In the modern world, the photography which depends on digital processes has almost totally replaced the traditional photography, as it was understood by Bazin, Sartre, or Barthes. The nature of the film photography was perceived within the area of documentation. “The duplication of the world outside” became the task of photography since the days of its invention, in contrast to symbolic representation of transcended reality, which remained the prerogative of the arts (Bazin 1967: 11). Just as the plastic arts pursued the practice of “embalming the dead” as they strived to make the mortal immortal through “the continued existence of the corporeal body”, the photography took on the challenge of accurate documentation or “embalming time” (Bazin 1967: 9). However, the advent of digital technologies has greatly changed the nature of photography. This paper argues that, in opposition to Bazin, digital photography no longer has the power of documentation and is not a reliable record of the reality.
The first argument to support the view that Bazin’s vision does not apply to the digital photography as it did to the traditional photography relies on the assumption that modern, digital photography is a creative art rather than a documentary process. Digital imaging technology allows extensive editing and digital compositing through Adobe Photoshop and other technologies (Giralt 2010). This means that the captured reality is subject to image control and frequent manipulation. On the one hand, the interest to image construction rather than catching pure images is explained by the ease of making a cut as well as extensive manoeuvrability in operating rather complex editing functions; on the other hand, it is linked to the potential of digital-effects software, which makes it possible to manipulate backgrounds as well as other small details simultaneously in the frame. Thus, reality in modern photography is viewed not as something that needs to be captured “in the purest way possible by the camera lens” but rather as something to be constructed (Giralt 2010: 3).
To illustrate the argument that the modern photography is a creative art rather than a documentary process the following example may be used. Peter Benson, in the article “The Ontology of Photography: From Analogue to Digital”, describes the change brought by the digital photography through his experience of a photograph of some new building at the river Thames, which captured his attention. What he saw in a magazine was “a strikingly modernist structure, gleaming with glass yet elegantly sculptural in shape.” (Benson 2013). The author immediately decided to see the building in situ, since he recognized the place where it was shot and even recalled the tube station nearby. However, he managed to read the article attached to the image before he set off on the trip: the picture featured a proposed rather than real building. The thing is, as Benson, further explains in his article that the computer program, with the use of pixels, combined two locations – real and unreal – in a way that made digital fabrication unnoticeable (Benson 2013).
The example above leads to the next argument that challenges application of Bazin’s view of photography to the digital photography. It is rooted in the essential difference between digital and traditional photography rooted in the means of production. The traditional photography is characterized by indexicality while the digital photography is characterized by non-indexicality. To understand what is meant by these terms, let us rely on the simple interpretations offered by Rifkin (2011). In particular, simply put, indexicality is perceived as “resulting from the means by which the image is produced – photochemical registration – and not a positively identifiable feature of the resulting visual representation, which is nevertheless affected by it (…)” (Rifkin 2011: 86). In its turn, digital photography is non-indexical. Every digital photograph is formed with a large grid of millions of pixels, whose colors are coded numerically. These arrays of numbers are saved and come as digital files. Indexicality is important because it allows the traditional photography to capture the cause and effect relationship with the reality. Moreover, camera’s mechanistic nature eliminates the imposition of the artist’s hand. In other words, the world’s image comes out automatically, without man’s creative intervention. Thus, the photographic image is characterized by objective reality (Bazin 1967). On the contrary, non-indexical nature of the digital photography, which subjects it to image-manipulation programs or computer-generated imagery, makes it subjective and deprived of truth value. As explains that “even when images are not actively manipulated, the very shift from analogue to digital destroys the indexical nature of the photograph” (Shaviro 2007). This happens because the photography is no longer mimetic, its chain of cause and effect get ruptured. Because of their easy-to-manipulate nature, they are “artificial and fictive”, so that no longer is there a distinction between false and true images (Shaviro 2007).
Further, because of the specifics of its technology, digital photography makes us lose the past rather than accurately preserve it. Jayne West, in her article published by BBC News, explains that the loss of the past relates to the loss of sequence of images which capture the reality leading up to any of the images which will be used in a publication (Bagri 2011). Shooting of traditional stills, photographers have to shoot numerous rolls of film, so that there a series of images taken before new events happen. When digital photography is at work, the photographer shoots in the same way. Yet, restricted by the storage issues on his or her camera, the photographer later deletes some images as he or she has to go along. So, the overall collection of important material, which may be more interesting in some time rather than at the moment of the events, gets lost at that very stage. Hence, a possible alternative viewpoint on the events may get lost because of limitations of the digital camera.
Overall, it is true that in today’s world that time and objective reality has stopped to be embalmed through photography with the spread of digital photography. Photography has become more of an art and has lost its relation to truth as well as its realism. Digital devices capture the reality in a different way and expose it to numerous artificial effects, so it would be reasonable to say that in the modern world the photography has lost its role as an objective means of capturing the reality.
- Bagri, P 2011, Digital fortress, viewed 1 Feb. 2014, http://digitalfortresshs.blogspot.com/2011/01/impact-of-digital-camera-on-society.html
- Bazin, A 1967, The ontology of the photographic image’ in Andre Bazin, Hugh Gray (trans), What is cinema?, vol. 1, London: University of California Press Ltd, pp. 9-16.
- Benson, P 2013, The ontology of photography: From analogue to digital, viewed 1 Feb. 2014,
- Giralt, G 2010, Realism and realistic representation in the Digital Age. Journal of Film and Video, vol. 62, no. 3, pp. 3-16.
- Shaviro, S 2007, Emotion capture: Affect in digital film, viewed 1 Feb. 2014, http://philosophynow.org/issues/95/The_Ontology_of_Photography_From_Analogue_To_Digital