Blowing Up the Photo by Kent Buchanan

Blowing Up the Photo: Some Notes on Materiality by Kent Buchanan

I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.1 – Garry Winogrand

In some European countries there is an age-old New Year tradition of melting portions of lead or tin over a candle and pouring it into a vessel of water. This baptism produces random, stilled shapes.2 They are then interpreted according to their resemblance to forms in nature, as a way to foretell the coming year. In some cases the object is held against candlelight and the shadows cast are also considered. Known as Molybdomancy its alchemical heritage lay with the Greeks. At its heart lies the desire to peer beyond the reality of the world using its materiality as a talisman.


Photography in the 20th century was a material discipline. From its advent the alchemical nature of photography demanded that the practitioner understand its laws. The creation of a photograph was a physical collaboration with chemicals, the apparatus and light. The image capture was its point of conception, and the vehicle for its delivery took many forms. The medium soon established conventions that would direct its physical production and affect its material transmission. The street and the studio became the terrain in which the photographer could elicit views of the world, thereby defining its representational limits. Yet how familiar are we with photography’s own materiality, and how has this been examined and altered by artists who question its history and social role?

The photographic image requires a physical ground - a corporeal slip of real-time, resting on a paper substrate. It could at once be an object kept close to the body, as coloniser of walls, mantelpieces and albums, or embedded in daily life through its cohabitation with the written word. The collusion of printmaking practices affected the means by which a photograph could be articulated. The agencies of photographic production provided the ideal laboratory for the photographic experiment. The rush to embrace this prescient new form meant that time was being materially documented by anyone who had access to the technology. The camera documents the world in flux, but once the photographic exposure has occurred it is merely the documentation of the past. The world has quickly moved on from the moment depicted; and the photo is a referent of what was.

Each successive generation has pulled apart the conventions of photography, questioning what constitutes worthy subject matter. Yet its status as a field of study has been reliant upon its object hood as well as its cultural value. Photographic artists began to play with the form and tropes of representation, examining and dissecting its cultural role and looking beyond the material to evince new modes of photographic image production.

No longer pictorial but a process or medium with a function beyond its past, photography is used within other forms to act as understudy for the real. Because of its role as proxy or simulacra, the photograph has never really existed, and this lack of existence freed artists to manipulate, distort and alter at will, creating infinite versions of a photographic fiction. As digital photography exploded, the horde of analogue materials left by its ‘Modernism’ allowed artists to explore, re-contextualise, appropriate and alter pre-existing imagery. Images produced for specific purposes could now be utilized for alternate aims. Images co-opted from marketing material and advertising, could be saved from the garbage heap of expired value to reappear with new meanings ascribed, or critiqued via the inclusion of the incongruous. The opportunity to edit visual culture using the detritus of the modern world was an opportunity to disassemble the power structures inherent in these forms. Junk mail, out dated encyclopaedias, and used picture books became the medium for artists to re-assemble at their will, democratising all forms of image making, and subverting their purpose.

Photography’s material history is its ‘Modernism’. At its heart, the material form of photography is ephemeral, yet the photograph is collected, preserved and conserved by the museological apparatus, in an attempt to alleviate the destructive effects of the outside world. The climate-controlled environment sits in opposition to the real world, ensuring the process of deterioration is stilled: Museum as palliative care. The light that brings the photograph into being is also its kryptonite, the fuel for its inherent vice.

Until the invention of digital technologies, a photograph’s value lay within the subject represented; its reproducibility (or transmission); its material value (cardstock vs. newsprint); and its relationship to the personal. The move from cluttered shoe box full of dog-eared, abraded snapshots to jpegs and tiffs compressed inside a hard-drive has been gradual. Photography’s second revolution has engulfed daily life, and the camera is now a default inclusion in all forms of personal technology. This has rendered the image as an intangible ghost that is now wholly dependent on the machine that brings it to light. Its fragility is still bound to its substrate, and as such it’s current form is liminal. But if the machine is switched off, does the image still exist?

Photography has made a slow crawl from the wet cave of its analogue past into the blinking, digital, pixelated present. The role of the analogue as traditional, comfortable, and familiar has been usurped by the instant, malleable, high definition of the digital. It has become a touchstone of the past – a symbol of a what is lost. It’s digital re-birth has seen it adapt into a back-lit, flickering glow, as if dipped back into the liquid analogue past and suspended within leaves of glass (once the very substrate of its invention).

The digital photograph has severed the umbilicus connecting it to the analogue - now floating in its own pixelated ether, we can request it, delete it and adapt it. Its ubiquity contributing to the files and files of dead images like junk mail bursting out of a mailbox. Will we wish to return to the tactile world of the photographic object? Or will it become a medium through which we materialise the past in order to glimpse our future?

Photography is dead! Long live Photography!


1. Susan Sontag, On Photography (1973)
2. known in German: Bleigießen “lead pour”, Norwegian: støyping "casting"; Finnish: uudenvuoden tina, "New Year's Tin".


Kent Buchanan is a writer and curator based in Dubbo, NSW.