Three levels of decoding the world – painting, text, photography

Flusser, V 2000, ‘Extracts from Towards a philosophy of photography’, in Towards a philosophy of photography, Reaktion Books, London, pp. 8-16.

Defines as ‘imagination’ the ability to translate a 2-D image into a 3-D imagined image of reality – (actually says 4-D adding in time as the fourth dimension) and the converse ability to make a 2-D snapshot (image) as a comprehensible abstraction of a real-time 3-D image.

Images may be viewed at a glance or scanned (at various levels of acuity) to create meaning.  Flusser states that the eye’s path through the image is dictated both by the image itself (which may have been a deliberate intention of the image maker) and by the viewer’s intentions.

Therefore, images are not ‘denotative’  – unambiguous identities with only one meaning or reading (cites mathematical formulae as an example of this) – but are ‘connotative’ – ambiguous identities where a myriad of readings may be made depending on the viewer’s interpretation and purpose (which may be guided by the image maker).

Flusser examines the observers scanning path and how this in itself creates a timeline – elements of the image viewed in relation to themselves and other parts of the image, giving significance to the elements themselves and the relationships between them.  ‘The space reconstructed by scanning is the space of mutual significance.’ p.9

Flusser then postulates that, due to the non-linear path, and non-cause and effect nature of images, they are ‘magical’ – citing sunrise causing a cockerel’s crow in the real world, but ‘in the magical one [world], sunrise signifies crowing and crowing signifies sunrise.’

Uses this ‘magical’ quality of images to postulate that images are not moments frozen in time.  The images ‘replace events by states of things and translate them into scenes.’

‘Images are mediations between the world and human beings.’ p. 9 However, Flusser postulates that, there is a contradiction here – one needs an image to make our world comprehensible, but, in contrast, this very image obscures – one’s images (and their perceptions of them) define the way one sees the world.   Flusser considers that the plethora of images available to us in our modern technology-swamped world actually restructure our realty, “turning it into a ‘global image scenario’. … Imagination has turned to hallucination.” P. 10

Flusser says the invention of writing was an earlier attempt to re-focus the being on reality rather than images, and that this ‘This was the beginning of ‘historical consciousness’ and ‘history’.’ 10  This creates a struggle between historical consciousness and ‘magical’ (image driven) consciousness.  Writing allows for conceptual thinking – more abstract than imaginative thought – the ability to analyse and decode rather than abstract meaning through imagination – analysis contrasted with intuition.  Flusser states that texts’ purpose is to explain images.  ‘In this way, texts are a metacode of images.’ 10

Cites religious subsuming of pagan imagery at the same time as it raged against it.  Says that these images are also an expansion of text – ‘conceptual and imaginative thought mutually reinforce one another.’ 11

Flusser discusses the dichotomy of text taking on the imaginative task of image (and vice versa) – citing scientific and religious texts as one example.

A third group of image/text emerged – technical images ‘to overcome the crisis of history’.  11 Defines the technical image as one which is produced by an apparatus.

Flusser defines a hierarchy of abstractions (from the real world).  Images are of the first order, followed millennia later by text (second order), followed by technical images (third order) created by apparatuses designed using scientific knowledge.  Says ‘traditional images are prehistoric, and technical ones ‘post-historic’.’ 12

Says that although the technical image (e.g. an image produced by a camera) appears simple to the observer, as a mere representation of the real world, this very simplicity makes them appear to be the real world to the viewer – they are seen ‘not as images but as windows’. 15  Viewers criticise the technical images produces not as images, but as reflections of the world.

Flusser is concerned about this, in the light of technical images, to a greater and greater extent, displacing texts – “the ‘objectivity’ of technical images is an illusion.” 15

Because traditional images are created by, e.g. painters, they are always seen as images rather than the real world.  The trap of the technical image (photograph) is that they do not appear to be one person’s interpretation (although they are!).

(My copy of this article terminated on page 16, with the concluding paragraph incomplete. )


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