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Photography, Automatism, Mechanicity by Charles Palermo

In art, philology, photography on July 30, 2014 at 16:38

From: Photography, Automatism, Mechanicity by Charles Palermo, NONSITE, http://nonsite.org

Since photography’s beginnings, descriptions of photography have emphasized its mechanical character—the fact that it makes images without the kinds of human actions, such as drawing, traditionally associated with image making.  Philosophical objections to calling photographs signs or representations continue to center on this feature of photography.  Increasingly, as photography has gained wider acceptance as a medium for artistic work, the photographic image’s independence from certain kinds of action traditionally associated with image making has come to seem less like a liability or source of doubt and more like a source of artistic value for the medium.  Either way, and without forgetting the variety of work that can be accomplished with photographic materials and processes, we can speak of pictures made photographically—images of the world made in cameras—as having been made mechanically.  In this sense, “mechanically” clearly means something like “with a machine.”

Of course, cameras do not work purely mechanically.  The operator always plays a role in photography.  Photographs require human agency.  Further, agency has always been understood to depend on the agent’s intention.  That is, we generally exclude from discussions of agency those acts performed (or events precipitated) unintentionally.  If I leave a Polaroid camera on a windowsill, and a breeze from the open window causes the curtain to billow, and the billowing drapery knocks the camera to the floor, and the resulting jolt actuates the shutter causing the camera to make a picture, we may call the result a photograph, but a generally accepted account of agency will stop short of calling the making of the photograph an act.  That is because the act I did perform—setting the camera on the windowsill—cannot be understood (on the account I’ve given) as comprehending anything we could call my intention to take a photograph.  Much less this photograph, the one the Polaroid actually ejected after the fall.

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Reposted with permission from: NONSITE.org

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