abstraction, critical writing, digital image, South Australia

the digital image: a note

December 17, 2019

Thirdly, the art gallery is now competing for online audiences or traffic not just with other galleries or with the cinema, but with the sheer mass of digital images circulating on the internet. The art gallery’s digital engagement with their online audience is one of clickthroughs, traffic and bounce rates, and this gives rise to the need to generate data to find out the impact of the work in a particular exhibition. Galleries currently do not have the expertise to do this and they struggle to come to grips with what is happening in the contemporary world.

The upshot is that art galleries remain bounded by, if not locked into their past, as they struggle to align their historical mission in a world of networked digital images and their  transmission‐oriented, screen‐based experiences.These images begin their life as binary data, are processed algorithmically, and are driven to various points across the network not as individual pictures but as packets of data. We are in a world in which the image is something beyond a representations of things that is interpreted by spectators.  This beyond refers to the simultaneity of the networked image whose self-replicating multiplicity creates the instability of meaning differently to that of representation and indexicality.

salt + granite

What is happening outside the art gallery is that the digital economy’s networked image culture’s disruption is causing major changes in photography. With the digital image we are now in a different space to this analogue time in Australian photography. The automated digital camera apparatus has become a networked but also dispersed computational device, which continues to mediate our experience of art, particularly online, through social media. With metadata photography is an encoded discourse, whilst  the image is an outcome of processes that are driven by algorithms, and not just by aesthetic decision-making. 

Once uploaded online, the image moves through an image network in several directions at once, decomposing and recombining, multiplying and aggregating into different contexts. It can appear anywhere there is a networked device and it can do so simultaneously across the nation, if not the globe. In a computational culture with information overload, a photographic culture is defined by viral reproduction and excess, and machines (not humans) are the dominant readers of images. Big changes in photographic culture are happening as photography is increasingly being decoupled from human agency and human vision with the emergence of satellite imaging, drones, facial recognition, CCTV cameras, Google street view, artificial imaging intelligence and automatic traffic cameras. 

roadside vegetation, Waitpinga

Networked digital photography as a computational image represents a fundamental change in photography’s ontology. What is now central to photography are the algorithmic processes of software with its layers upon layers of code, which operate on the raw data collected by the light-sensitive sensors in the full frame camera, to create the look of a visually seductive, professional photograph that is displayed on retina screens. An image on the screen of a iPad, iPhone, laptop, or desk top computer looks like a photograph because the algorithmic interventions ensure that what is registered on the camera’s sensor is eventually output as something that a human would understand as a photograph. The algorithmic wizardry is directed toward making digital pictures look as much as possible like their wet-chemistry analogue forebears.

The politics and aesthetics of the photographic image in computational culture, its social circulation and cultural value have changed from the analogue era. Photography’s radically changing ontology suggests the need to go beyond the rigid categories and conventional forms of art photography and social practice (photojournalism, documentary, fashion, advertising and architectural photography) and to start to rethink photography. This presents a real challenge to the conventional or traditional ways of thinking about photography– photographic singularity or the photograph as a singular, enframed entity as in an exhibition setting. This has caused a flight of  photographic value and expertise from cultural institutions to an internet culture’s curated online spaces or repositories which explore photography’s increasingly automated, networked life.

light abstraction

This was how the Mallee Routes exhibition was presented, albeit with a shift from the single image to a sequencing of photos in various series. What was excluded from the exhibition was the online presence of Mallee Routes, in the form of its website and the project’s textual history in the blog. This online presence, which was central to the project, was an attempt to shift the emphasis from photographs as individual art objects embodying aura and vision to photographs as data flows to be dipped or cut into. This initial online attempt at photography’s engagement with other media as a photomediation was deemed to be outside the exhibition’s frame, presumably because this hybrid media practice is not considered to belong to art.

I am unsure how the art galleries in Australia will exhibit, curate or address photography’s reproduction as a digital networked image, where images circulate, proliferate and are consumed as bits of information. The creative act no longer belongs to the photographer alone, as it is deferred to software, and to increasingly collaborative possibilities (both human and non-human). At all levels – making, editing, distributing and receiving – the traditional humanist role of individual human agency in photography has been displaced. Hopefully the art galleries in Australia will not bunker down, pull up the drawbridge, look back to the archive and become museums of art.

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  • Reply Stuart December 18, 2019 at 8:33 am

    The photographer’s gallery in London has Over the years exhibited and engaged with the digital and networked image. At some point in particular they ‘celebrated’ the gif image. But to the best of my knowledge no gallery in the western world anyway os engagingly with the networked image. Perhaps because galleries and museums are so focused on the object of which a networked image is not?

    • Reply Gary Sauer-Thompson December 18, 2019 at 1:27 pm

      I proceed slowly with the blog post. I do a minimal one, then rework it, do more research, and then add the links. I was exploring The Photographers’ Gallery online digital platform, Unthinking Photography, that was run by Katrina Sluis, who is now Head, Photography & Media Arts, at the ANU School of Art & Design, when you commented on the post.

      I had yet to work through their Tumblr which also explored the nexus of photography, automation and computation. It’s all a long way from the online presence of the Mallee Routes project.

  • Reply Stuart December 18, 2019 at 8:38 am

    In 2012 the Photographer’s gallery had an exhibition dedicated to the gif and created a digital wall. From their website.

    “The Wall forms part of a research programme which aims to explore issues concerning the digital image, its dissemination and display on-screen. The Wall’s programme will include experimental commissions, collaborations and participation.”


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