I think I’ve finally reached a set-up that I’m happy with for the vanitas image I was hoping to create. Originally I wanted to try a very modern interpretation of the vanitas style, minimalistic and a little more space but I don’t think it worked as well. It lacked depth and looked a bit flat. I decided to introduce some stepped layers into the set up and I’m much happier with the result.
Writing about photography in the 1970s and 80s, in the face of the early worldwide impact of computer technologies, Flusser argued that the photograph was the first in a number of technical image forms to have fundamentally changed the way in which the world is seen. Historically, the importance of photography had been that it introduced nothing less than a new epoch: ‘The invention of photography constitutes a break in history that can only be understood in comparison to that other historical break constituted by the invention of linear writing.’
Whereas ideas might previously have been interpreted in terms of their written form, photography heralded new forms of perceptual experience and knowledge. As Flusser Archive Supervisor Claudia Becker describes, “For Flusser, photography is not only a reproductive imaging technology, it is a dominant cultural technique through which reality is constituted and understood”. In this context, Flusser argued that photographs have to be understood in strict separation from ‘pre-technical image forms’. For example, he contrasted them to paintings which he described as images that can be sensibly ‘decoded’, because the viewer is able to interpret what he or she sees as more or less direct signs of what the painter intended. By contrast, even though photography produces images that seem to be ‘faithful reproductions’ of objects and events they cannot be so directly ‘decoded’. The crux of this difference stems, for Flusser, from the fact that photographs are produced through the operations of an apparatus. And the photographic apparatus operates in ways that are not immediately known or shaped by its operator. For example, he described the act of photographing as follows:
The photographer’s gesture as the search for a viewpoint onto a scene takes place within the possibilities offered by the apparatus. The photographer moves within specific categories of space and time regarding the scene: proximity and distance, bird- and worm’s-eye views, frontal- and side-views, short or long exposures, etc. The Gestalt of space–time surrounding the scene is prefigured for the photographer by the categories of his camera. These categories are an a priori for him. He must ‘decide’ within them: he must press the trigger.
Roughly put, the person using a camera might think that they are operating its controls to produce a picture that shows the world the way they want it to be seen, but it is the pre-programmed character of the camera that sets the parameters of this act and it is the apparatus that shapes the meaning of the resulting image. Given the central role of photography to almost all aspects of contemporary life, the programmed character of the photographic apparatus shapes the experience of looking at and interpreting photographs as well as most of the cultural contexts in which we do so.
Flusser developed a lexicon of terms that have proven influential and that continue to be useful for thinking about contemporary photography, digital imaging technologies and their online uses. These include: the ‘apparatus’ (a tool that changes the meaning of the world in contrast to what he calls mechanical tools that work to change the world itself); the ‘functionary’ (the photographer or operator of the camera who is bound by the rules it sets); the ‘programme’ (a ‘system in which chance becomes necessity’ and a game ‘in which every virtuality, even the least probable, will be realized of necessity if the game is played for a sufficiently long time’); the ‘technical image’ (the first example of which is the photograph, with its particular kind of significant surface that looks like a traditional image but harbours encoded and obscure concepts that cannot be ‘immediately’ deciphered). While Flusser did write a number of short essays on the work of specific photographers, his major focus was the critical and philosophical need to understand late 20th-century media culture and the emergent possibilities and threats presented by the larger forces at work in an increasingly technical and automated world. Flusser’s Vampyroteuthis Infernalis has also been interpreted as a fable about photography.