Paradoxes of Image in Digital Era

Text first published in: „12th International Digital Photo Competition”. Częstochowa 2009.

In the Treatise on the Visual Image Zbigniew Rybczyński writes, which may seem only a spectacular rhetorical phrase, but in my opinion is not, that “both intellectually and technically we have reached a point in which the condition of vision may well be compared to the condition of writing before the invention of print”(1). It happened that I commented upon the treatise, so I would like to repeat something I have written already: “However, the greatest visionaries, thinkers and artist should not be denied the right  to express opinions that seem exaggerated today but which may be positively verified by the reality very soon”(2). When for the first time I was reading a concise summary of several years of work, experiences and reflections of Tango’s author, I was unceasingly accompanied by a feeling that I know it all, that somebody formulates obvious truths. But the next minute I realized that one must have an unprecedented certainly of his own convictions, supported by years of experience, to be able to, apparently in such a simple way, express what many think but only for few is obvious, because in this case clear and complete thinking what the image is and how it should be distinguished, supported by years of reflections, practice and experiments.

So in the times of, as it commonly considered, the iconic revolution connected with the digital breakthrough in creation, postproduction and dissemination of images, could one say that the image (and imaging) is waiting for a turning point in discovery (discoveries), which will radically change its future? Isn’t it a kind of usurpation to be conviced that all that happened in connection with common digitalization of images is only the introduction to an actual breakthrough that should be done? Rybczyński writes, which is the next paradox, that in the scope of image using as a vehicle/medium for our imagination and for our thoughts we should return to the situation before invention of technical images, i.e. to pre-photographic era. The artist and theoretician distinguish three types of images: informational images (those recorded by human eyes), mental images (produced by human imagination) and symbolic images (those created by man using media – painting, cinematic, television, video and computer images). Mental images had prevailed in symbolic images untill the moment that technical images were invented (in this context photography should be treated as a breakthrough moment), but after the technological revolution connected with the emergence of phptography, the first medium mechanicaly “intermediating” the reality, the informational images stared to prevail in symbolic images. What then could the present the cause of digital revolution or where could it lead? The answer is as follows: to the situation where the mental, imaginative image, which is not so much consistent with the reproductive function of technical appliances as true to our mental, imaginative ways of reality perception, will start to prevail again in the symbolic images. And this is the basic task for digital technologies of image creation.


Boris Groys writes: “The modern artwork positioned itself as a paradox-object [...] – as an image and as a critique of the image at the same time”(3). Isn’t a great characteristic of digital image? Digital images contain a great potential  of paradox: they are images but simultaneously they are not anymore. Not only in a traditional understanding of what the image is – a copy, reproduction, record, reference analogon, reflection, “imprint”, “casting” of reality. The other things is that we continously ask what is the reality and if it still exist. Do the cameras, in particular the digital ones, prove to be  helpful in any way to verify the existence of reality, or maybe just contrarily – they are the tools establishing that reality does not exist? No matter how paradoxical it sounds, we must always remember that for many theoreticians the “newness” of new images consists in their ontology, which is radically different from the traditional one, makes us doubt whether they may be still considered as images or rather exlusively as the symptoms and effects of algorithmic processes. It was expressed cleary by Alain Renaud: “New images are as a drink of a famous brand even if they are colourful or use ‘previous’ images, even if they present themselves in the form of screen images they are not, stating forcibly, images anymore! They come from a completely new visual order, connected with the other types of cultural order”(4).

A digital image, as a post-image or meta-image, has a dual nature: on the one hand it tells about itself, and on the other hand, simultaneously, it tells unceasingly about images and imaging in general. It is like a holographic image (not digital yet), and we can see the entirely in each tiny element of it. So nowdays we can consider that each individual pixel, the smallest element forming an electronic image, is the basic component of its visual texture. At present the digital images, as a composite entirety, are created just on the level of a pixel, or in other case (e. g. 3D graphics) on the level of voxel. Nota bene the development of various 3D imaging technologies is one of the consequences of the commonly advancing digitalization of the image world, and the latest tendencies in the field of movies and 3D cinemas  are examples of this phenomena.

The odyssey of image in the digital era continues and other breakthrougs and turning points are announced from time to time. The theoreticians argue about “the future of images” in era of simulation and domination of computer tools serving for image creation, modifications and distribution. If we considere that the present world should be identified with the image (let us recall Heidegger’s “world image”), then the play of reality and its image is, in a sense, a game consisting in the infinite practice of mirror reflections, in which the copies of copies are reproduced and multiplied. However, as Jacques Ranciere notices sensibly, “If there is now nothing but images, there is nothing other than the image. And if there is nothing other than the image, the very notion of the image becomes devoid of content. Several contemporary authors thus contrast the Image, which refers to an Other, and the Visual, which refers to nothing but itself”(5). The disapperance of an image may seem to be another paradox of our times, but it may be only apparent, because if we talk not only about the “world images”, but about the electronically created, digital “image worlds”, then the disappearing of image, its vanishing in reality (or discreet “replacement” of reality with images) remains, in a sense, unnoticed. 


Some claim that the digital image is not any radical novum, it is only the next stage on the road, which was commenced  when the first pictorial  representations appeared. Others will say that the digital image is so radically different from its older, analogue predecessors, that it cannot be called an image. The science about the image must try to balance between those two extremities. Perhaps the authors of photographic, cinematic, painting and computer images regard such divagations as useless theoretical ballast, having no connetions with their everyday practice. Although it may seem a kind of conscious abstracting from real and important questions, which force one to formulate or reformulate the assumptions guiding the work of image authors – artists and sometimes only skillful craftsmen, or millions amateurs taking billions of pictures every day with cameras (of course gigital cameras, although more and more often they are an integral part of a phone or iPhone). They do not have to deal with the problems of digital images and have no doubts if that they made a minute ago is a picture-image or only the representation, bringing to the surface the set of algorithmic data hidden in a black box of a camera, which will be turned by appropriate software into something resembling very much a traditional picture, something that we could righty call a digital trompe l’oeil

Zbigniew Rybczyński, A Treatise on the Visual Image, [in:] Zbigniew Rybczyński, A Treatise on the Visual Image, Poznań 2009, p. 55.
2. Piotr Zawojski, A Gloss on a ‘Treatise on the Visual Image’ by Zbigniew Rybczyński, [in:] Zbigniew Rybczyński, A Treatise…, op. cit., p. 76.
3. Boris Groys, Art  Power, Cambridge MA, London 2008, p. 9. 
4. Alain Renaud, L’image numerique ou la catastrophe technologique des image, [in:], Andre Iten (éd.), 3e Semaine Internationale de Vidéo Saint-Gervais Genéve, Genéve 1989, p. 24.
5. Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image, London 2007, p. 1-2.

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