06 November 2005

The Engine of Visualization

This is a plug for a book that I think is terrific. It is by philosopher Patrick Maynard. His argument is simple and acute - photography is a technology. More specifically, it is a technology for using light to mark surfaces (and this claim is not rendered anachronistic by the digital transformation - read the book and see why). Maynard starts from this view: "Therefore, for the present, we can . . . define photography as . . . a technological family comprising ways of doing things. We can characterize photography in terms of technologies for accomplishing or guiding the production of images on sensitized surfaces by means of light (broadly understood) without necessarily understanding such images as photographs."

Maynard seeks, first of all, to dissuade us from starting with pictures or photographs and, instead, to think about photography as a way of marking surfaces, which sometimes produces photographs and sometimes not. The problem with starting with "photographs" is that it generates all sorts of philosophical dead ends. It invites us to reify the subject of our inquiries by focusing on objects instead of activities or practices. Indeed, as Maynard suggests, it invites us to reify two sorts of thing - "on the one side there is 'the photograph' (click); on the other, 'reality' (THUD)." And then it invites us to essentialize one or the other of the sides of that dualism or the relationship between them.

As an alternative, Maynard's 'photography as technology' thesis asks us to inquire into what we use photography for. Now it should be clear why I like the book! But the effect here is remarkable. For, while there are plenty of uses of photography, Maynard takes this in an especially intriguing direction. He rightly suggests that technologies amplify our capacities (sometimes by filtering them). He spends a lot of time discussing how photography allows us to amplify our vision and our imagination. In the process he refines our understanding of the 'epistemology' of photography, insisting that this technology allows us to imagine and to do so reflexively, that is, "to imagine seeing things." So we are not captive to some sort of Platonic or Cartesian schema of knowing here.

This all seems woefully 'philosophical'; actually Maynard spends much of his time deflating merely philosophical problems. Imagination trades in possibility, in questions about things or states of affairs that, while not currently realized, might prove realizable. Hence the link to politics. If photography allows us to imagine ourselves seeing this or that thing or event, it encourages or invites us to imagine what it might be like, what our responses might be, were we actually to see the thing or event in question. As Maynard remarks: "It seems odd to have to argue not only that technologies of imagining exist but that, economically and politically, these have become some of the most important technologies of modern times." It may be odd, but insofar as politics involves the effort to sustain or subvert the ability of people to envision possibilities, the argument is crucially important too.

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