Following the death of photography that the digital image seems to announce, Geoffrey Batchen reflects on an issue not only from a technological point of view, but also considering the epistemological crisis caused by the ethical and cultural changes provoked by the new digital scenario.

It identifies two clear threats: the loss of the status that photography had as referring to reality and the disturbing suspicion that we are entering a new era in which it will no longer be possible to distinguish the original from the simulated.

In order to contextualize the arguments, he makes a journey through the history of photography, pointing out some aspects that relate it to death (Balzac’s theory of subtle spectral layers, immobilization of the subject in the first studio photographs or portraits of the dead). Precisely the appearance of photography condemned to extinction flourishing businesses of visual representation (painting, engravings, etc..) of the time. Benjamin’s argument in his famous essay on mechanical reproduction defines photography as an instrument of capitalism, sentenced to its own destiny, to be both sustenance and poison at the same time. The argument extends with Foucault’s theses and as photography begins the transition to a new era dominated by the conjunction of power and knowledge.

He continues with the argument of immortality citing the notes that Talbot wrote in 1839 in which he considered almost miraculous his process with which he managed to fix for eternity the elusive shadows or experiments in which Daguerre photographed the Boulevard du Temple as an excuse to reflect on the legibility of time.

“Photography has already enabled us to hand down to future ages a picture of the sunshine of yesterday”

These considerations of time and the past lead us directly to Barthes and his “this shall be” and “this has been”. It is worth recalling Barthes’ reflection on the connection with the future that some photographs contain, magnificently exemplified in the 1865 image of Lewis Payne condemned to death:

“Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe”

This historical context serves to highlight the relationship between photography and death and to show that in reality it is not something new, and has happened all the time. From the technological point of view, up to twenty procedures have coexisted since their beginnings, and there is a continuous dialectic between obsolescence and novelty.

In the digital realm, for example, the disappearance of the film-based photography industry and the value of digital image archiving are cited, as evidenced by the acquisition of Bettmann Archive in 1995 by Bill Gates’ Corbis Corporation.

On the integrity of the digital image, problems such as dissemination and objectivity are mentioned, but the most interesting conclusion can be drawn from this paragraph:

“As their name suggests, digital processes actually return the production of photographic images to the whim of the creative human hand (to the digits). For that reason, digital images are actually closer in spirit to the creative processes of art than they are to the truth of documentary”

This leads us directly to the dilemma about the connection of photography with the referent. Barthes denies the resemblance to reality as the correct way to define photography, and speaks of the need for the existence of the real object to take the photograph (regardless of the result and its resemblance). For Susan Sontag, photography is something traced or carved directly from reality, like a mortuary mask. The indexing value of photography as a system of representation is not questioned, not even in the case of computer-generated images, whose reference would be the image banks used as a basis in the process.

What threatens photography? To answer this question some elements are established: nature, knowledge, representation, time, space, observer and observed, and the desire to orchestrate consciously or not a relationship between all these concepts.

The risk comes from the current disappearance of the limits that separate different cultural spheres: nature and culture, the human and the non-human, the real and the represented, the true and the false, and that constitute the true dependence of photography.

The end of the essay becomes more abstract, deepening in this dilemma the limits are blurred, in an environment that becomes more and more unstable. The manifestation of this crisis is reflected in the semiotic debate proposed by Derrida, which questions the principle of indexation by Charles Saunders Peirce.

The essay concludes that the death of photography will come from the loss of its privileged place in modern culture, which will provoke epistemological changes derived from the loss of its function.

Lewis Powell (aka Lewis Payne), one of the conspirators in the Abraham Lincoln assassination. This photograph has background of dark metal, and was presumably taken on U.S.S. Saugus in 1865, where he was for a time confined. Photographer: Alexander Gardner