in fact our condition: “This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.” [Theses on History, thesis IX,] Archives, in the sense that we understand them, are small dustheaps, recuperated  from the waste of history.

The digitised photograph is not a preserved object. At best, it is a part of it. A cynical man, however, would say that it is merely a referent to something that was once there. The value of digitisation, then, is not in preservation, but in access – access to information, to contexts, to meanings that might aid a researcher in unfolding its story.

The digital archive of photographic images, for me, at least, exists for the purposes of research. That we may repeatedly inspect them, use electronic tools on them, and analyse them in a form that opens itself to cross-disciplinary modes of inquiry is perhaps where I locate value in the exercise.

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