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A constant state of flux between uses and misuses

Interview with Czech researcher and lecturer Michal Simunek

by Róza Tekla Szilágyi & Endre Cserna

Michal Simunek is a Czech academic specialising in media studies and sociology. His scholarly interests span various fields, including the theory and history of photography, media studies, visual culture, consumer culture, and ethnographic research methodologies. Currently, he holds a position as a lecturer at FAMU, Prague, as well as the Prague University of Economics and Business, and is set to participate as a speaker in the first talk series event organised by Eidolon Centre in November.

Could you give us a brief introduction to the history of studying vernacular photography in the Czech Republic and your connection to this academic field?

It's a somewhat tricky question because the focus on this topic seems to be spread across various corners of academia, primarily associated with specific individuals. As far as I know, there is no dedicated centre, lab, or institution that focuses specifically on vernacular photography in the Czech Republic. However, there are certainly many academics, as well as individuals in galleries and museums, who are in some way committed to the broad field of vernacular photography. It's challenging to discuss its history because I believe interest in these types of images emerged long before Geoffrey Batchen's famous paper around 2000, in which he introduced this term. Many museums have included numerous images that could be labelled as vernacular. For instance, Petra Trnková1 from the Institute of Art History of the Czech Academy of Sciences has published several books on more or less vernacular photographs and photographers from the 19th century, and Pavel Scheufler2 from the Czech Republic has also produced several monographs on photographers whose images evoke a strong vernacular mood. However, since the term vernacular photography is too broad and vague, as it includes de facto all domestic, everyday, popular and utilitarian uses of photography, it can be argued that many people are involved in vernacular photography, although they may not even use the term vernacular themselves.

Oh, I almost forgot. At FAMU, under the direction of Jussi Parrika, we are doing a research project on operational images3, which can also be considered a kind of vernacular image.

Which aspects of vernacular photography boosted/sparked your academic interest?

Basically, I have an educational background in sociology, and I am a sociologist. Throughout my studies and career, my focus has centred on a form of visual sociology, particularly the use of photographs in empirical research. This approach closely examines how individuals utilise images in their everyday lives. I began exploring this field from a sociological perspective, drawing inspiration from scholars like Douglas Harper4 and many others who delve into this area. Unlike scholars like Geoffrey Batchen, who approach it from a historical standpoint, my interest lies in the everyday practices that people engage in within their daily lives. My primary approach is sociological in nature. However, I have also recently delved into the history of 19th-century photography and related subjects. I continue to expand my knowledge in this field.

Are there any special or specific photographic subcultures or communities found in your region worth mentioning?

I believe that most of the photography clubs, which can be seen as collectives or communities of individuals, have transitioned to online platforms. This means that they are not organised in the same way as they were before the 1990s. In the Czech Republic, amateur photography clubs have a strong history, dating back to the period after the Second World War and even before. Currently, there are several online platforms where people like me discuss various topics related to photographic techniques and photochemical materials, but they are dispersed throughout the country and not tightly connected in a physical sense.

It's worth noting that there are some smaller groups of individuals who are involved in experimental photography, particularly focusing on old techniques such as the wet collodion process, daguerreotypes, salt prints, and other historical methods. Many people are rediscovering and practicing these older techniques, experimenting with the technology. This is something we are also actively engaged in at FAMU, especially in the Studio of Classical Photography, where Martin Stecker and Jan Douša teach students the old techniques of creating photographs as unique, original, non-reproducible images, such as ferrotypes, various techniques of camera-less photography, etc.

Do you have a specific method of approaching photographic images while you do your research for specific projects?

As I mentioned, my background is in sociology. For approximately the past five years, I have studied the Lomography movement using an ethnographic approach. I became a Lomographer myself, acquiring toy cameras, taking pictures, developing them, digitising, and sharing them on Lomography.com's social hub and other social networks. Through this hands-on involvement, I aimed to understand people's perspectives on the analogue revival movement, specifically Lomography. I wanted to know what pleasures they derived from it and what obstacles they faced. 
In much of my sociological research, I adopt an empirical approach, immersing myself in the subject matter to gain insights. For example, studying Lomography by becoming a lomographer. This allows me to dive into the subject and get insight based on my own experience. However, when dealing with, for example,19th-century photography, I, of course, mostly work with archived images. Currently, I'm finishing a short article for Fotograf magazine that explores tourist photography. In this article, I examine Hugh Lee Pattinson's daguerreotypes of Niagara Falls from April 1840. Because accessing original dags is difficult and time-consuming, I am relying on their digitised versions that can be obtained from museum and library collections. It's very convenient, but I feel intensely here that looking at a digital reproduction of an 1840 daguerreotype is something terribly different than looking at it with "my own eyes".

We have recently opened an exhibition – showcasing photographs from the Horus Archives – that focuses on what we might call ‘photograph reviews’ or ‘photo critiques’ in Hungary in the 1970s, which were published in the magazine Fotó. This practice involved amateur photographers submitting their images and receiving rather vitriolic feedback from the jury members. We are curious, was there anything similar happening in the Czech Republic during that period?

I think we had a very similar thing in the Czech Republic. One thing is that this kind of reviews of amateur photographers' images definitely took place in the photo-club culture during exhibitions and ordinary club meetings. Additionally, there were several photography journals or magazines published, usually on a monthly basis. If I recall correctly, these publications often featured sections dedicated to readers’ submitted images, along with comments and feedback. This practice was certainly prevalent in the past. Nowadays, these activities have shifted to online communities. People today often receive feedback from fellow community members on platforms like Instagram, Flickr, and others. It's not as structured as having professional photographers assess images as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ but rather a more informal and diverse online environment. However, in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s, there were indeed dedicated sections in journals for amateur photography.

In your text The Failed Photographs of Photography you argue that we must address the mass-amateurisation of photography that you describe as the shift to valorisation of amateur photography stimulated by online photo-sharing platforms and easy-to-handle photography tools. In your opinion why should we consider this a valorisation process?

Valorisation? I don't quite recall what I meant by that at the moment. {Laughs} One of the points I plan to make in my upcoming talk in Budapest is that, based on my research on the Lomography movement, without online communities or these platforms, there wouldn't be an analogue revival at the moment. We're living in a digital world, and the obvious argument is that without the digital revolution, there wouldn't be any analogue revival because we wouldn't have the need for it. However, considering that most of our visual culture is driven by digital and networked images, it's interesting to note that even analogue movements are using these tools to present their work and engage in discussions. That's why, as I wrote in the chapter in the book Photography Off the Scale, my argument was that without these online platforms, there wouldn't be any analogue revival. When people capture images, they naturally want to show them to others, and the digital platforms have made it easy to share images with a global audience with just a few taps on the screen.

Why did you choose Lomography, and did you have a personal interest in it as an amateur photographer before using it for your research? Also, is the Lomography community still active?

I believe it's still quite active. People come and go, circulating, but there's a core community of Lomography enthusiasts who have been involved for about a decade. There are also newcomers who join, post a few images, and then sometimes leave. Lomography's international marketing has been consistently excellent, earning them recognition at Ars Electronica in Linz in the early 1990s for their community webpage. Their marketing is just amazing. It's just something that is so well done that they are still able to attract a lot of people to become members of the community at least for a while. 

Before my research in the Lomography community, I had not been involved in Lomography at all. The lomographic movement originated in the early 1990s, back in the era of analogue photography. I only became interested in this movement with the rise of digital photography when Lomography became part of the broader retro and revival media movements. From my point of view, Lomography is fascinating, among other things, precisely from the perspective of the relationship between analogue and digital photography; it is one of the great examples of hybrid photography, which is simply both analogue and digital simultaneously. 

However, I recently came across perhaps an even better example of hybrid photography than Lomography. I mean solargraphy – if you heard about the technique. It's a photographic method used to record the path of the sun. I've been experimenting with this technique throughout the entire summer. This technique is based on the process of exposing black and white photographic paper to light for an extended period. This exposure can last for just a couple of hours, or it can extend to several months or even years. Afterwards, the paper is removed from the can, and the only way to create a permanent image from this photographic paper is to scan it. You can’t develop it using traditional chemical methods. After scanning, you can further edit the image using software like Photoshop, adjusting curves and making various enhancements. In my view, this technique best exemplifies the interdependence of digital and analogue photography. The image wouldn't exist without the initial analogue process, and it also relies on the digitisation process to become a fully realised image. 

Lomography operates in a similar way from a sociological perspective. Lomographers all follow the same pattern: they use analogue cameras to take photos and quickly convert these analogue images into digital formats for online sharing. This practice is at the core of the Lomography community and the marketing efforts of the Lomographic Society International. What's interesting is that much of Lomography's marketing plays on the contrast between analogue and digital. They promote analog as beautiful and authentic while depicting digital as fast, inauthentic, and fleeting. However, at the same time, they offer smartphone scanners to help their members digitise their images quickly. This creates a captivating ambivalence within the Lomography community, which is deeply ingrained in its marketing. Lomography is thus a great example of a community of consumption, where communities are constituted around the consumption of specific goods. In this case, it's centred around the use of Lomography products. Another example might be the Harley-Davidson motorcycle enthusiasts' community that forms around that brand.

You frequently use the term ‘networked digital image’ – how would you define this term in contrast to other descriptions? (like mass photography or digital vernacular photography) Is it important to take away the focus from ‘photography’?

I understand the networked digital image simply as an image immersed in networks, be it social networks like Instagram or, more broadly, networks of digital display and capture devices, algorithms, computing, clouds, the Internet and various practices like sharing or using filters for editing. However, there are plenty of terms that describe contemporary image production. At the moment, what I consider one of the best is 'computational photography,' which makes us consider the fact that most of the images are created algorithmically using a lot of sensors, measurements, and computations. For example, take iPhones and their deep fusion technology. When you start the camera app, the iPhone begins capturing images. When you press the button, it takes about nine images, merges them together, and creates a stunning, sharp image, even in the shadows. So, in my view, 'computational photography' is the term that best describes most images produced today. However, there are plenty of other terms like 'softimages,' 'programatic' or 'algorithmic images,' and so on. 'Digital network image' is a term I use to replace 'photography' for the image. I use it because photographs are becoming less like traditional photographs, which were indexical images representing the autonomous imprint of light and nature on a light-sensitive material. This shift is due to the algorithmic processes happening within the hardware and software of contemporary digital visual technologies. This is why digital creations are more like images than traditional photographs. The example of AI-generated images is just a continuation of this process. Yeah, they are definitely images, not photographs in the 'classical' sense.

I think we might say that this creative message of technology became an everyday practice in contemporary or everyday image making or imaging. What makes something creative misuse instead of just creative use? Where is that fine line in your opinion?

You just hit the nail on the head by mentioning the use and misuse. What sets them apart? These two terms are undeniably related, and the line between them is quite fluid, just as you mentioned. What constitutes misuse today may very well transform into conventional use in a matter of days, months, or the near future.

This is another aspect that intrigues me about the Lomography movement. The Lomography community embodies a constant state of flux between uses and misuses. To illustrate, the entire community is fuelled by a kind of do-it-yourself spirit. Simultaneously, there's a creative aspect of tinkering and misuse. For example, around 10 years ago, a famous technique called the "redscale technique" emerged within the community. It involves capturing images on colour-negative film but simply flipping the film upside down. In the darkroom, the process involves unrolling the film from the reel and flipping it upside down so that the matte side is exposed first, resulting in a distinct reddish or red tone in the images. The community had numerous discussions and recommendations on how to create, develop, and scan these films.

However, the Lomographic Society International, in my opinion, constantly monitors community developments. When they identify something that can be commercialised, they seize the opportunity. About five years ago, they introduced their own redscale films, manufactured in factories. These films are slightly more expensive than traditional colour negative films because they are redscale, but you can purchase them without the need for DIY practices. This is perhaps where the shift from misuse to use through commodification becomes evident. When explaining this, I often recall John Fiske5 and his understanding of the dynamics of popular culture. He argues that culture draws from deception and highlights the difference between the tactics and strategies of the less privileged and those of the powerful. He argues that popular culture is driven by the fact that ordinary people incorporate elements from mass-produced culture, originating from the culture industry. They take in content, meaning, or goods, such as films, cameras, or other items, and then proceed to misuse them. They adapt these elements for their own purposes, imbuing them with their own interpretations. Simultaneously or shortly after this incorporation, the culture industry, as Fiske terms it, "excorporates" all these opposing and disruptive meanings for its own objectives, commodifying them for its own use. This dynamic is continually unfolding within the Lomography movement. The misuses emerge from the community, and the Lomographic Society International seizes upon them, turning them into commodities that are easily accessible without the need for a DIY approach. 

A similar transformation occurred in the case of solargraphy. There is a British company named Solarcan that offers pre-made cans equipped with pinholes and loaded with the necessary photographic paper. These cans are available for purchase, typically priced at around 20 to 25 pounds. With Solarcan, you can install the can, expose it to the sun, and obtain an image. However, this convenience comes at the cost of losing the DIY aspect that was initially crucial when people started experimenting with this technique from „below.”

Would you consider analog imaging or photographic practice being part of the popular culture today or is it just a small group of people who share a common hobby?

Well, I think it's both. I don't interpret the term 'popular culture' in a negative sense, especially when drawing on Fiske's perspective, which asserts that popular culture is a space where people find freedom by appropriating elements from the culture industry and making them their own. However, if we view 'popular culture' as something that is widespread and not extensively contemplated, but rather a source of everyday entertainment, then I believe the analogue revival encompasses both of these senses. Within the analogue revival, there are certainly individuals who return to historical techniques, such as the collodion process and other more intricate methods that demand craftsmanship to create images. On the other hand, particularly among younger people, there is a significant contingent of short-term analogue enthusiasts. They purchase analogue cameras, often inspired by Lomography advertisements, and use them for a few days or for specific occasions like holidays. Instant cameras, such as the resurgence of Polaroids and other similar devices, are frequently employed at parties, weddings, and similar events. They have become a part of the visual culture, utilised intermittently by many people. And then there are communities, a core group within these communities, that immerse themselves in these techniques for extended periods, dedicating more serious and sustained efforts to them.

In a previous call, you mentioned that you had plans to launch an institution for vernacular photography. Could you tell us a bit about that project?

It is not actual at the moment. This concept has been on my mind for nearly 20 years. Around two decades ago, when I moved to South Bohemia, a group of mostly Prague-based photographers and scholars (including Pavel Scheufler) were engaged in establishing the Czech National Museum of Photography in the former Jesuit College building in Jindřichův Hradec, a small town in southern Bohemia. At that time, I collaborated with them and envisioned a segment of the national museum dedicated to vernacular photography. By the way, the Czech Republic still lacks something like the National Museum of Photography.

My idea resembled the Fortepan activity, with the goal of creating a platform for collaborative sharing, storage, and archiving of vernacular images contributed by ordinary people. These images – photo albums, candid snapshots, holiday photos, and more – are highly significant and captivating because many of these images from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s are often discarded from the planet and vanish with the passing of individuals who made them. I think it's a pity. Of course, there are millions of these images, and no one will ever be able to have a kind of exhaustive collection of these images. But at least having a couple thousand of them would be great for research and historical memory. These were my ideas back twenty years ago, but various factors, including institutional, financial, and personal circumstances – such as becoming a father of three kids – prevented me from pursuing this idea further. But it’s still back in my head, and I still believe that probably sometime in the future, I will be able to start this kind of project.

1 Petra Trnková is a Czech photo-historian working as a research fellow at the Institute of Art History (IAH) of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague, where she also leads the Photography Research Centre and curates the IAH photographic collection.
2 Pavel Scheufler is a photographer and historian of photography, specialising in the years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He teaches and lectures on photography and is the owner of a collection of photographs that his family began assembling in the 1920s.
3 See https://operationalimages.cz.
4 Douglas A. Harper is an American sociologist and photographer.
5 John Fiske was an American philosopher and historian. Fiske rejects the notion that assumes "the audience" as an uncritical mass, the theory that mass audiences consume the products that are offered to them without thought. He instead suggests "audiences" as being of various social backgrounds and identities that enable them to receive texts differently. See particularly his book Understanding Popular Culture.

All images courtesy of Michal Simunek.
For more, visit: https://www.lomography.com/homes/double_agent

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