Sunday, April 1, 2012

W.J.T. Mitchell at MOCP

On March 20th, the Museum of Contemporary Photography hosted iconology scholar W.J.T. Mitchell for a lecture on digital and analog photography. According to Mitchell, who teaches both English and Art History at the University of Chicago, digital photography enables depictions of reality that expand both “the potential scope of photographic truth-claims along with the potential for lying.”

The big question asked was, "With its increased ability for manipulation, does digital photography depict reality as well as its predecessor, analog photography?" At first sight, the immediacy and relevancy of digital seems to have the upperhand. Part of Mitchell's slideshow lecture took still images from the first Matrix film and Jurassic Park to demonstrate his point.

Beneath reality, or what appears as corporeal flatness, exists the digital elements. The parts make up the sum. In Mitchell's first slide, Neo's final realization in the Matrix led him to see that the agents were nothing more than data comprised of zeroes and ones. They all moved in a malleable and virtual world. The second slide was a split second screen capture of a scene in Jurassic Park. The raptor, stalking past a video projector, triggered the projector to play. The park's informational video ran and a particular segment overlayed a DNA code animation over the raptor as it passed by. This was one of Mitchell's more overt examples in which the oft unseen interior is reflected in the exterior. Analog and digital continually layer and relayer and obfuscate the perceived reality. In sum, Mitchell is trying to show that despite advocates of digital, "limits" still exist in new technology.

This is why new DSLR bodies continually are replaced with "better" equipment. Prone to obsolescence, achieving such a perfection in technology and image production is impossible. Mitchell's resting point was that digital and analog form an inseparable and intrinisic utility to image making. Digital, as the illusory, is just as important as the reality, or analog. Digital and analog photography can occupy both realms interchangeably (e.g. Scanned film images vs. printed digital images & film grain vs. dot pixels). If reality is indeed confined to representations through parts and digits, truth in photography (or possibly any art form) can never achieved.  

Several patrons asserted that the medium the image is captured on shouldn't matter. Nowadays, with so many forms of dissemination, the image has almost transcended the image-making barrier,  creating its own metalanguage. Camera phones, applications, and other technology outfitted with lenses exist to shape a haphazard but almost a clear timeline. But does the image that takes into account its own virality or its iconicism hinge on its production method? Not necessarily.  Mitchell showed that even with the supremacy of time stamping in digital images, the analog process can never really be replaced. Although the means of production have changed, the same end result via analog or digital have always been achieved. The work simply moves at a different pace, but the visual consciousness is still affected. 

In his concluding remarks relating to the present and project future, Mitchell stated that digital, though seemingly progressive, will never replace analog. Mitchell challenges conventional thinking to conceive pictures and all media as image-texts, each holding within themselves completely absent, invisible, and inaudible dialogue of  different codes, discursive conventions, channels, sensory and cognitive modes. From what I gathered, it is about what the user or artist, and what he or she knows to best utilize to represent their reality, or at least their experience of the verbal and visual narrative. The question needs to be steered away from what one uses in photography, but how one uses their chosen tools.  


  1. Deep. I think for the purposes of Art, digital vs analog is personal preference.

    However, for industry or documentation purposes. Meaning, I need to document every significant moment of a sequence of events, then digital clearly wins.

    1. Absolutely true. Purpose/intent needs to be clarified. I think a big part of why people were caught up on particular sides of the argument was because of forgetting the specific utility of digital and analog. Otherwise, Mitchell did a fair job of pointing out pros and cons of both, but ultimately seemed to settle in between.