There, there now.
Jun 17, 2016 · 9 min read

by Travis Shaffer

Photographs are silent flyers that are distributed by means of reproduction, in fact by means of the massifying channels of gigantic, programmed distribution apparatuses. As objects, their value is negligible; and open for reproduction on their surface. They are the harbingers of post-industrial society in general: Interest has shifted in their case from the object to the information, and ownership is a category that has become untenable for them.

VILEM FLUSSER — towards a philosophy of photography

We are, each of us, dripping wet with photographs. Culturally speaking, we are drowning in them. These rising waters form an Ocean of Images which will continue to swell. The images populating this ocean are largely designated as photographic; however, they are becoming less and less so. The term photograph has a contested birth which came somewhere between 1834 and 1839; derived from the combination of two greek words: one meaning ‘light’ and the other ‘drawing’. In Burning With Desire, Geoffrey Batchen outlines an inherent paradox embedded within the term photography; as it merges the purely natural [light] and the purely cultural [writing]. The latter half of the term — from the greek graphe — has historically embodied both active and passive properties. As such, it describes both the photochemical process by which the image is rendered and the resulting object into which the image is sealed. Photograph is both verb and noun: a gesture and an object. In the years following photography’s emergence came an industry, an academy, and a populous who have grown comfortable applying the term ‘photograph’ more and more loosely.

Consider photographic film as an example. Film operates by virtue of traditional photo-graphic principles. Photographic film constitutes a chemical compound, sensitized to light, which has been adhered to a transparent substrate. Any interaction between light and the sensitized film results in a complex chemical reaction that renders, within the sensitized layer, an invisible photographic image: the latent image. This image is made visible, often in negative, through a series of chemical immersions. Simply stated, to affix an image to film is [v.] to photograph. The presentation of that image on paper is referred to as the print. To generate the print, light is projected through photographic film and onto a similarly sensitized layer sitting atop an opaque white substrate. The chemical reaction and process described above happens once more. The product of this process is [n.] the photograph. Both the process and product of these images are mediated by purely photographic means. They are, then, rightly described as photographs.

It is true that many of the images with which we interact have origins in the realm of the photographic. That is, many of them are generated by the gesture [v.] to photograph but they do NOT all produce photographs.

An example. The first digital camera was created in 1975 by Steve Sasson of Kodak. It was an egregious looking blue box approximately the size of a toaster. The generation of this camera’s digital images utilized an electronic sensor with 1,000 of small receptors which read light values; their result was a 1,000 pixel — .001 megapixel — black and white image. The values of each pixel are then processed into numerical [digital] code. Finally, the big blue toaster writes said code onto a Cassette tape. Each image — tiny by today’s terms — required 23 seconds to be recorded.

Image depicts the first digital camera and it’s inventor, Steve Sasson. Note the cassette tape by his right ear: This camera presents a useful function for your old copy of Licensed to Ill.

In one profound and impractical machine, the future was sealed.

Sasson hands us a future of images born by the act [v.] to photograph but whose future may never see their materialization into a [n.] photograph. There are exceptions, but their transition into [n.] photographs would come only after having abandoned their photographic state somewhere in the process. With the conversion to binary code, the [v.] photographed image passes instantly to a was-once-but-is-no-longer photographic state. To use Sasson’s camera, or any digital camera, performs the act of photography, but the results of its use — regardless of storage vessel or output — no longer qualify as a photograph.

The digital camera is only one of many technological advancements wherein the photographed abandons its photographic heritage en route to an alternative material home. However, the digital camera alone yields a once-photographic copy without the burden of a material original. These once-photographic original-less copies present the possibility of duplication without variance. With the advent of digital storage every capture — though singular at birth — holds the hidden potential of endless exact duplicates. Each image holds a future of untold numbers; each with the risk of intentional or incidental change. Without the litmus test of the original (or prototype) the real identity of any once-photographic image can only truly be understood by engaging the whole of it’s collective versions. As such, each version’s identity may have — for a moment — been thought of rightly as photographic, as singular, as original; however, the conditions of this collective identity means that any hope for the former is wasted.

Of the once-photographic’s many attributes, I find this — its mutability — to be the most perplexing.

Even if an image or object is able to be traced back to a source, the substance (substance in the sense of both its materiality and its importance) of the source object can no longer be regarded as inherently greater than any of its copies… Further, it marks a denigration of objects and our relationship to space: if an object before us in a gallery is only one of an infinite multitude of possible forms that object could take, its value to the viewer becomes little more than a curiosity.

ARTIE VIERKANT — the image object post-internet

Amid an ocean of once-photographic images, structures must be erected around the image to satisfy any claim of monetary value. These systems of control are often bound and loosed — as appropriate — in order to mediate a balance between the accessibility of the images’ content and the rarity of its material form.

Historically, the art institution has looked to printmaking for a model to protect the value of the photographic object. With analog and other purely photographic variants two things prevail: the ownership of the photographic negative and the dead photographer. Both realities protect the authority of all existing prints against future equivalents; thus, providing security from the market’s awareness of false rarity. Among the most treasured indicators of photographic value is the vintage print. The designation vintage print requires both parts of the above puzzle; it indicates that a print is made within close temporal proximity to the image’s capture. The shortened span of time promised by the vintage print results in the most ‘authentic’ realization of the photographer’s intentions as determined during the [v.] photographic act. The value of the vintage print is not embedded in the photographic object, but rather in its provenance and proximity to both the artist and photographic act. Value, then, comes from a magical property: I suppose Walter Benjamin would call this Aura. Like an artist’s signature, it is one of the many strategies of designation employed to distinguish a true photographic print from a sea of duplicates.

Here we lie, static, floating in an abyss of once-photographic images. How are we to respond differently to valuation and the print from our current position?

Let me again address the epigraph:

Photographs are silent flyers that are distributed by means of reproduction, in fact by means of the massifying channels of gigantic, programmed distribution apparatuses. As objects, their value is negligible; and open for reproduction on their surface. They are the harbingers of post-industrial society in general: Interest has shifted in their case from the object to the information, and ownership is a category that has become untenable for them.

Taking Flusser at his word, when considering photographic [or once-photographic prints] we are not dealing in the ownership of imagery. His suggestion is that the image’s value rests in its information, which is easily lifted from the photograph’s surface. Once-photographic objects sold in the contemporary art marketplace as one of a limited few do little to secure the rarity of the image’s content. Acceptance of their value — here ascribed to a combination of paper, ink, and something ineffable — necessitates institutional and economic faith. Value at this stage is entirely speculative: at least until the first print is purchased. At point-of-sale, market value is solidified. The benefactor[s] of each transaction largely owe credit to the consumer’s submission to fetish. In this act, the buyer kneels to the lure of the residue of the artist and/or a gallery. This residue is, after all, the commodity in which their new copy of an original-less image has been doused.

These realities manifest themselves within my own practice [an artist, an educator, a publisher, and a photographer…of sorts] more as a series of guiding questions, than any firmly held dogmatic ideology. That said, I have largely eschewed the production of fine prints in favor of once-photographic reproductions of images in book form. It is also fair to note that as an artist, I am invested in appropriative practices. The conviction that information is left sitting upon the surface of images, free for the taking, is central to my artistic worldview.

If the information sits loosely on the surface of images, as Flusser and I suggest, then it is just waiting to be gleaned by the masses. When the information can be picked clean, what exactly are we left to sell?

Perhaps, this issue has little impact on the overwhelming majority of image-viewers. If we, as the greater image consuming public, were said to collect images — it could be deemed pejorative. In mass, we collect images much in the same way bookshelves collects dust. We neither venture out, nor spare expense to accumulate them; rather, they are radiating in our direction constantly. On most days, we see far too many to make distinctions of value. Consider the label [or title] Art Collector in contrast; by design they are few. As it stands, works of once-photographic art, require a certain level of commitment to behold in material form. For much of the public, they require a pilgrimage to be seen, as they exist almost exclusively adorning spectacularly expensive architecture. Like it or not, most would admit that here they seem at home: lofted in a sea of empty whiteness. These viewers who embark on pilgrimages to encounter the works in what we understand as their native environment, are equally motivated by the ineffable, but their response reads as a very different act.

If those who embark on art pilgrimages could encounter the same works in a more humble environment, or even own them, what would happen?

Within the current model, all parties involved surely hold tacit acceptance that the last thing for sale is the content encoded onto the image’s surface. This has lead me to argue that value is not held within the object. Rather, it is the opportunity to stand before the work which we desire. Individual art collectors and collecting institutions buy, sell, trade, and gift these works. By extension of this activity, they mediate the public access to these rare works. If you are not a participant in collection, you participate in brokering for the limited accessibility of the work as it is filtered by it’s collector. Print sales, more than anything else, ensure their owner’s right to mediate other’s experience to their false original. Limited print editions do not rarify the image’s content; as reproductions in various forms carry that content, and they are needed to prop up it’s cultural significance.

What is accomplished by printing limited editions of infinitely reproducible images is the establishment of a rigid gate to filter public access. Responses to this span from private personal display to eventual generous gifting to (or acquisition on behalf of) art institutions. In each cases meaningful gain [in various forms] are afforded the buyer. These aspects of the limited edition or forced rarity, pushes once-photographic works into what I find most troubling about artistic originals. It highlights the troubling contradictions between the democracy and multiplicity inherent to the once-photographic and the illusion of singularity projected by their material output. The scarcity of copies succeeds at convincing us all that we lack other options. I am sadly not here with a resolved solution; though, perhaps like you, I have a few ideas.

Travis Shaffer (°1983, Pennsylvania, United States) is an artist/educator currently based in Columbia, MO. Shaffer is a member of ABC [artists’ books cooperative] and the founder of There, there now [an independent curatorial and publishing platform with a focus on appropriative production strategies and the quotidian — coming Fall ‘16]. Follow him on Instagram: @imyouredruscha @there.there.now

infinite industries

Open Experiments in Art, Code and Culture. Infinite Industries is an experimental digital platform that makes high quality contemporary art accessible to everyone.

There, there now.

Written by

There there now. is an independent curatorial and publishing platform with a focus on appropriative production strategies and the quotidian.

infinite industries

Open Experiments in Art, Code and Culture. Infinite Industries is an experimental digital platform that makes high quality contemporary art accessible to everyone.

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