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“We are living in the image world”

Interview with Andrew Dewdney,
co-founder of the Centre for the Study of the Networked Image

by Róza Tekla Szilágyi & Endre Cserna

Andrew Dewdney, a research professor at London South Bank University, specialises in examining the paradoxes within contemporary visual culture through his extensive theoretical work. He is committed to developing systematic methods to unravel and comprehend these multifaceted complexities. His research primarily focuses on how computation has transformed the photographic image and how museum studies can aid in understanding the challenges related to heritages, collections, and archives in a born-digital world. As co-director of the Centre for the Study of the Networked Image, he supervises numerous collaborative PhDs with institutions such as the Serpentine Galleries, The Photographers' Gallery, Fotomuseum Winterthur, and Rhizome. In his publication "Forget Photography" (Goldsmiths/MIT Press, 2021), he argues that understanding the politics of representation in our post-photographic era, characterised by capitalist and computational reproduction, requires the act of ‘forgetting photography’. 

During our interview, we delved into further insights into this concept and other subversive ideas like ‘zombie photography’ and the notion of the ‘networked image’. Another recent title, co-authored and edited by Dewdney, "The Networked Image in Post Digital Culture" (Routledge Press, 2022), explores new perspectives on the networked image, examining themes such as digitisation, machine vision, online curating, interfaces, and archives. The book aims to understand how computational culture challenges our established habits of seeing.

Andrew Dewdney

People are deeply engaged in the new ways of seeing and crafting images, yet this immersion occurs unconsciously. We're largely unaware that our vision, communication, perception, and connection to the world have undergone radical transformations in recent decades. How would you explain the idea of "forgetting photography" to someone unfamiliar with the field of photographic studies? And more importantly, how can a socio-cultural development this important and critical still stay hidden from mainstream thinking? 

Well, that's a good starting question. I think the first thing to say is that there's a pejorative way of thinking about the term “forgetting”, which can seem to be a dismissal or rejection. What I set out to do very early on in the book is to correct that and say that forgetting is a very productive process, which inevitably requires us to remember differently and takes us to the place of memory. Forgetting and remembering are part of historical memory. Forgetting photography is a provocation to the post-photography community of scholarship because it continues to reproduce a knowledge order based upon a continuous tradition and practice of photography, without really recognizing, or challenging the radical change in the mode of the reproduction of the image through computation. 

Maybe a way of describing this in less academic terms, is to think of forgetting photography as a thought experiment. If you say photography is dead, which of course has died a number of deaths historically, but if you say we are now after photography, then what you're really saying is that we're in the future present. Thinking about photography as a medium of the past allows us to see the whole history, culture and practices of photography in a new historical space – as opposed to seeing it as an ongoing and contemporary set of practices. It is a strategy to separate the contemporary from the historical. I'm arguing that by seeing photography as an historically eclipsed medium, opens up very different ways of thinking about, not only the future of the image, but also its past, thinking about what photography has done in the 19th and 20th centuries. It's a way of creating a new space and perspective, opening up new ways of looking and seeing. Since writing the book, I've been very interested to see how my approach relates to other attempts, mostly through recent work on photographic archives, to decolonize photography, which is the post-colonial politics of critique taken into practice. I began to realise that other scholarly work being done on photography shared similar methodologies to forgetting photography because they see photography as inseparable from the practices of capitalism and colonialism.

The other aspect of the provocation of forget photography is a demand to recognize that photography keeps reproducing itself, not as the simulation computation produces, but as if nothing has changed in photography. This is a cultural problem. Here is the paradox, that at the moment photography is no longer technically at the centre of the mode of reproduction, photography is everywhere. There is more “photography” now than ever before – at the point at which it no longer exists as a technical practice. I was looking for a new methodological perspective and an analysis that would allow us to think about both the new conditions of the image and about the history of photography in a different way. I argue that to think about the new conditions of the image requires us to clear the decks of photography if we want to understand the image in computational capitalism. I'm saying that photography is a hindrance. Photography doesn't help us any longer understand the condition of the networked and computational image. That's the going forward argument, the need to make a new clearing and stop thinking about photography in terms of historical continuity. Whether you call photography expanded or post-photography, both discourses are attempts to stitch up the photographic image and create a historical continuity from the mid-19th century to the present as if no break has occurred. I see that as a problem of academia wanting to account for contemporary imagery in terms of the discourse of photography in order to maintain the modernist idea of the contemporary and of course maintain an academic discipline. What I'm saying is that this discourse gets in the way of actually understanding the degree to which the algorithm has replaced the analogue in interceding between the image and reality. Seeing photography as no longer the basis of the image is liberating, but also opens up a second productive task of rethinking photography as an apparatus of capitalist and colonial domination.

Andrew Dewdney: Forget Photography, Goldsmiths/MIT Press, 2021, cover

What types of photographic works and photography did you examine while writing the book? You delve into the extensive written legacy surrounding photography, and it's fascinating to witness your profound knowledge of its history. However, as we read the book, we found ourselves wondering about the specific images you had in mind, the ones you encountered daily during your writing process. Did these images influence the narrative of your work in any way? 

Personally, I'm immersed in visual image culture. When I think about my time in the world, I can't really think about myself without the image in one way or another. I am of the generation of Marshall McLuhan’s, ‘the medium is the message’. I grew up with television, film, magazines advertising and domestic photography. As an adult I have been professionally and personally involved with photography and the crisis of representation since the 1970s. I now feel like a time-traveler, who has lived through the transformation of an older analogue world in to the digital and now the networked world.

The Photographers’ Gallery, London

In terms of the image context for the book, it draws specifically upon my involvement with The Photographers’ Gallery (TPG) in London from 2012, when Katrina Sluis, Daniel Rubinstein and I set up the Centre for the Study of the Network Image (CSNI), at London South Bank UniversityThis was also the point at which Katrina Sluis became the first curator of a new digital programme at TPG, which came about during a refurbishment of its building and the director wanted to install a large high-end digital screen wall in the gallery foyer. Essentially, Katrina's new role was to create an exhibition programme for the screen and her main aim for the digital programme was to answer the question of how you can exhibit the Internet. Thinking of the Internet, not only as a technical channel, but as culture raised new questions of image culture and created the conditions to examine the computational and networked image. TPG’s programme over this period can be understood as a productive expression of the paradox of photography, by continuing to exhibit works in the mainstream canon of contemporary photography in the main galleries, whilst supporting its undoing and supersession through the digital programme. The exhibition, All I Know Is What’s On The Internet came as a culmination of the digital programme, which migrated from the screen to the gallery. TPG had realized it couldn't ignore the growth of contemporary interest from artists and audiences in the overwhelming scaling-up of computational image culture.

Returning to the broader question of what images I had in mind when writing the book, the cloud contains thousands of my images synced with my iPhone. I capture/make/occasion images, more often than I use the same device to speak to others. I constantly refer to and transmit these images in numerous ways across anyone day. iPhone images are both representations and networked data signals. Hito Steyerl articulated the idea that the image had ‘crossed the screen into reality’ some time ago. What Hito was saying, leaning heavily upon the work of Jean Baudrillard, was that the image is no longer a mental reflection, but projected straight into reality. Baudrillard argued that the image has become the real and therefore the real is simulation. The semiotic world where there is an external reality and internal mental life from which we make representations of the real has passed. The photographic image as simulation leads me on to the idea of zombie photography, the undead of photography which accounts for the paradox of its disappearance but endless return. You have to unpack simulation as a real that is both lived and experienced, but also alienating. This tradition of thinking is still insisting that we have to struggle to see what the contemporary real is. Which was another reason for forgetting photography, because, as I have said, the idea of the indexical relationship of the photographic image to the real and its corollary in the photographic document, presents a false view of what the real is. And the real is a very difficult thing to deal with. We can't forget that we remain in the crisis of representation. Photography doesn't help us resolve that crisis. We are living in the image world. Look at us now in this interview, our presence constituted by an onscreen image. 

As an institution interested in everyday imaging, we made the decision to use the term "everyday imaging" because it encompasses such a wide array of notions, some of which we already know are problematic, and there are ongoing debates and discourses around the best way to name this field. However, as you are aware, Professor Geoffrey Batchen initially proposed using the term "vernacular photography," but in later years, he reconsidered. It may not be the best idea to create this category, and perhaps we should abandon the term "vernacular" and simply use "photography."
Our question is, when we contemplate the ways we see and create images, and as we write new histories of photography, do you believe it's important to maintain this duality or autonomy between amateurs and professionals? Does this add any significant aspect to the rewriting of the history of photography, or should we disregard these distinctions and view it simply as photography itself?

Well, I think you probably can guess my answer to that, too. All of these distinctions, particularly between the amateur and the professional belong to a world that has been dismantled – even though there are still people employed as photography professionals. But now print reproduction and image commerce doesn't bother with the distinction, such that news can be gathered from amateur sources, particularly with the use of video imagery. So, I think that this distinction is no longer helpful. Dismantling the apparatus of who creates photographs, who qualifies as a photographer, and how these images circulate in the world is integral to challenge the framework of a capitalist mode of production from the mid-20th century, which no longer aligns with contemporary realities. It is more useful to think of the new forms of digital labour that involve all users. However, it is very good that contemporary cultural organisations become part of reframing and rethinking what the relationship between those kinds of labour practices are. And of course, this gives us new perspectives on the archive as well, because it's not only about a contemporary image situation in which we challenge those kinds of distinctions, but also it means we can really look at the history and archive of images in radically new ways. 

War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, May 2019. Illustration in Forget Photography, 2021

Essentially, what must be undone is the Eurocentric canon of photography predicated on a modernism that has already been challenged by multiple temporalities. We must recognize a global view that photography may have originated in Europe, but very quickly, within 25-30 years after being invented, spread everywhere, predominately through capitalism and colonialism. There are different kinds of photographies that we've yet to acknowledge in the Global South. That's a great new project, it seems to me, to rethink both the history of photography in terms of challenging canons and distinctions. But also, in the contemporary, it presents a challenge to what is a professional photographer? 

The other thing that happened at the end of the 20th century, in the UK particularly, was photography being embraced by contemporary art. Apart from USA and MOMA’s early adoption of photography, Europe was quite reluctant to accept photography as contemporary art. It was still a medium of record, it was a medium of documentation and objectivity, but it wasn't art. Although here, there is another kind of paradox: from early on photography was also seen as a subjective medium of expression. But this use of photography as part of the modernist art canon presents, again, another problem, because the vernacular, although the everyday image is a better term, proliferates and suffuses everyday life. There's such a great potential for looking at historical archives as a means to rethink the analogue object. Theorisation of the genre categories of vernacular and domestic photography is not very useful anymore, certainly not very useful to account for the algorithmic practices of everyday imageries and their circulation. We need another set of terms, another way of thinking about the making and the massive scale of the circulation of the networked image.

Do you think that photographic archives and collections, both physical and online, can survive the zombification of culture? Do they have a chance against it?

I tend to think of archives as potential oppositions to zombification. The condition of the zombie is the paradoxical position of simulation. There is still a set of problems around the digitisation of any analogue collection, and specifically the representation of an analogue photograph because the object becomes synonymous with the screen. Our research group struggles in the move between talking about an image in the sensible terms of a representation and then thinking about the image as a mathematical code, as a signal within a greater network of signals. Two very different registers are involved, which Katrina Sluis, likened to the Roman god, Janus, in that it had two faces looking both ways, or in computer terms a front-end and a back-end... We're still at a point where the front-end is representation and the back-end is the algorithm. In analysis we keep moving between one register, or one discourse of understanding, to another. Currently these two sets of knowledge can't be joined up. The archive may well be a secret key to this difficulty of being able to think of the material nature of the visual object and its apparatuses. I'm trying to bridge the cultural and mathematical knowledge disciplines in relationship to collection practices. That's a bit of a roundabout answer, but I would place a huge importance on the study and understanding of the digitisation of archives. 

You also quote Ariella Azoulay in the book who states that it's an important task not to treat the images as externalised and closed documents. Compared to an archive where you have things because you had a focus, you had a way of collecting, what kind of methods can one have to step away and forget treating images as closed documents? 

First of all, Ariella placed great emphasis on collaborative practice in engaging with the image in situated political terms. To that extent, work on the archive is work upon trying to make some aspect of the social relations of power visible. Her perspective on the civil contract of photography is parallel to our emphasis upon the relational nature of the networked image.

Ariella’s work is a very good example of the degree to which an image becomes the basis for a collaborative practice that is either highly situated within a geopolitical world, or in our work, networked. Another visual culture scholar, Nicholas Mirzoeff, calls this the politics of visualization. You can see contemporary critical cultural practitioners working in virtual environments, but also in embedded and situated contexts. I think the big message here is that as long as you understand the image as a set of human and non-human relations, embedded within the historical and social, not defined by its material fixity, you can intervene in those relations. You can translate. This is precisely what forget photography argues for in not seeing the image as a closed text in order to get closer to the real. Ariella's very important work is precisely about trying to get closer to the truth of an image. Another important starting point for me in writing the book was Bruno Latour's actor-network theory. In his book, We Have Never Been Modern Latour questions the Enlightenment division between nature as external and society as humanly constructed, which he says is the basis of scientific knowledge.  As you attempt to purify objects in order to get to some essential truth of the object, the more hybrids of nature and culture proliferate. If you apply this to photography, you can see that the way in which it became embedded and established in European state institutions, was always about purifying the image, was always about defining the essence of the image, or its aesthetic ontology. Whereas, of course, beyond those institutions, the image was proliferating hybrids, galore. The more you attempt to purify, the more hybrids proliferate. Latour's method, which has a relationship to Azoulay’s approach is that you therefore need to translate the hybrids. The concept of translation is a very good one, because it is a relational process of tracing connections and identifying the agency between human and nonhuman elements. The aim is not to keep naming the world as the real, but to look at the processual nature of the real, the real is always emerging, becoming. Those are abstract ideas, but you can convert them into practical methodologies, which will always be very situated. They will always be transdisciplinary, because they start with a problem and situation, and then you try and follow or translate what's going on, and that takes you hopefully to some new insight. And yes, there are dead ends, probably, as well.

Diagram of The Networked Image

Could you please give us a round down on the notion of network image and why it came alive?

I think a fairly straightforward way of doing that is to recognise that the term digital is limited, in the sense that everything is digital, and we're in the condition of the post-digital. Within the discourse of photography, the shift to digital photography developed into the idea of expanded photography, followed by other prefixes, such as the operationalcomputational, soft or algorithmic image. These were all attempts to move beyond the semiotic image, whilst maintaining the discourse of photography. The image is defined by our research group as relational and distributed, hence networked.

What happened, as the internet continued to expand in the first decade of the 21st century, - the iPhone came into the world in 2007 - was a major change of scale, in which we no longer talked about single images, but rather the flow of images. The circulation of images at great scale, became a much more significant aspect for understanding, than the older semiotics of looking at single images. We argued that to understand the meaning of an image, you needed to move to this massification and speed. A lot of people wrote about the greater scale of imagery and accumulation of images. But Ingrid Hoelzl & Remi Marie’s work, in the book Softimage, made the point that this wasn't merely greater circulation, it was also a different mode of the transmission of an image. An image was really a temporal signal within a spacial network. That's how you get from the digital to the network, to something that can only be understood in a network of signals. 

We all know that the privatization and corporatization of the Internet and proprietary software intervenes to differentiate the images that appear in the network on individual devices. This recognition has led to understandings of the digital labour of users in providing data for the network. whilst experiencing the benefits of sharing images. Ben Burbridge's book, Photography After Capitalism argues that social media sharing platforms can be seen as progressive, democratic prefigurations of post-capitalist practices. Burbridge’s argument attempts to rescue photography as a future democratic medium, but without slaying the zombie, however, the zombie of the network image remains in the purified form of a photograph. The post-capitalist argument still has to grapple with contradictions in which the image takes part in an extractive mode of production and reproduction, and I think progressive cultural activists would want to argue and act against this. At the same time, as we have to oppose extraction it is the default medium we work with. People who initially saw the internet as this great opportunity for a global democracy, have become very disillusioned, in seeing the privatization of the Internet, characterised by a highly secretive, unregulated bunch of global corporations. 

You can trace the shift from optimism to pessimism if you read critical work on the history of the Internet. You can see this gradual disappointment, nowhere probably more expressed than in Geert Lovink’s writing. But, on the other hand, I think there is still a contemporary recognition that the Internet is the new default of telecommunication. It is the new ecology of meaning. It is the new air we breathe. And therefore, progressive critical activity needs to be present, and it needs to work with the network, and it needs to create alternative networks. 

I like your idea of the everyday image as an alternative to vernacular photography because it is open and provisional. At CSNI, we have defined the network image in very specific, epistemological terms and the best we have come up with is a diagram of three intersecting circles; encompassing; a dynamic contingency of human vision; a coupling of humans and machine tools; and a gathering of material objects; the image is the point of their intersection. What this diagram expresses is that the term networked image is at best a provisional placeholder. The networked image is not another fixity to replace the idea of the photograph, rather the networked image is a set of relations. We're all very unused to thinking in these ways that ask us to think of the object as always emergent and in process. It can be very frustrating because we want to think about very specific material practices and objects. But I think it's the best we have at the moment. Your earlier question of where does this lead us, does I think leads us back to practice, to the practices of visualisation, conceived as a cultural activity to render the world visible. This is perhaps the most exciting outcome of the transition from traditional conceptions of imagery to the present condition where images not only exist in the world but constitute it. 

What kind of projects are you working on right now under your institutional umbrella?

The Centre for the Networked Image (CSNI) is itself a network of researchers, teachers and scholars, as well as of ideas and associations. We are not all based at London South Bank University, but in a range of institutions. All our projects try to address aspects of the problematic ecology of the image. We have gone down the road of working with cultural institutions who themselves face such kinds of problems, to define research questions and explore new methods by which those kinds of questions can be answered. So just as a few examples.  We have collaborated with The Photographers’ Gallery where we have conducted two PhD research projects and now starting a third. Nicolas Maleve carried out an experimental public programme, which examined in detail the creation of the datasets used in training machine vision. Marloes de Valk is currently investigating models of Internet sustainability in the face of the climate crisis, exploring alternative ecologies of the Internet. Given that eighty percent of the energy of the Internet is going on imagery, and the vast amount of data for streaming Netflix movies, or the circulation of pornography, finding new sustainable creative cultural practices becomes imperative. Another CSNI researcher is just completing a practice-as-research project with The Serpentine Galleries, on Future Art Ecosystems, considering the possible infrastructure in which cultural practice could be included at the front end of R&D technology development. There are two new projects that we're undertaking with Tate. One project is focused upon how to increase user access to born digital artwork in Tate’s collection. The project is working with Tate’s time-based media conservation team, considering new strategies in which the object is understood as relational and processual, rather than a fixed technological object.   The other project is with Tate Media, which is very current, is to consider the possibilities of the uses of generative AI in relation  to the online collection of British art. 

Centre for the Study of the Networked Image, Research Seminar (screenshot)

Drawing things to a close, I do think the problematic of the image as representation connects a number of these projects and needs much more attention in the continual move between the cultural and technological layers and between the discourse of computing and media. People don't start thinking about sharing photos as streams of data but as representations synonymous with experiences. Technologies of image capture will build in more AI software making choices for us. We need to understand that. Underlying quite a few of the projects or areas that I've mentioned, the question of media literacy does arise. A further project is an attempt to remake and rethink John Berger's Ways of Seeing. What would a Ways of Seeing for the 21st century look like, what would a Ways of Machine Seeing involve?

The impact of Ways of Seeing in 1972 was extraordinary and changed the way art and visual culture could be thought about. We need a new way of seeing for the computational age. Forget Photography or The Network Image in Post-Digital Culture are necessarily academic and abstract books, because we have to struggle to understand this extraordinary set of changes in a language we don’t yet have. But both are efforts to make the radically new mode of reproduction understandable.

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