Variations on the Task of Photography

August 14, 2017

With his work Towards a Philosophy of Photography,[1] Vilem Flusser gave rise to an important and fertile discussion of the nature of photography, its potential and its limits, taking it as an emblematic product of contemporary culture that enables us to comprehend its transformations and evolution. In this sense, his reflections focus on elucidating the “image type” generated by photography, distinguishing it from the traditional “image,” using this as an entry point for understanding and reckoning both “society” and “the subject” as they occur in a world that is ever more determined by technology.

Flusser defines photographs as technical images: iconic representations mediated by devices, meaning that these peculiar images are the products of programming, of a scientifically-generated discourse, which is why their defining characteristic is the materialization of the very concepts that govern the manufacture of the devices that produce them. Distancing himself from the proposals of Benjamin,[2] for example, he concludes that the photographic image does not automatically register the impressions of light from the physical world, but rather it converts scientific discourse, a predetermined code, into a visual scene; as the author himself states: the camera “is programmed to translate this concept into an image.”[3] For Flusser, technical images are not innocent recordings of the world but, on the contrary, respond to the determinations imposed by the concepts that shape and inform them, as well as to the “semiotic machines” (the camera, the computer) that produce them. The images produced by these devices are already previously inscribed in their operating systems, and therefore every “machine” possesses a determined range of potentialities that can be fixed into images.

In this way, technical images, photography among them, emerge from a semiotic process that goes beyond the subject and its intentions, since they originate in “black boxes” whose functions escape that subject either partially or entirely. This is also why they have had a problematic, isolated and uncertain history within artistic practice, which is traditionally associated with a type of expressiveness anchored in the individual subject. In some ways, Benjamin had already forecast this himself when he spoke of artistic practices that were distinct from “art,” productions that are poietic more because they are in constant transformation, constantly demanding intervention and interaction, than because they require contemplation. Indeed, following this line of argument, the products of “semiotic machines” would escape the spaces of expression and would be naturally anchored in sites of language (anonymous, belonging to all), therefore they represent a paradoxical task for artistic practices, and likewise one that is full of richness, potentiality and eloquence.

I want to turn now to that paradoxical condition of the image and the ways in which photography, in the contemporary art scene, clashes with its own programmatic condition. I will attempt to explore distinct ways in which different artists, assisted by their use of “semiotic machines,” have rebelled against automation and the compartmentalization of consciousness and sensibility, reflecting on issues of freedom (taken in multiple senses) within a society that is ever more defined by technologies. This is, as Flusser would put it, an inquiry into the complex task bestowed upon artistic practice, which has to do with discovering as-yet-unexplored uses for the image that can be found hidden in the (potential) “imagination” of the devices themselves, thus removing them from their preset functions and stimulating a sort of “reinvention” of both their concepts and their codes.

This reinvention of the “medium” can be understood from different perspectives. On one hand, we can think of it as an operation that attempts to subvert the documentary aspect of the photographic image (its “natural” function and meaning, we could say) through the inadequate use of its own expressive and compositional codes. On the other hand, it can also be thought of as an examination of the unexplored “regions” contained within the technological devices themselves (those regions that exceed their initial function and design), regions from which to produce—or bring into the world—images that have never before been seen or imagined. In both cases, whether due to the undermining of the documentary property of the technical image or to delving into some of its unexplored regions, out of this reinvention of the medium come images in which the subject—the operator, the photographer—takes control of the image and permeates everything that is recorded—that which is presented, the photographed—with their passions, thoughts, and affections. Several of what we might call “reflexive images” appear in this way, pondering the subject, imposing subjective determinations on the photographed material that are not only foreign to it, but that also cause the “image” to refract, change direction and density, and become personal, radically transforming the idea of photography itself. In order to understand these ways of reinventing the photographic “medium” and opening up the technical image to uncommon modes of expression, we will turn now to some brief comments on the works of three photographers.

Claudio Perna’s Maculaturas[4] (Maculatures, or Stain Works) are works made from printed residue reconstructed into collages in which the formal and semantic structure originally possessed by those “defective documents” is altered in such a way that its “original rendering” is completely distorted. By intervening into these defective documents, Perna opens up the images and the pre-existing figures in them (common images, belonging to consumer society) to a vast array of unexpected significations. In this way, the unpolished impression is re-inscribed and generates new contexts, not as a mediated image or register, but rather as a discursive device capable of re-signifying itself and re-signifying its environment by establishing a subtle web of allusions, references, and citations. Waste, that which is discarded, emerges as a potential space for taking an image that has been domesticated by technical systems into situations that are unpredictable, in some ways incomprehensible or incommunicable, where it takes on an odd documentary quality: rather than being a “document” describing the truth of certain mundane situations, it documents the simulacra and operations particular to its own mode of production, its technological foundations. In this exploration of the mediated image, Perna transforms those “registers” into critical, reflexive appearances where that which is documented is made to seem accidental, unforeseeable, expanding its referential spectrum, visually inspecting and contemplating multiple issues: identity and territoriality, communication and authorship, the body and its fissures, and also the indiscriminate penetration of mass media into the cultural body.

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Claudio Perna, Maculaturas (1975)

Indeed, due to their random montage of texts and images, icons and registers of distinct origins, the Maculaturas manifest the residual, the excessive, and the error as a site of great density, capable of accounting for the distinct sediments, layers, and voices that make up the unquestionably complex contemporary reality of the technical image, in which its penetrative power and rigid encoding have made it not only the center but also the dominant form of all communicative mechanisms. The Maculaturas, developed through combinations and chance juxtapositions of disparate figures, embed themselves in the viewer’s visual environment, producing mediated collages that suppress hierarchies and offer a visual expedition in which appearances—or representations—lose their form and meaning, becoming letters or smears out of which an ironic discourse is woven, capable of signifying at its margins, in its absences and omissions, and likewise capable of dealing with chance and event, establishing a deliberate confusion between the schemes of mass-media and artistic practices through the indifferent incorporation of industrial and consumer materials.

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Claudio Perna, Maculaturas (1975)

On the other hand, with his Autocopias[5] (Self-Copies), Claudio Perna proposes an artistic project through which to explore the construction of spaces and the formulas of recognition and self-recognition in the contemporary world. For this project, he selected the photocopy—and the photocopier—as the platform and technical process to be employed, due to the fact that its immediacy, its proximity, its being “at arm’s reach,” permits it to be free from intermediations, and to produce works in which the image is a direct physical “register,” a trace or impression, of a body. These are works without mediations, in some way “interactive” or “conversational” works, in which the very construction of the image is dialogical, meaning it is achieved by linking together representations that interact with one another, and whose legibility or comprehensibility depends on their joint display, on the ways in which they connect with one another.

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Claudio Perna, Mano con huella (1975). Toner, wet stamp, ink, and graphite on paper adhered to cardboard. 21.7 x 35.8 cm

The photocopy and the photocopy series thus take shape as a sort of “mirror” of the “self,” an unexpected “semiotic visual object” revealing the processes of hybridization, the constant metamorphoses, that make up the strategies for the production of values and identity. Time becomes an issue due to the immediacy of the mechanism, not only because these are works of a timeframe with no duration, with the power to record instantaneously, but also because these diverse fragments constitute the proposal for an “alternative history” that clashes with its narrative condition and imposes itself as an untenable solution. Indeed, Perna’s self-portrait emerges gradually, out of fragments and traces of light, like an apparition or a phantasmal copy, due to the way certain significant elements and details come together: a glimpse of pants, a buckle, some buttons, a pattern, a neck, hands. The most elaborate detail is seen in the face (that bottomless infinitude of humanity),[6] which tentatively takes shape amidst the copies’ various shades of grey, with its out-of-step and washed up appearance. As a portrait, it abandons its iconic condition and becomes a shifting, moving body, an insinuated motion. In the Autocopias, original and copy, body and image, sensuality and representation meld together, and precisely in the abysmal play of that dual emergence, registry and reproduction definitively become vestiges: signs or indexes, referents to something that has taken place. Paradoxically, the technical device has given way to the incarnation of a moving body, of its potent and vital expansion into the world of things, its formulation as power and growth. The photocopied image thus loses its figurative position and is made dynamic, so that in its minute variations and alterations it is converted into a space of potential, an unveiling of previously concealed physical and intellectual maneuvers.

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Claudio Perna, Untitled (Face of Claudio Perna) (1974). Toner, wet stamp, and ink on paper. 21.7 x 35.5 cm

These Autocopias are the product of a sustained, seductive and provocative exploration of identity and the construction of “self,” the nature of representation, and the difficult existential relationship that exists between image and copy. It is an exploration woven through the space of “media,” in their particularity, which is precisely what enables Claudio Perna to produce images that contain their own critical mechanisms: plotting their own quests and developing their own crises, critically constructing or critically converting the figure into a space of displacements, the image into an opaque event, identity into an unstable and open dimension.

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Claudio Perna, Untitled (Flowers). Toner on paper. 36.5 x 21.7 cm

Although he does so in a completely different manner, Paolo Gasparini[7] also enters into conflict with his documentary task, turning the photographic camera into a means for reflection (in the many distinct connotations of the term) on Latin American cities and their cultures, their social and political processes, showing them in their changing and complex nature, adrift amidst their regrets and their promises. In Gasparini’s photography, Latin American cities are understood through the dramatization of their contradictions and characteristics, delving into and manifesting the visual violence that defines their streets, the unresolved breakdowns suffered by their inhabitants, so that these “sonorous” images seem to convey the “voices” in which a world populated with unthinkable contiguities is articulated and expressed. Therefore, these images are propositions of a political discourse that becomes a way of seeing and a point of view, a landscape sketched out amidst the graphic depth and density provided by the magnified black-and-white pattern, by virtue of which the viewer feels even more impelled to observe, question and contemplate the discursive situations enacted therein.

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Paolo Gasparini, Democracia y poder (1968)

The depiction of these cities, Caracas for example, is charged with an unusual sensual density, and is also saturated with intellectuality, its image defined in its passage through a discursive, philosophical manifestation out of which its figurative and symbolic content develops; and in that crossing, a shift occurs in the definition of the documentary, signaling a permutation in the play of meaning. These photographs, emblems of that problematic Latin American modernity in which cities are paradoxical, contradictory locales where broad avenues and highways coexist with densely packed marginal neighborhoods and alleyways; cities in which violence and poverty run up against continual proclamations of ever-deferred promises, and futures are no longer closed and impenetrable spaces displayed solely for visual inspection, but rather they have been converted into accessible “ideas” into which viewers can insert themselves. Thus, each image is reconstituted as discourse, it is imposed as a space of appearance and agitation in which places and their inhabitants, citizens and their spaces, silently “shout” that which is inexpressible, invisible, in their existences. In this way, the camera offers a simplification of the imagination and its capacity to unveil thinking as another way of seeing the world.

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Paolo Gasparini, Democracia y poder (1968)

On the other hand, Paolo Gasparini finds in faces, in people and their attitudes, and also in the signs and texts he discovers and photographs in different urban locales, a manner of relating (himself), of expressing (himself), critically imbuing his photographs with his own understanding of Latin America’s history and reality. Thus, Gasparini’s images possess something that goes beyond a recording or representation of a city or personage, something violent and frenzied that consolidates and conveys his own view, his own way of dealing with and approaching this region of social imbalances and unrest, and he seems to proclaim, as if shouting, the injustices and challenges that accumulate in these cities, among these people, whose labor and general outlook on life are formulated as a sort of exercise in non-forgetting, a constant recovery. Political context is fundamental to these images, and it is the ever-present unifying thread that allows Gasparini to manifest his commitment to these cities where, in spite of contradictions and imbalances, there exists a surging and authentic vitality and energy; that vitality, that energy, are what the photographer conveys with the inscription—and transcription—of his “portraits.”

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Paolo Gasparini, Democracia y poder (1968)

Indeed, Gasparini’s photographs have the peculiarity of sharing amongst themselves connections to various themes and issues, each of which invites multiple readings and approaches, so that regardless of the temporal or spatial distance between them, in their totality they constitute a dynamic, changing network of semantic relationships, not only open to being combined amongst themselves, structured into distinct “series” each time, but from this range of “series" also formulated as various critical “narratives” on Latin American “ways of life." They function, in this sense, as complex constellations of references, annotations and comments on the problematic and complicated identity of these regions of the Americas, and thus the artist expands and extends his particular perspective, his vision, showing not only the livelihood, experiences and deviations of these people and places, their uncertainty and fleetingness, but also making visible the always postponed, always deferred future of their social body.

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Paolo Gasparini, Democracia y poder (1968)

Last, and in a radically distinct way, the photography of Alfredo Cortina[8] constitutes another example of this re-invention of the medium. At first glance, Alfredo Cortina appears to photograph different regions of Venezuela’s geography, recording his journeys and voyages. However, if we pay attention to the particular way in which the unyielding presence of Elizabeth Schön[9] appears in the distinct scenarios that he registers, along with the granite-like luminosity of his images, we can see that Cortina turns these “landscapes” into a sort of “high relief,” giving them a “sculptural” dimension. In these photographs, the constant inclusion of the female figure represents an element of rupture, a compositional strategy that breaks the unity of the image, both with regard to the way in which “the photographed”—the referent—is made present, and in relation to the image itself, its formal production and its semantic dimension. Indeed, the feminine figure—absorbed in herself, absent and distant—constitutes an “incoherent” or “absurd” element that is introduced into the landscape in order to disarm it, appearing in opposition to the scene in which it is contained. Thus, an “installational” connection develops between figure and place, a particular framing in which the real is no longer re-presented (regardless of how “real” whatever is presented may be), but rather a visual proposal is constructed in which the potency of the image is freed from the principles of representation, and is offered wrapped in an uncertain referentiality that drives it to break from its mundane allusions and take on a certain silent, “unyielding” dimension in which existence is laid out plainly and consistently. These are a kind of “iconic snapshot” in which photography no longer seeks a common reality outside itself, but rather shows itself to be linked, enmeshed principally with its own substance, its singularity among images.

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Alfredo Cortina, Chichiriviche (1960)

These discordant images, simultaneously landscapes and portraits, at once disturbing and eloquent, are framed within an unusual composition in which, due to the inclusion of the female figure, the visual focus of attention is shifted and displaced, pushed toward the edges of the image, making its internal orderings migrate so that the “viewing” takes place as a sort of “reading,” an interpretation, a review. In this interpretation, the camera appears as a “chisel” and gives free rein to the crossing and interlacing of two manifestations of the human imagination—on one hand, reflexive intelligence capable of converting the world—that which is given—into both an object of exploration and a sign to be interpreted and, on the other hand, that active perception that is capable of constantly assembling and re-assembling whatever it ascertains. This is how, in the photographs of Alfredo Cortina, an intimate enigma is firmly inscribed in the form of a high relief that unfolds through troubling scenarios, dealing metaphorically with vacant lots, retreats and refuges, with a country that is constantly confronting its particular and unassailable differences and discords. Likewise, an austere and unwavering perspective materializes in these works, transforming “views”—landscapes and portraits—into images based in thought, where diverse narrative spaces and discursive devices come together.

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Alfredo Cortina, Petare (1960)

As we can see, the dialogue established between machines and the creative determinations of humankind, the transgressive use of mechanisms and their possibilities, generates images and works whose operations offer the possibility of creating variable and unstable situations, converting them into unpredictable and paradoxical objects or events.

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Alfredo Cortina, Untitled (c. 1955)


[1] Vilem Flusser. Hacía una filosofía de la fotografía [Towards a Philosophy of Photography]. Editorial Trillas, 1990.

[2] W. Benjamin, in two important essays, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproduction” and “A Short History of Photography,” seems to propose that the photographic registry is absolute insofar as it reproduces all that enters its field.

[3] Flusser. Op. Cit., p 21

[4] Works completed in the 1970s, based on intervention into discarded print publications, printing proofs that Perna used in random combinations of text and image.

[5] Work begun in 1973, experimenting with photocopier machines.

[6] See Emmanuel Levinás. Totalidad e Infinito [Totality and Infinity]. Ediciones Sigueme, 2000.

[7] Paolo Gasparini (Gorizia, 1934). Currently resides in Caracas, Venezuela.

[8] Alfredo Cortina. Valencia, Venezuela 1903 – Caracas, Venezuela, 1988

[9] Venezuelan poet, and spouse of Alfredo Cortina.


Translated from the Spanish by Phillip Penix-Tadsen