Considering contemporary image-making and technology

The seemingly inexhaustible production and over-supply of images means we have become debilitated by so much image choice. In the vast domain of images, our need to continue to render a complex world forces us into forever swiping in anticipation of the next image.

An expanded understanding of photography offers insight into many of the conditions of contemporary culture. In a technologically driven world, photography and image-making give access to more complex concerns about things like our digital subjectivity or digital perception. Simply put, thinking through photographic practice provides a way to think about other things. One of our goals is to try to understand and articulate why it is photographs show what they show.

Since photography has become so embedded into culture its operative function has become largely overlooked. Given the number of photographs we take but then don’t have time to look at, we can easily make a further claim that the act of looking at photography is often postponed indefinitely. Looking becomes something we defer. This does not mean we do not connect, in some way, to the idea of looking. But what it means is that we are essentially relieved from actually ever having to look. If the pleasure of looking directly has almost disappeared from our experience of photography, then what is left, in relation to furthering our understanding, is a question as to why photographs show what they show?

Our researchers have work with practitioners to consider such questions. For example, in “How does photography appear to appear?” (2021) Dr John Hillman considers the work of Dutch photographer Laura Chen whose practice used imagery sourced from undeveloped films purchased from eBay and car-boot sales. He suggests that when Chen develops the films, the real of someone else’s reality is transformed into art. Left undeveloped these images occupy nowhere in particular, but Chen makes appearances fill in a void and pose a question, which is not one of “why” but of “where” are images? In seeking out meanings, photography is understood through the misdirection of illusion and appearance, but Hillman suggests what is useful is to ask how photography appears to appear?

Augmented reality

Key to thinking about technology driven image-making is our analysis of contemporary forms such as augmented and virtual reality. Augmented reality is fundamentally different from virtual reality: it does not map a real world environment into a digital one, as a virtual experience. Instead, it locates both reality and virtual within the same experiential frame. Through it, our interactions with reality are mediated via the fantasy of an augmented experience. Thus, augmented reality supplements what we see with the the purpose of trying to maintain our attention.

What is most fascinating about augmented reality is how reality itself becomes a part of, rather  than distinct from, digital information. It is in this sense that the very notion of seeing is fundamentally challenged. Since when augmented technology is not deployed, what is left is an apparent incompleteness of simply looking. But what are the consequences of confronting this incompleteness or blind spot? Our researchers have examined how augmented reality renders a structure that has always sustained the visual field.

We also consider other contemporary image-making practices such as networked, algorithmic or computational images as well as images made through applications such as Instagram and Snapchat.

Thoughts on subjectivity

Different forms of subjectivity can be mapped onto different technological developments since the 1980s. With the introduction of personal computers in the 80s, individuals were able to make digital media content, thus creation became a key activity and form of expression. In the 1990s, the World Wide Web became the platform where content could be published and computer users became prolific publishers. The things they had been making could now be distributed to a wider audience. From the 2000s, social media applications configured online interactions. These were oriented toward sharing and dialogue. A new digital subjectivity emerged around self-organisation, the sharing of opinions through likes, shares and re-tweets.

Today, we see a new digital self whose experiences are curated, surveyed, observed and monitored. It is a subject who knowingly confronts contradictory notions of privacy, and who navigates large organisations, such as Amazon, Facebook or Google, having direct influence over their situational awareness. It is a self who is fast transitioning from being user to becoming a data-source, from their time as a participant to now being a product. The digital self is currently expressed through media analytics, articulated through targeting and closely monitored and predicted behaviours. They are a technologized industrialised self who have been interpellated into being by big data.