IMAGES Journal for Visual Studies

Visual Culture and New Media

Digital Photography as a New Medium

By Mirela Ramljak Purgar

In 1980 already, Roland Barthes discovered and investigated the symptoms of the culture of the picture produced by the presence of analogue photography, in such a manner that we today can talk of the characteristics of digital photography in two ways: on the one hand so that the characteristics of "classical" photography remain, and on the other one so that these characteristics "concentrate" and start a new culture of the (digital) picture. In this study we will be concerned with their similarities and differences, in order to find out what the discovery and unimagined spread of photography in the new digital media brings us aesthetically and socio-culturally.

While in classical photography the classical relation between the Operator (the photographer) and the Spectator (the viewer) exists, in digital culture this is no longer the case. Almost anyone owning a mobile phone becomes the Operator, and the Spectator is anyone with a similar device or a computer, thus everyone is at the same time both Operator and Spectator.

If classical photography, according to Barthes, "primarily springs from the chemical discovery of the object", digital photography, according to Lev Manovich, forms in the physical sense as a numeric representation and is subject to algorithmic manipulation, which results in the programmed character of the media and the "modularity" of pixels, polygons, characters; these elements make up objects of a higher level, at the same time keeping their individual identity.

Barthes claims that two types of photographs exist – those that provoke in him "small bouts of delight", and those that are "so indifferent that, watching them multiply, as a horror, he feels a certain repugnance, even irritability…" The sheer number of the produced digital photographs strongly provokes the dominating emotion of indifference. As example, let us note the classical photographs of Silvija Potočki, which function as a reserve within the flood of digital photography. Analogue shooting and manual printing preserve the picture from insignificance. We wish to establish that its seriality is not simply a "consumption" of the motif, but rather its authentic following.

From the point of view of the impression that a photograph leaves on him, Barthes distinguishes between studium and punctum; while the former is a sort of "general, sometimes excited interest", the latter "rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me". We raise the question: is this distinction still possible in digital photography? We will investigate this issue through the photographs of Igor Kuduz, juxtaposing to them the photographs of Boris Cvjetanović.

Barthes states that, in order to surprise, photography in the beginning photographed the significant; but soon, in a known twist, it declared significant that which it photographed. Digital photography programmatically inherited this rule of making insignificant things significant. The asymmetry of the insignificant becomes the carrier of the identity of the one shooting. In the quest for meaning, the multiplication of the "asymmetry" does not lead to a new whole. In Manovich's words, we could say that reality in digital photography exists in a modular way.

Repetition, according to Barthes, lies in the very essence of photography. Digital photography, however, also knows multiplication through the repetition of the Operator, as well as the Mediator (let us call him this, in analogy with Barthes' terms) and the Spectator. The Mediator mediates by sending to an unimagined number of addresses, an infinite number of times, an example of which might be the image processing in the future place of publication of the photograph. Multiple sending, the repetition of the very fact of sending, probably turns the Spectator into the Mediator.

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