Readings of a photograph: Cognition and Access

paper, specified "short paper"
  1. 1. Vinayak Das Gupta

    Trinity College Dublin

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In the act of interpreting and describing pictures, even in the fundamental process of cognition, there is a strong play of language in the visual field. Critics working in this field have described the same relationship between the word and the image through different phrases: what Foucault refers to as the “seeable” and the “sayable” (1982) is defined by Deleuze as the “display” and the “discourse” (1984) while W.J.T. Mitchell terms as the “showing” and the “telling” (1994). The study of word and image (painting and poetry, literature and the visual arts), their relationship, or the examination of culture using critical devices in each field has been a consistent theme in the literary fields since antiquity. Visuality requires verbal descriptives for interpretation, whether they are spelt out explicitly, or subconsciously attributed in the human mind.

Images, when committed to the digital space, pose new issues regarding cognition. How do we recognise the digital object outside the moment of experiencing it? The digital collection is an assimilation of filenames and to use the digital object, we must first be able to recognise it. An image file may be recognised through the filename extensions (JPEG, TIFF etc.), but to conclusively state that it is the digital image of a photograph cannot be done without first looking at the contents of the digital file. The digital object does not have a tangible form or lineament. Physical photographic artifacts reveal clues to determine different aspects of its source. The different material on which the photographic image is imprinted (glass or paper) can reveal clues towards the origins of the image. Since photography is as much a technological phenomenon as it is fruit of human endeavour, the physical object itself communicates moments of technological change. In the digital medium, however, the photo-ancestry is lost and a new inscription formed. How do we then, perceive the photographic artifact in its computerised form? The question of recognition is central to the argument of reading the digitised image.

How do we, as spectators of the photograph, read the image? The photographic image bears a likeness to its subject (icon) and is a physical extension of it (index). The photograph possesses an evidential force: it cannot be argued that what it captures, through the process of light falling on a photo-sensitive plate, was not there. The readings of a photograph is dependent on the layers of recognition that happen in the process of viewing the image. The recognition of the indexical contiguity is directly related to the spectator’s familiarity of the photographic subject. In the second instance, all images demand a recognition of purpose: this purpose can be the photographer’s own, or it could be one that the photograph creates for itself -- a new life for its subject. The photograph can only depict history in a bounded frame: it is unable to speak. Thus the recognition of purpose of the image provides readings into the contextual framework within which the image is placed. Slaughter Ghat, Cawnpore (BL, Photo 193/20) presents us with a topographical space -- a river bank where several small shrines border upon a lower mud shelf above the river, on the banks of which are tethered two country boats. The intention of the photograph is not to portray a simple country scene (though it might) but to draw our attention to the site of a brutal massacre where hundreds of British refugees were fired upon and killed by rebelling forces in India. The purpose, then, becomes an instrument in the reading of the photograph. Re-enforcing this view, John Berger (1972: 10) writes:

"Every image embodies a way of seeing. Even a photograph. For photographs are not, as is often assumed, a mechanical record. Every time we look at a photograph, we are aware, however slightly, of the photographer selecting that sight from the infinity of other possible sights."

The third and final instance is that of a recognition of source and this is of significant importance for the archival image. The little that we can articulate about the photographic image is derived from an understanding of the history of the object (the physical photograph). How we proceed to classify the image, place it within numerous other photographs is dependent on how we recognise the photographer, the period, the photographic plate and the photographic process. The history of the object is vital in our attempts to place it within the structures of a digital collection.

The naked digital artifact is wrapped in an envelope of tags and markers in an attempt to locate and describe the object. The categories described within the catalogue are translated in the digital medium as metadata. Metadata standards establish a common understanding of meaning or semantics of data. This aids proper use and interpretation of the data by its owners and users. My paper will explore the formation of metdata through the analysis (a combination of statistical and close-reading) of a body of annotated photographs. I propose to demonstrate means of extracting meaningful metadata which addresses the theoretical issues stated above, in order to place them within established, standardised formats. I will also demonstrate new methods of visualising large image collection through the use of this form of analysis. While my paper will focus on early photography from colonial India (1850-1900), the scalability of such a project will also be a point of consideration in this paper.

Berger, John (1971). Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corp. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles (1984). Kant’s Critical Philosophy: The Doctrine of the Faculties. University of Minnesota Press

Foucault, Michel (1982). ‘The Subject and Power’, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Summer, 1982). London: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 777-795

Gitelman, Lisa (2006). Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Mitchell, W.J.T. (1994) Picture Theory. London: The University of Chicago Press

Peirce, Charles S. (1940) ‘Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs’, Philosophical Writings of Peirce. Edited by Justus Buchler (New York: Dover, 1955)

The issue of committing to the digital sphere brings to mind the question of virtual inscription. While we are acutely aware of the way the photographic image is inscribed, digital inscription moves in more mysterious ways. Lisa Gitelman writes: “I have tended to chalk this up to the difference between the virtual and the real, without stopping to ponder what virtual inscriptions ... could possibly be. Like the mysteries surrounding the inscription of recorded sound onto surfaces of tinfoil and then wax at the end of the nineteenth century, the mysteries surrounding the virtual inscription of digital documents are part of the ongoing definition of these new media in and as they relate to history.” (2006: 19)

The term index (devised by the American philosopher Charles S. Peirce) is often used to describe this quality of causal contiguity. Peirce distinguished indexes from icons and symbols, writing that the index ‘refers to the Object that it denotes by virtue of being really affected by that Object’ For more see, Peirce (1955 :102)

The identification of purpose lies outside the photographic frames, through there may be visual clues within the image. The purpose determines the context.

Amongst collectors, identifying the first (existing) print from the negative is of importance, for value as an object of collection lies, ironically, in the ‘uniqueness’ of the first print. With digital reproductions, it is more difficult to ascertain the lineage of the original photograph.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2014
"Digital Cultural Empowerment"

Hosted at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Université de Lausanne

Lausanne, Switzerland

July 7, 2014 - July 12, 2014

377 works by 898 authors indexed

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Attendance: 750 delegates according to Nyhan 2016

Series: ADHO (9)

Organizers: ADHO