“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:
- In the act of preservation through digitisation, what is it that we are really digitising?
- 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?
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?
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?
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.