An Open Letter to All Photographers
Posted by Luigi Cassinelli on December 31 2016.
Copyright © 2016 by Luigi Cassinelli. All rights reserved.
Technology is Inadequate without Ethics: the Case of Photography
Photography was born when inventors succeeded in permanently
recording the interaction between light and matter; so why does almost everyone in the arts,
publishing industry, and education community call a mutant entity, a photograph?
I have no reason to be for or against any technology.
Technology is a means to an end; indeed, the essence and the limits of each technology
should be understood before choices are made.
about photography have been addressed superficially, even ignored,
since the advent of digital coding; actually,
misconceptions are still lingering since the birth of the photography.
To erase any ambiguity, theories and reflections on photography should be grounded
in the understanding of its complete
Let's examine three objects. A film negative, a photographic print,
and a digital file stored in a flash card and visualized on a monitor.
Let's suppose that they all depict what one might call "the same image," for example a young
woman wearing a black dress. In spite of what they depict, the three objects have
1. The structure of the film negative is generated by the passage
of the light reflected by the environment (the young woman), as selected by the photographer,
through silver halide. Such interaction is recorded permanently, in the whole frame as
in parts of it. The defining feature for the film negative is that it offers the spectator
a trace of a unique light, the one faced by the photographer at the time of his or her
decision to record.
2. The physical composition of the emulsion on the photographic
print is similar to what is recorded on film, but with a fundamental difference.
The trace of light we observe is not generated by one direct emanation from the environment;
what we observe is the trace of the enlarger lamp. When compared to the experience that
generated the latent image on film, prints are generated in different time, in a different
space, under different conditions, and not necessarily by the photographer.
3. On a flash card, there is no physical trace of light, only digital files.
Since we can't observe the status of a semiconductor with our eyes, the analogy with an
abacus might help. A digital file has a similar essence of an abacus; they are both
designed for transient status. They are temporary, mutant entities, where the
term "original" has no role. Digital files and abacuses are both instructed to change their status for
computing purposes and they both have no memory of their precedent status (i.e. "01"
happened before or after "10?" is a question that makes no sense). Digital files display what software
instructed and the resulting image is a configured one, not one recorded by light itself.
Let's consider a file capable of rendering a matrix made of millions of pixels.
Every single pixel is instructed and independent from the other millions (the condition
for imaging software to work). Conversely, in a developed film of silver halide, each grain is physical
and permanently bound to the others.
4. The last observation regards sensors and digital cameras.
Digital cameras are computers that perform analog to digital conversions according to software;
specifically, the signals of light that sensors detect are translated into digital files, and then discarded.
The only output of a digital camera is a code, and by doing so any physical contact with light
is severed. Such a process is not photographic; so digital cameras are not photographic cameras.
In simple terms, digital cameras produce a guess
of what photographs might have looked like.
Reflections and Questions
1. Photography was invented with the purpose of allowing light
itself to record what we selected with our cameras; the purpose was not a record written
by us (like in the camera lucida, where the pencil moved by our hand was ultimately drawing an
image). This condition, poles apart from anything else in the visual realm, is the one that defines
photographic technology. Photography is not defined by the use of cameras, no matter how
"advanced" they might be (Leonardo Da Vinci built a camera, but this
fact didn't make him a photographer). Photography is defined by light, and photographers observe light and
record their observations with light; they don't create codes, drawings, and illustrations.
Light and silver halide are the essential conditions for photographic technology to exist.
interaction between light and matter brings also pictorial effects: different emulsions
have different grains; different developers affect final contrast; latent images can be
developed in negative or positive form. So the pictorial characteristics of these traces of light
might differ, according to photographers' sensibilities, but it's in the genesis of each
latent image that we find what is unique about photography. Authentic photographs own
the existential essence of photography, the unique moment where matter (silver halide)
and the light reflected by (or radiated from) our selection of the environment connect
and form a permanent record.
2. Photographic printing technique, born after the invention of
photography, was designed to produce prints, reproductions of photographs.
Photographs and prints are works of art and craft, but they demand different skills,
for they record different photons. Each photographic print can be unique, when the
reproduction is not mechanical (like in other printing techniques), but we shouldn't
confuse prints with photographs. Photographic prints are meant for display and offer
the opportunity to add pictorial effects not present in the film negative. That's why
prints, no matter how visually compelling, don't necessarily display the photographer's
3. Any .tif .jpg .raw is configured, again and again, without leaving a trace.
Digital files hold no trace of time and space, and they can't be linked to a real experience,
but what the software operator has instructed. We should raise questions about who are
their fabricators and if copyright can be assigned to an entity that, by design, has no
originality. Binary codes and the natural phenomenon of the interaction between
light and matter deliver disparate technologies: one designed to be mutant, the other
to be permanent. "Digital photography" is an oxymoron, since something cannot be permanent
and mutant at the same time. Digital cameras are new, brilliant devices that haven't been
given a correct, new name. This is the critical point that I believe has been overlooked for the
last 50 years and that led to error and to the current ambiguity in the visual realm.
Digital images might produce quite realistic effects. A matrix of pixels on our phone
might show a realistic picture of what we recall we just saw; still, where is the trace
of real light? So the question is: What is the purpose of our actions? All we want is a picture lit up with pixels?
That's it? Well, we don't need digital cameras to produce digital images. We can configure
pixels by using software alone. If "bestshotever.jpg" is the goal, we don't need
photographers, any environment at all, and real light. Ask animation companies; they
make movies with software. They might need celebrities; certainly, they don't need actors.
The media industry always evaluates whether it is cheaper to produce photoshoots or to use just software. So when we
look at magazine covers, we should ask ourselves, "Did this ever exist?"
The answer to this question could be frank with correct semantics and one, unequivocal
code of ethics. Digital technology
helps photographers to reproduce originals with precise rendering, by scanning our
originals and publishing, without retouching, the scans on our websites, but we shouldn't forget
what technology cannot deliver. We must vow
that the digital files we publish are consistent with the physical,
original photographs stored in our archives. We should also assess the term "digital photography"
as a deceiving one, because it fosters ambiguity and manipulation.
The Ethical Solution
Believing that a photograph could be recorded with a mutant medium is
more than a mistake. It allows identity theft and it creates pervasive misconceptions. On this account,
I disagree with authors and critics who affirm that photography has entered an evolutionary
phase with the use of semiconductors. Surely, digital technology will always offer new tools
for the display of authentic photographic work, but it will never be able to replace it and
it should not displace it. The current displacement of true photographic records with virtual
simulations reveals the conceptual mistake that occurs when we swap models for reality. Mathematicians call it
Image makers need not
worry about silver halide, but photographers still need it for their observations;
photographers read light and record with light, not binary codes. Choosing photographic
film it's not just about the "feel" of it; it means more than another way to create pictures.
Authentic photographs exhibit how we interact, observe, and decide, in a specific instant,
in an undetermined environment (not in the cozy darkroom or in front of a monitor).
I believe a new reflection on the essence of photography will result in significant
developments in the field of contemporary art. Photography offers a momentous opportunity,
one that allows us to create works of art that explore human consciousness within the dynamic
of reality, a critical topic in the science of mind. The essence of photography can be
understood solely through a complete experience, one which values empirical, intellectual,
emotional, and motivational forces. Photography is actually a recent technology;
we should assess its full potential, and not get distracted by marketing decoys.
We are photographers, let's not relinquish our knowledge of real light.
We must assess the essence of photography within its link with reality. Nobody is
free from this call. An ethical code, shared and honored by photographers, is the only
solution to our reason to exist and our credibility.
My proposal, the Materia et Lumen Code of Honor, is a starting point.
With your help we can improve it. Join reality. Join ThePhotographers.org
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Cassinelli, Luigi. The Photographer's Choice. Materia et Lumen, 2015.
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Mulas, Ugo. La Fotografia. Torino: Einaudi, 1973.
Newhall, Beaumont. The History of Photography. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1982.
Trachtenberg, Alan. Classic Essays on Photography. New Haven: Leete's Island Books, 1980.