Posted on March 30, 2015. The following article has been registered with the United States Copyright Office and replaces the first draft of The Photographer's Resolution 2015, posted on August 18, 2014. Last update, December 8, 2017. Copyright © 2014-2017 by Luigi Cassinelli. All rights reserved.
Mission of Materia et Lumen
Materia et Lumen is a publishing company dedicated to certify the reproduction of authentic photographs.
Materia et Lumen aims to identify unequivocally the scope of photography and to prevent ambiguous usage of the term photograph. Fact is, any published image rendered by software (on the Web, on magazines, on fine art paper, on a screen) could depict an authentic photograph, something doctored, or something entirely fabricated, pixel by pixel, with no link to a photograph. Our purpose is to make a clear distinction between the term photograph and generic terms such as image, digital image, picture, shot, photo, and print. Photographers, spectators, and publishers should be able to answer a simple question, What is the difference between a photograph and a generic image? In other words, What is unique about a photograph? To answer this question we must agree on one precise definition of the word photograph. The definition we honor is rooted in three fundamental points which constitute the spirit of Materia et Lumen.
- 1) The definition of the word photograph should be coherent with its etymology (recorded by light).
- 2) The definition of the word photograph must be grounded in an empirical analysis, since photography originates in the discovery of the natural interaction between light and matter (the property of silver compounds decomposing to metallic silver when exposed to light) and is based on optical and chemical technology. Photography is not an arbitrary, evolving concept, nor is it an abstract postulate. Photography developed from the discovery of J. H. Schulze and became available with the inventions of J. N. Niepce, L. J. M. Daguerre, and W. H. Fox-Talbot.
- 3) The definition of the word photograph should assess the photographer's decision to record what he or she sees, through a chosen optical system, by trusting solely the instantaneous and independent action of light on matter.
The Materia et Lumen Criterion
We propose the following criterion to spectators, photographers, art dealers and galleries, art directors, museum curators, editors, and publishers.
- Article I: A photograph is a material and permanent, original trace of the light conveyed by an optical system, generated in the instant where light, the photographer’s interaction with his or her environment, and matter connect at the same time. The term "trace" should be interpreted with its existential meaning: an indication of the existence of something. The term “original” helps us to assess the unique genesis of the photograph, and consequently to differentiate a photograph from its reproductions.
- Article II: When we reproduce a photograph, whether by publishing or by printing it, we honor our audience by submitting, to the best of our abilities, a fair reproduction of the photograph. The unfaithful reproduction of the original interaction between light and matter is an act of manipulation. Any deceitful rendering, for example by not mentioning an act of manipulation, is an infringement of our criterion.
- Article III: The word "photograph" must be used exclusively for physical originals defined in article I (for example, exposed film negatives and film positives). We suggest the term "photographic print" for a print produced by projecting a photograph on a medium with silver halide based emulsion (for example, gelatin silver prints). We suggest the term "digital print of a photograph" for a print produced by means of computer operated devices (for example, ink-jets, lasers, and sublimation prints) and in compliance with article II. We suggest the term "digital scan of a photograph" to be used when publishing a photograph on the Web. We suggest the term "photography by" for giving credit, on any media, to photographers when reproducing their original photographs in compliance with article II.
- Article IV: When we exhibit work that reproduces photographs, we honor our audience by submitting the available information about the original photographs.
Examples of Photographs and their Reproductions
The first examples of photographs were named heliographs, daguerreotypes, and calotype negatives. The most recent medium which upholds the definition of photograph is recorded silver halide film in negative or positive form. The following table shows one photograph in a negative form, with its reproduction, a contact print, on the right.
The following table shows an original photograph developed directly into a positive form (this is the digital scan of the photograph reproduced in our home page).
Photographs are original documents. For visualization purposes, their content can be reproduced in the following manners:
- by photographic printing, with gelatin silver based paper;
- by projection;
- by digital encoding with a scanner.
To understand the difference between original photographs and their reproductions we must follow the lead of light. Gelatin silver prints (prints obtained from the exposure of sensitive paper to the artificial light projected through a photograph) are not photographs, since they are not records of the light reflected from an environment; they are recorded by the artificial light of an enlarger and they are affected by the work of the printer.
Photographs are permanently recorded; thus, any manipulation performed on reproductions of photographs (for example, by chemical or electronic retouching) voids the ontological value of the photographs. If we conceal the manipulation, for example by naming "photograph" the product of a manipulation, we create an impostor.
Still following the lead of light, we see how a digital file is not a photograph. Digital files are not material, they are not designed to be permanent, and they are not original traces of light; digital files are mutant by design. An abacus can help us visualize the essence of any digital file.
The image on the left shows one abacus in a specific status. The image on the right shows the VERY SAME abacus in a different status. In a similar way, digital files are designed to mutate too (according to the instruction of software). The abacus displays different codes with different positions of its beads; digital files perform the same task by making use of the electronic properties of solid semiconductors (for example, RAM, hard disks). As there is no original status for an abacus, digital files do not have one, specific original status (01 or 10?); they are designed to store and discard numeric codes.
Now, let's have a look at the sensor of a digital camera.
Digital sensors have outstanding properties; nevertheless, by design, they also have one fundamental limit. The signal sensitive to light that they detect must be translated into a numeric code; then, the code is stored as a digital file and the signal is discarded. The chalkboard with the small abacus on top should help to clarify. The chalkboard mocks the part of the sensor that is sensitive to light (the analog component), the abacus the digital one. The image on the right shows our sensor detecting someone smiling. The sensor translates the smile into the code displayed by the abacus. Then, the sensor detects a new signal, this time a sad face, and the sensor translates it into a new numeric code. When we use a roll of film, we produce separate, physical frames. In a digital camera, the analog element sensitive to light must discard its connection with light. The only output is a digital file. At this point, contact with light is lost; all that is left is a numeric code stored in a digital file. Once again, a medium that is mutant. Further, codes are designed to be processed by software; one code can produce many images, but not an original one recorded by the action of light. By all means, we do not deprecate the use of digital cameras; we differentiate the output of digital cameras, computer simulations of photographs, from authentic photographs. Digital sensors and photography are poles apart technologies; we assess their disparate purposes.
Numeric codes and digital files are fabricated; actually, we don't need cameras to generate digital images; we don't need photographers; we don't need someone smiling or feeling sad. As we create numeric codes just by moving beads on an abacus, software generates any digital image we desire. Such powerful software might intrigue fans of videogames and virtual reality, but it is useless for photographers. Fact is that without an original photograph, a digital file has no direct connection with a real experience; it is just an instruction, a numeric code capable to operate machines like monitors and printers. For this reason, digital files might produce great pictures, but they will never supersede photographs.
For an in depth analysis of the fundamentals about the technology, the ontology, and the semantics of photography visit the website ThePhotographers.org
For example: in the morning, going to the set. I don't usually have clear ideas; I prefer getting there and finding that I have to resolve a certain situation, and then doing it in the way it feels, starting from a virginal point. [...]. What's important is who I am in the moment of shooting. That's where it becomes "autobiographical."
On the other hand, the past is a cadaver. Experience is a limited tool only. Also, it can make you sterile or distract you. I really believe that one must annihilate experience. Get free of it. Otherwise it lures you, ties your hands, makes you a victim of false promises. It robes you of that instinctiveness (sic) which to me is the most beautiful thing in human behavior.
Michelangelo Antonioni, A Love of Today: An Interview with Michelangelo Antonioni, by Gideon Bachman
Such are the two ways of the Photograph. The choice is mine: to subject its spectacle to the civilized code of perfect illusions, or to confront in it the wakening of intractable reality.
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
It can never be the same, playing with blanks.
James Bond, from Irvin Kershner's Never Say Never Again
Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is.
By the treatment that the artist imposes on reality, he declares the intensity of his rejection.
Whether it succumbs to the intoxication of abstraction and formal obscurantism, or whether it falls back on the whip of the crudest and most ingenious realism, modern art, in its semi-totality, is an art of tyrants and slaves, not of creators.
Albert Camus, The Rebel
There is a computer disease that anybody who works with computers knows about. It's a very serious disease and interferes completely with the work. The trouble with computers is that you 'play' with them.
It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth--this indifference to how things really are--that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.
Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit
It has become fashionable in recent decades, not least among people who think of themselves as on the left, to deny that objective reality is accessible, since what we call 'facts' exist only as a function of prior concepts and problems formulated in terms of these. [...]. Any tendency to doubt this is 'positivism', and no term indicates a more comprehensive dismissal than this, unless it is empiricism. In short, I believe that without the distinction between what is and what is not so, there can be no history. Rome defeated Carthage in the Punic Wars, not the other way around. How we assemble and interpret our chosen sample of verifiable data [...] is another matter.
Eric Hobsbawm, On History
I think this is the age of fanaticism, in a way; I think fanaticism feeds upon itself and I loathe fanatics.
Nothing has been retouched, nothing electronically altered. I photographed what I saw.
Ever bought a fake picture? [...]. The more you pay for it, the less inclined you are to doubt it.
George Smiley, from John Le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
No one questioned the appropriateness of calling the photograph a "picture."
Alan Trachtenberg, Classic Essays on Photography
Photography is a love affair with life.
Burk Uzzle, cited in Creative Camera International Year Book 1976