The index and the loss of reality

I believe that the human experience of the world is, to some extend, a linguistic one, and that photography exists somewhere between language and reality.

In the blog post The blind spot of theory I explained how I know of no theory which has explained how photographs can be realistic accounts of reality while at the same time expressions of our inner desires and imagination. In fact there seems to be little academic consensus on the nature of photography, or even on photography’s relationship with reality.

In the earlier blogposts I took a look at the photographic horizon I find myself in, or rather, the development of a photographic discourse within academic theory, with the question of the relationship between photographs and reality as the point of focus.

What I found is that the photographic discourse has been based mainly on literary and art-historical approaches, combined to some extent with political, cultural and sociological perspectives. These classic theories have suggested (amongst many other things) that photographs show only a superficial truth (Baudelaire), that photographs capture both surface banality and the invisible traces of culture (Benjamin), that photographs are invisible windows on past lives, with the ability to prick the viewer with a kind of personal meaning (Barthes) and that they are a way for people to collect and wrap up the material world, reducing information to sentimentality (Sontag). (More on this in my last blog post The blind spot of theory.)

In this post I wish to introduce the theory of the index, and the invention of digital photography. The question is whether or not digital photography represents a radical break with an earlier more “innocent” type of analogue photography.

Rosalind Krauss & the Index

In the 1970s, American art theorist Rosalind Krauss (born 1941) introduced a new, more scientific way to describe how the art object is put together and how it works – how a particular artwork’s structure gives rise to associated effects. This approach was generally considered a welcome counterweight to the subjective, poetic approach which dominated much of current art criticism.

In 1977, Krauss published an influential two-part essay Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America, arguing that much of modern art – and specifically photography – was indexical in nature.

According to Krauss, the photograph was first and foremost connected to the world as a sort of imprint or trace, rather than bound to cultural systems. But even though the photograph was a trace of the world out there, it was still a mechanical representation, a copy.

Krauss was inspired by Roland Barthes’ development of structuralism and attempted to use similar approaches to art, combining his ideas with Peirce’s index. (Described in the blog post The Paradox of Photography (Introduction)).

According to Krauss, the physical relationship between the photograph and its referent, the fact that they were traces of that which they referred to, meant that they were not symbolic: In stead the power of the photograph resided in a kind of imaginary identification. The photographic image was in fact the object itself, freed from the conditions of time and space.

To Krauss photographs were mechanical copies so strongly connected to reality that they were like actual pieces of reality put forth as art. As such, photography was a language of things.

Although Krauss argued that context and discourse supplied the empty indexicality of the photograph with meaning, its referentiality remained at the core of her analysis.

In A Note on Photography and the Simulacral (1984) Krauss reworked theories of the French sociologists and cultural theorists Pierre Bourdieu and Jean Baudrillard to argue that the photograph breaks down differences between original and copy, singular object and multiple.

This collapse of differences pushes photography into the realm of the simulacrum, where it becomes impossible to tell the difference between reality and simulation. Instead consciousness experiences a world full of copies, of resemblances. “We are surrounded by the reality effect, Krauss observes, a labyrinth of resemblances of the real” as put by Sabine Kriebel in James Elkins’ Photography Theory (2007). Humanity has lost access to reality, and photography is to blame.

Krauss’ ideas about photography’s indexical nature became highly influential in photographic theory, and it will be discussed further in a later blog post.

Digital Photography

1991 saw the arrival of the first professional digital camera system, a Nikon F3 with a 1.3 megapixel sensor. At about the same time the internet and the hypertext was combined, creating the world wide web, and with the launch of the graphic web browser Mosaic in 1993, the internet as we now know it started to take shape.

With the arrival and spreading of digital photography, the discussion of photography’s relation to the material world once again became central to the theoretical discussion, this time focused on questions of virtuality and simulacrum. The photographic image suddenly seemed completely immaterial and ephemeral, containing potentially infinite information.

Mitchell and Manovich

In 1992 William J. Mitchell published The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Postphotographic Era, a methodical account of the ruptures between analogue and digital photography.

Mitchell argued that traditional photographs contained more information than digital photographs. Meanwhile, mutability and manipulation were inherent to the digital medium, putting its truth value into question.

In The Paradoxes of Digital Photography (1995) Lev Manovich, one of Mitchell’s most vocal critics, argued that rather than representing a break from traditional photography, digital images were paradoxically reinforcing older modes of representation.

Manovich argued that associating realism with analogue photography and montage with digital photography was too simplistic and reductive. Realism and montage were two traditions of visual culture that existed before photography and that spanned many different visual technologies.

“the reason we think that computer graphics has succeeded in faking reality is that we, over the course of the last hundred and fifty years, have come to accept the image of photography and film as reality.”

Digital imaging did not fake reality, but what Manovich called “photographic reality”: Reality as the camera lens “sees” it.

According to Manovich digital technology does not subvert “normal” photography because “normal” photography never existed:

“there never existed a single dominant way of reading photography; depending on the context the viewer could (and continue to) read photographs as representations of concrete events, or as illustrations which do not claim to correspond to events which have occurred.”

Certainly the digital revolution created many visions (positive as well as negative) of a pure, true state of information and a loss of reality. In his essay, Manovich did not distinguish between digital images created in a computer program or those created using a camera, but concluded that the digital version of reality was comparable with our future cyborg vision. Both Manovich and Mitchell envisioned a very different future reality for humanity as the result of digitization.


In Photography, Or The Writing Of Light (1999) Jean Baudrillard claimed that the technique of photography took us beyond the replica into the domain of the trompe l’oeil, the image that gives the illusion of reality.

To Baudrillard, the photographic gaze did not probe nor analyze reality, but showed it as fragmented, and then obliterated it altogether. The photographic image was about light – not realistic, natural nor artificial light:

“Rather, this light is the very imagination of the image, its own thought.”

A light which to Baudrillard is cruel, and never intimate, always pointing toward darkness, emptiness and surface. Photographic experiments only means moving further away from the once innocent approach of the Camera Obscura.

It is worth noting that Baudrillard did not blame photography for the disappearance of reality – rather he seemed to feel that reality was already disappearing when photography arrived, but that it found a way to mutate into an image.


In these last blog posts based on the first part of my thesis The Paradox of Photography, I have been looking into the early beginnings of photography as a result of mimetic ideals, and at the shaping of an academic discourse around the media.

Since the invention of photography 170 years ago, photographs have spread to every part of our lives, but we still do not feel certain of what they are. When we look at photographs, we feel they have some connection to reality, but the extend of the connection is unclear.

This reality we see in photographs, is a past or a present reality? Is it the reality of the world, apparatus, of dreams or of art – fictive, mythical, religious? If it is reality – then how can it be so different from what we experience when we look at the world using just our eyes?

While none of the well known theories mentioned in these blog posts see the relationship between photographs and reality as straight forward, most of them favour the idea of the photograph as a kind of superficial, mechanical copy of nature.

But photography’s relationship with reality is not treated as suspicious when photographs are considered documentary or compared to windows or traces (Barthes) and as traces thought of as connected to the object in a way which is indexical in nature (Krauss).

Most importantly, none of the classic approaches properly explain the question posed by James Elkins in my Introduction: How photographs can, on one hand, be realistic accounts or copies of reality, and, on the other hand, express our desires and imagination.

The answer may be connected to the traditionally narrow misconception of mimesis as an imitation of nature. As mentioned in the blog post Mimesis and Photography, Aristotle considered mimesis to include an expression of emotions and experience and he felt that images could help us gain a new understanding of ideas, which to him were more real than appearances. As such mimesis could also be said to be an expression of human thought, and certainly an interpreted version of reality.

As stated earlier, the relationship between photography and the real was never a simple, innocent one. Photography was invented because of an unofficial desire for mimesis, magic and pictures, as much as for a scientific search for truth, or spreading of information.

In the next blog posts I will be looking closer at what kind of pictures photographs are, and how they affect the way we think about reality.

2 thoughts on “The index and the loss of reality

  1. Pingback: The Paradox of Photography (Introduction) | Eyes Wide Shut

  2. Pingback: Performative Photography | eyes wide shut

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