Vilém Flusser was born in Prague, Czech Republic in 1920 – died 1991. He became a lecturer and a writer on language, design and communications. Towards a Philosophy of Photography is his 19 x 12 cm soft-cover book of 94 pages. Reaktion Books in London, UK published it in 1983. There are no images in this little book, but it gets you thinking differently about still photography up to the 1980s, and how it fit into the global culture. I recommend it to serious photographers. “A philosophy of photography can be the starting point for any philosophy engaging with the current and future existence of human beings.” How much you will agree with Flusser depends on your own philosophy about the medium. His book, like so many others, is about still photography.
Flusser divides human culture into two turning points. First came the invention of linear writing, and technical images (photography), the latter with images having significant surfaces based on magic. Divided into 9 main chapters. The beginning is a little tough reading. He mentions the struggle of text versus an image. “Texts do not signify the world; they signify the images they tear up.” “If texts become incomprehensible, there is nothing left to explain, and history has come to an end. During this crisis of text, technical images were invented: in order to make texts comprehensible again, to put them under a magic spell – to overcome the crisis of history.”
I’m not sure images were invented because of any failure of text. Cultural evolution included the development of technical images to match the increased speed of society. Text could always be illustrated with drawings, even thought most writers can’t draw. Photography liberates the masses into believing they are artists or at least illustrators of their local world.. Talk and images are passed around the lunch table. Everyone knows images replace a thousand words.
A photographer out prowling with her camera is ready to spring into action, to take or capture the perfect image. “[Photographers] create, process and store symbols.” So too do people in many other professions. Then Flusser presents some odd ideas, which makes me wonder if he has ever taken a still photograph or made a solid portfolio of related images. He writes, “If they [photographers]look through the camera and out into the world, this is not because the world interests them, but because they are pursuing new possibilities of producing information and evaluating the photographic program. They are not working, they do not want to change the world, but they are in search of information.” I doubt if any of this is true.
He proposed two functions – one allows the camera to take pictures due to its numeric programming, and the other allows the photographer to play with the camera when trying to achieve a desired image. Cameras were “invented to simulate specific thought processes.” This appears true today, but at the time in the mid-1800s was that why cameras were invented? I think not. We are a visual species. Pictures are important to us. The faster we can make them and distribute them, the better.
Flusser comes up with some pretty amazing statements, such as “The imagination of the camera is greater than that of every single photographer.” Photographers are “in pursuit of informative, improbable images that have not been seen before.” Is he talking about pure abstract images? He does not mention them in his book as a legitimate practice of the camera’s program to help inform us.
Then he wonders if a photographer can outdo the programs of the camera through their intentions and the powerful human spirit. I believe by drawing with my hand-held camera I am able to make the camera and its programs secondary to my intentions, that is to create gestural photographs where the human outdoes the camera’s manufactures programs. I am in more control of the creative photographic process than are the programs of the apparatus. If a person takes or captures a still photograph, the programs in the camera is also very much in play.
Then society became flooded with images from cameras. “Thus technical images absorb the whole of history and form a collective memory going endlessly round in circles.” “Photographs form a magic circle around us in the shape of the photographic universe. What we need is to break this circle.”
The photographer must somehow eliminate the redundancy of the photographic image. Yet curators continue to show the same general images over and over again. There is rarely something really new you haven’t seen before hanging on the white walls. New in the photographic art scene means redoing the past in the present. Still photographers take pictures of women with their tattoos to reveal the new, the modern, the next superficial.
Flusser maintains that “Cameras know everything and are able to do everything in a universe that was programmed in advance for this knowledge and ability.” This seems a little far fetched to me. Cameras are programmed by humans, and humans know very little, certainly not everything. Hence cameras can’t know more than their makers. In fact, cameras don’t really know anything.
The question Flusser tries to answer may not be answerable or even deserving of an answer. The last paragraph of his book contains this – “The task of a philosophy of photography is to reflect upon this possibility of freedom – and thus its significance – in a world dominated by apparatuses; to reflect upon the way in which, despite everything, it is possible for human beings to give significance to their lives in face of the chance necessity of death. Such a philosophy is necessary because it is the only form of revolution left open to us.”
And that is it for Flusser. Before this book, I had never heard of this man, nor do I remember ever reading about him in other books. I will soon forget him and his old-fashioned to odd ideas.