Philosophy and Post-Industrial Opium Dens – Vilém Flusser

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I love this quote, for all sorts of reasons.

‘Amateur photographers’ clubs are places where one gets high on the structural complexities of cameras, where one goes on a photograph-trip – post-industrial Opium Dens’. (pg. 58).

Firstly, I am not personally a fan of the kind of nit-picking attention to technical detail in photographs that can become symptomatic in competitions and distinctions. But I not only approve of but whole-heartedly encourage any method of improving one’s own photographic understanding and practice. I don’t think there is any one true path to great photography (or art, for that matter). Each to his or her own, whether it be practice, theoretical study or seeking external qualifications.

Beyond this, Vilém Flusser‘s quote seems to pull together rather well some of the main themes in his book, Towards a Philosophy of Photography (1983).

Let’s unpack his ideas. Flusser suggests that the basic concepts of photography are image, apparatus, program and information.

This is not just from the viewpoint of, e.g., the technical programs inside a camera or the chemistry of development. It is also in the ways that society is programmed to use photography – advertising, politics – and even to provide feedback for camera manufacturers, sitting in their own ‘industrial apparatus’.

He defines a photograph as:

‘.. an image created and distributed automatically by programmed apparatus in the course of a game necessarily based on chance, an image of a magic state of things whose symbols inform its receivers how to act in an improbable fashion’. (pg. 76).

Why magic? Well:

‘The space and time peculiar to the image is none other than the world of magic, a world in which everything is repeated and in which everything participates in a significant context. Such a world is structurally different from that of the linear world of history in which nothing is repeated and in which everything has causes and will have consequences.

For example: In the historical world, sun rise is the cause of the cock’s crowing; in the magical one, sunrise signifies crowing and crowing signifies sunrise. The significance of images is magical’. (pg. 9).

Flusser likens taking photographs to playing, a view I have much sympathy with. Yet it is not, e.g. like playing chess. (pg. 78). Chess has simple rules, but is a complex game to master. Photography has complex technology, but it is easy to take photographs – not necessarily all good ones, of course.

‘Almost everyone today has a camera and takes snaps. Just as almost everyone has learned to write and produce texts. Anyone who is able to write can also read. But anyone who can take snaps does not necessarily have to be able to decode photographs’. (pg. 57).

I do however find Flusser’s use of the word apparatus (and its definition) a bit loose as it can suggest many meanings. Still, to seems more appropriate to our everyday practice of photography than defining it by, e.g., camera type or even genre-based projects.

Every camera is programmed in certain ways, and these days, defined by its software. Hence, at the level of a device, the camera is ‘forcing’ how we take photos. yet, early in the book, Flusser writes of nested apparatus … industrial-military, socio-cultural, and so forth, which all impinge on the development, programming and use of a camera. In other words, the apparatus is not a single device, but a system, which impacts both the camera itself and the way the photographer uses it.

Flusser writes that the act (or gesture) of photography is the merging of photographer and camera in the act of hunting. (pg. 39).  If so, then the apparatus which actually ‘takes’ the photograph cannot simply be a programmed ‘technical’ device.

The act of photography is like going on a hunt in which photographer and camera merge into one indivisible function. This is a hunt for new states of things, situations never seen before, for the improbable, for information. The structure of the act of photography is a quantum one: a doubt made up of points of hesitation and points of decision-making‘. (pg. 39).

Drawing quite heavily from Walter Benjamin, in turn influenced by Karl Marx, Flusser confirms that we all bring our personal, social, political, cultural context to the table when we take pictures. Our interests and or our ideologies are thus involved. So, whilst he argues that the camera technology is neutral, in practical terms the way that it is used is not. And neither are the results. There seems to be some common ground here with Barthes, who described Studium as arising when we view a photograph because of our individual interests.

Thus, even using his own analysis, it is easy to disagree with Flusser when he writes:

The photographer’s choice is quantitative not qualitative’. (pg. 38).

If apparatus means a device, constructed and pre-programmed in a certain way, then that would be true. But, when apparatus includes everything involved in taking, processing and distributing a photograph, including the photographer, that is not true. Photography is both quantitative and qualitative.

Whichever choice we make in defining apparatus, the camera (or its system) does not have individual free will – we do. The complexity of photography is thus, in essence, within the photographer’s intentions.

‘ … photographs are concepts encoded as states of things, including photographers’ concepts …

This gives photography critics the task of decoding these two interweaving codes in any photograph. Photographers encode their concepts as photographic images so as to give others information, so as to produce models for them and thereby to become immortal in the memory of others. The camera [technologically] encodes the concepts programmed into it as images in order to program society to act as a feedback mechanism in the interests of progressive camera improvement.

If photographic criticism succeeds in unravelling these two intentions of photographs, then the photographic messages will be decoded. If photography critics do not succeed in this task, photographs remain undecoded and appear to be representations of states of things in the world out there, just as if they reflected ‘themselves’ onto a surface. (pg. 48)

That’s a thread that I am not sure Flusser totally explores. If a photograph remains decoded solely as a factual representation of what is there, then much potential meaning is lost.

The notion of ‘surface‘ is also fundamental to Flusser. Photographs:

‘ … are not windows but images, i.e. surfaces that translate everything into states of things; like all images, they have a magical effect; and they entice those receiving them to project this undecoded magic onto the world out there. (pg. 16).

Given the idea that a photograph is a surface, it can be viewed (and used / consumed) in myriad ways.

Flusser introduces the idea of channels as part of the distribution apparatus to use (consume) images – and notes that a photograph can change meaning depending on the channel in which it is distributed.

‘The photograph of the moon landing, for example, can slip from an astronomy journal to a U.S. consulate, from there onto an advertising poster for cigarettes and from there finally into an art exhibition.

The essential thing is that the photograph, with each switch-over to another channel, takes on a new significance: The scientific significance crosses over into the political, the political into the commercial, the commercial into the artistic.

In this respect, the division of photographs into channels is in no way simply a mechanical process but rather an encoding one: The distribution apparatuses impregnate the photograph with the decisive significance for its reception. (pg. 54).

So, thank you, Gary McLeod. I can now very clearly see where your MA Module ‘Surfaces and Strategies’ is philosophically rooted.

‘ …  photographers … play with symbols; they are active in the ‘tertiary sector’, interested in information; they create things without [physical] value. In spite of this they consider their activity to be anything but absurd and think that they are acting freely’. (pg. 80).

Flusser is interested in the idea of human freedom, the demonstration (and proof) that we have free will in what we do and how we do it, a perennial pre-occupation of philosophers, back to Socrates and before.

Flusser’s contribution to this conversation is that photographers can do four things to demonstrate this freedom:

‘First, one can outwit the camera’s [programmed] rigidity.

Second, one can smuggle human intentions into its program that are not predicted by it.

Third, one can force the camera to create the unpredictable, the improbable, the informative.

Fourth, one can show contempt for the camera and its creations and turn one’s interest away from the thing in general in order to concentrate on information’. (pg. 80).

Mick Yates. 2018. Apparatus of Photography.

So, back to the Opium Den.

Camera Clubs create photographic community, education and more. And competition is good for us all. Yet how often do we hear the critiques ‘the foot has been chopped off, one eye is not sharp, the printing is banded’ and so on, before we consider the image and its full encoding.

We all strive to make images that are technically decent (don’t we?), handling our apparatuses as best we can. However a cursory glance at Cartier-Bresson’s work often shows less-than-perfect focus, which, given his Leica optics might not be totally acceptable in a competition.

Cartier-Besson’s images, however,  stand the test of intentionality. Of story telling. of communicating emotion, drama, news, life. And, yes, conveying information.

Flusser’s ‘Opium Den’ comment is a variant on ‘don’t drink the Kool Aid’ – but specifically for photographers.

He didn’t just leave it there, though. Flusser also suggested some practical ways for us to escape these traps.

I’ll leave the last words to him:

‘ … experimental photo graphers .. are conscious that image, apparatus, program and information are the basic problems that they have to come to terms with. They are in fact consciously attempting to create unpredictable information, i.e. to release themselves from the camera, and to place within the image something that is not in its program.

They know they are playing against the camera. (pg. 81). And to do that, they need to have at least some knowledge of the apparatus, technical and otherwise.


Opium Pipes, private collection. iPhone 8Plus.

FLUSSER, Vilém. 1983. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. 2000 Edition. London: Reaktion Books.

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