Perception: the Analogue, the Digital and the Eye

mickyatesBooks, ContextualResearch, Coursework, Critical Research Journal, Digital, Film, Ideas, Philosophy, Photography, Science, Software, SPWeek3, Sustainable Prospects 3 Comments

I am re-visiting a brief conversation that I had last module with Stella Baraklianou, driven by a certain deja-vu in a couple of books I am reading, as part of this module.

This post revolves around the distinction between the analogue and the digital in photography, and how that impacts our view of the medium as indexical and representational.

Rubinstein & Sluis, in Lister’s The Photographic Image in Digital Culture, write that Descartes was largely responsible for our modern view that rationality is key to our definition of representation, rather than aesthetics or phenomenology. I would comment that is a logical outcome of Descartes’ thinking on mind/body duality.

They also note that Heidegger suggested that science is based on our ability to transform truth ‘into the certainty of representation‘. (Heidegger, 1977, pg 127).

Representation therefore is a concept of importance beyond photography.

In discussing representation, Rubinstein and Sluis go on to make the case that digital imaging fundamentally transforms what photography represents, compared with analogue forbears.

‘When software and image collide the result is not just a different, processual image, but also a paradigm shift with implications for thinking about the ontological link between representation, memory, time and identity’. (Daniel Rubinstein & Katrina Sluis. Lister, 2013, pg 25)

Essentially the argument hinges on the computational step between light capture (on the sensor) and delivery of an image for human viewing. By contrast, the argument goes, in analogue photography light directly impacts the emulsion or other light-sensitive surface, and the image is fixed, without such intermediate computation.

And them, of course, once digitally encoded, any representation can be manipulated. That part is easy to agree with – though so can scanned prints. It’s just a question of degree not an absolute difference in potentiality.

It’s important to note that the steps in the analogue process are more than might at first meet the eye (pardon the pun). For example, without a postal service, the democratisation of film photography was not likely to happen as easily, as pointed out by Lister. Thus all forms of photography are socio-technical systems. (Lister, pg 5)

Back to the basic debate. It would seem to me that a computational step was present in analogue photography (and still is). It is the human brain that was the computer, from the time of Fox Talbot and Daguerre. These inventors experimented to decide on the right mix of chemicals in the emulsion, and the processes of development, to create images which best approximate what humans actually see (or think they see). Yes, laying down light sensitive papers will get some kind of light-fixing, but the human brain was part of the creation of that paper to define what it might best approximate and under what conditions it does so.

Humans are also behind the development of the multiples steps of the digital process – clearly more steps than the analogue one. And these days we rely on computerised assistance and AI. In that sense digital has multiple possibilities and many more steps by which it represents (or misrepresents) truth.

Rubinstein & Sluis argue that

… the algorithmic process [as the digital image is created for human consumption – my comment] undermines the iconicity of the image by breaking the causal relation between the representation and the thing represented …‘ (Lister, pg 34).

Yet the idea that somehow analogue is more inherently indexical strikes me as odd. Film is indexical because ‘we’ designed a process that is indexical, not because silver is more indexical than silicon. For example, in both cases, analogue and digital, it was humans (with their computers of the day) that calculated how to create and ‘fix’ colours that best approximate how the brain ‘pictures’ things.

We now accurately use wavelength of light to understand, measure, and reproduce colours. Thus, arguably digital can be more accurate than analogue ever could be in showing the colours as the human eye and brain interprets them.

Intriguingly, Bate, also in Lister’s volume, notes that:

‘… it is indeed striking that no new metaphor has really appeared to replace this old metaphor of photographic vision as the human eye, even though the new ‘digital eye’ liberalises that idea, with the possibility of extraordinarily multiple non-human viewpoints, limited only by the imagination of the viewer …’ (Lister, pg 81)

In that same essay, Bate commented that the binary debate of ‘analogue versus digital’ is misleading. Analogue came (and still comes) in multiple technological and social forms. And both analogue and digital suffer form the same ontological debate about their basic ability to represent reality. Indeed, Barthes’ comment that an image is a ‘message without a code‘ (1977, pg 19) predates digital and neatly encompasses the issue. Bate does note, however, that whilst digital photographs do show continuity with analogue ones, the way we create and consume digital images (networked, on screens, e.g) suggests new notions of what photography is and can be. (Lister, pg 91)

When I was completing my first degree, many moons past, I wrote a final dissertation on the ‘architect’s problem’, drawing on Nelson Goodman’s work. This utilised a series of logical ‘well formed functions’ which allow us to trace probability, accuracy and actionability in the process of moving from an artist’s sketch, to a site blueprint, to detailed sub-system blueprints, to the building of an actual house. Humans have developed constructs of all kinds to turn ideas into things, and we have processes which allow us to do that in ever more sophisticated forms. Photography is just another example of that.

So, is photography more indexical than an architect’s sketch? In the sense that photography records what was there, yes it is – whilst the sketch illustrates what will be there. This applies to single photographs as well as more complex digital constructions featured images taken over time, virtual reality and the like.

So photography can be past-indexical, which is largely where our core ideas of photography as representational of a moment in time come from.  But if the blueprints are not indexical, what will be created just will not work! A blueprint is future-indexical.

This takes me to the conversation with Stella. These extracts from me:

‘ … digital photography is actually more akin to the way human sight works – rods, cones, the continuous electrical impulses of neurotransmitters – than analog, chemical photography, which relies on a ‘fixing’ reaction …

The biggest difference of course is that we humans record / see continuous high-resolution ‘video’ not stills. Our brain actually cuts out some of this ‘digital’ video feed as it cannot cope with the full information load in real time.

‘ … as chemistry can ultimately be reduced to physics .. [is] digital our ‘current best technical approximation’ for human eyesight, rather than chemical, analog processes?’

Stella responded that we must take into account the phenomenological aspects of the process of sight, and cautioned about using the ‘digital/eyesight’ analogy. I would counter that the phenomenological aspects apply to ‘seeing’ all kinds of representation – analogue, digital, paintings and sketches.

Digital also has other meanings. We are now having to come to terms with ‘the networked image’ – images being created, propagated, viewed, reused and abused across multiple digital and non digital platforms. Rubinstein & Sluis almost imply that a digital image looses twice – first, in not being as indexical as an analogue one. And second, because it is now propagated in new ways which reduce its indexicality even further.

Frege (and then Wittgenstein) would suggest that the context of viewing a word or an image is fundamental. Thus, whilst the networked image subverts traditional views of time, ownership and, perhaps most importantly, value, it can also create new value via this context. Immersive graphical environments can educate and drive new actions, in ways that single images find it hard to do.

So, is a networked image more or less valuable than a non-networked one? There is a debate on Falmouth’s Canvas around Instagram, which reflects that very issue. To share or not to share, where’s the value? This of course refers to the inexorable technological networking of our world rather than the means of image production.

There does still seem to be some confusion out there between the digital mode of image production, the manipulability of images created digitally (included by scanning), and the digital propagation of images – all in the context of what is now often referred to as ‘digital culture’. Worthy of further research, summed up by a comment from Katrina Sluis in a 2018 interview:

‘There is therefore a real need to create opportunities to escape our institutional silos and find ways of bringing commercial technologists, photographers, artists, scholars and our audiences into a productive dialogue. The challenge for both culturalists and technologists is to treat ‘the digital’ not as simply a tool but as a culture’.

In the meantime, I do stand by the idea that digital is more like the process of human sight (and thus representation) than analogue.

Debate, anyone?


Barthes, Roland. 1977. Image-Music-Text. London: Fontana.

Geach, Peter & Black, Max. 1960 (2nd ed.). Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege. Oxford: Blackwell.

Goodman, Nelson. 1968, revised 1976. Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Heidegger, M. 1977 (W. Lovitt translation). The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. New York: Harper & Row. Also available at 7/10/2018).

Kenny, A. 1968. Descartes: A Study of his Philosophy. New York: Random House.

Lister, P M, (Ed.). 2013 (2nd ed.). The Photographic Image in Digital Culture. London: Routledge.

Sluis, Katrina. 2018. 1000 Words Interview with Lewis Bush. Available at (Accessed 7/10/2018).

Smith, David Woodruff. 2018. Phenomenology: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Available at: (Accessed 7/10/2018).

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1922. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. London: Kegan Paul.

Comments 3

  1. Pingback: The Photograph as Contemporary Art | Yatesweb

  2. Pingback: Week Three Reflections | Yatesweb

  3. Pingback: A Conversation | Yatesweb

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *