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The Gesture of Photographing

SOURCE: European Photography 20 no66 11-12 Fall 1999/Wint 2000

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Vilém Flusser: The Gesture of Photographing

[...] While hunting, the photographer moves from one space-time category to another, and he combines the various space-and-time categories while on the move. His hunt is a game of combining the space-time categories of the camera, and what we see when we look at the photograph is precisely the structure of that game, not the structure of the photographer's cultural condition -- at least, not immediately.
The photographer chooses specific combinations of camera categories; for example, he manipulates so that he may snap his game like a lightning flash coming from below. It appears as if the photographer were free to choose, and as if the camera did precisely what the photographer wanted it to do. In fact, however, the photographer's choice is restricted to the camera categories, and his is a programmed freedom.
The camera functions according to the photographer's intentions, but this intention itself functions according to the camera program. Obviously, the photographer may invent new camera categories, ones which are not programmed. If he does so, he extracts himself from the photographic gesture as such, placing himself in the metaprogram of the photographic industry, or in a "do-it-your-self" camera construction, which means, of course, that he places himself at the point where cameras are programmed. In other words, within the photographic gesture, the camera does what the photographer wants it to do, and the photographer does what the camera is programmed to do.
The same involution of the photographer's and the camera's functions may be observed within the choice of the photographic "object." The photographer is free to snap anything: a face, a flea, the trace of an atomic particle in a Wilson chamber, a galaxy, his own photographic gesture in a mirror, and so on and so forth. In fact, however, he can only snap that which is apt to be photographed, i.e. anything which is inscribed within the camera program. That which is "apt to be photographed," inscribed in the program, are exclusively situations [Sachverhalte]. Whatever the photographer snaps, he must translate it into a situation. His choice of an "object" is free, as long as the object is in accordance with the camera program.
[...]Basically, the photographer -- in the strictest sense meant here -- tries to establish situations such as have never existed before. He does not look for these situations in the world "out there": that world is nothing but a pretext for the establishment of the improbable situations as meant here. The photographer looks for them not "out there," but within the virtualities contained in the camera program. In this sense, the traditional distinction between realism and idealism is overcome by photography: It is not the world "out there" which is "real," nor is it the concepts "in here" within the apparatus program; what is "real" is the image as it comes about. The world and the apparatus program are but premises for the realization of photographs; they are virtualities to be realized in the photograph. What we have, then, is an inversion of the vector of significance: "real" is not what is signified, but what is significant, the information, the symbol. This inversion of the vector of significance characterizes everything that has to do with apparatus, and thus, with the post-industrial in general.
[...]The photographic gesture is thus one of "phenomenological doubt," inasmuch as it attempts to approach the phenomenon from as many points of view as possible -- except that the "mathesis" (the deeper structure) of such a doubt is prescribed by the camera program. There are two decisive elements to such doubt: First, the practice of photographing is anti-ideological. Ideology is the assumption of a single point of view as preferential to all others. The photographer acts in a post-ideological way, even if some photographers believe that they are committed to a particular ideology. Second, the practice of photography is bound to a program. The photographer can only act within a program. This obtains for every kind of post-industrial act. It is both "phenomenological," in the sense of its being an-ideological, and it is a programmed action. This is the reason why it is a mistake to speak of an "ideologization through mass culture," for example, ideologization through mass photography. Programming is post-ideologic manipulation.

Vilém Flusser: Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Göttingen, 1984. © 1984 European Photography

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