Virtuality, Photography & the Abstract Image

Extracts from a paper presented at The Image Conference, Venice, October 2017

My practice explores how photographic images, are generated in a virtual computer environment via the use of 3D software. In my recent work, I am investigating three key areas of concern. Firstly, how I bring my experience as a photographer to a new algorithmically determined 3D space. Secondly, how Henri Bergson’s notion of the virtual and the actual might provide an understanding for how images are created and produced in a digital system. Thirdly, how the work I am currently making provides a way to interrogate practices of abstraction and to reveal what is essentially photographic.


To start with, my use of the term ‘virtual’ does not refer to virtual reality, where for example the virtual stands for a kind of artificial representation of our conscious experience represented in an immersive simulated world. What concerns me is the potential of the virtual as a concept for working with the processes within the programme and digital environment. My work uses 3D software to generate data images in the apparatus of the computer, exploiting what I consider to be the virtualities of its algorithms. I approach this virtual space from the position of a photographic practitioner and find myself attracted to it for reasons similar to those that first drew me to photography, notably the extraordinary action of light on objects, its alchemic nature and its forms of transformation that makes it inherently magical. It is a space of the inexplicable, of abstraction, obscurity and trickery as well as of transparency and revelation.


As a workspace, 3D software conflates the studio and the darkroom into a singular creative environment by modelling through a multiplicity of algorithms embedded in the software. Though I look through the window of a two-dimensional screen, the space of the environment beyond is multi-perspectival and seemingly infinite in nature. The space is one where measurement is meaningless, where objects are simply relative to one another. Scale is internal, relative in size and expressed through simulated distances and perspectives. Objects are formed as constructed arrangements, or extrapolations of a gesture. Light is modelled from sources that produce qualities of reflection, refraction, shadow and luminosity.  


The geometric forms produced in this space refer only to themselves, determined by the technical processes built into the apparatus. The resulting images bear only a tangential relationship to external signifiers. The forms generated in this environment are as close as one will get to achieving the modernist ambition of creating pure form. As Henri Focillon noted in his Life of Forms in Art,  ‘A work of art treats space according to its own needs, defines space and even creates such space as may be necessary to it.’ (Focillon1934 pp17) He goes on to claim, ‘Form signifies only itself’ (pp34).


The photographic images I make may also be described as technical or data images, and like the photographic camera, they are made within the confines of a technical process, but one provided by an apparatus that does not have any direct relationship with an external referent. Therefore, the apparatus makes no attempt to point to anything ‘out there’ in the material or phenomenal world, but instead, as Vilem Flusser points out, the apparatus itself becomes the reason for the image, indeed the apparatus is the image in the sense that the image-making process is one that is self-reflexive. By turning the mirror in on itself, it reveals something of itself as a participant in the image making process. So to ask what these images mean has no real position as they have no direct symbolic value.


My work takes place within this environment, one that is determined through algorithmic systems, where objects, surfaces and light are intrinsically determinate and follow the rules of geometric optics through modelled optical space. In this respect the digital space is one that offers the ultimate space of illusion, that of revealing the effect of something absent. For example in the final rendered image, a shadow can exist even when the object that cast the shadow is no longer present in the image, or a reflection remain in the image when there is no visual evidence of its object ever being present. But what is it to remove something that was never really there in the first place? The physical laws of cause and effect are rendered irrelevant in these photographs. The object, though absent in the image, still remains as an algorithmic entity in the apparatus in the form of its original generated data.


Though I have inferred that the virtual as an environment that has spatial dimensions, conceptually, the virtual is not really spatial at all. For Henri Bergson, the virtual is devoid of dimensionality and yet paradoxically, as a digital space, contains all possible dimensions. Bergson’s concept of the virtual is closer to what might be considered pure multiplicities, the virtual is not synonymous with something that is artificial or references any form of simulation. A way to think of Bergson’s notion of the virtual is that which presents a field of potentialities. He links the virtual to the non-materiality of memory that can only be made actual through conscious perception.


The virtual is non-material, the quantum world reveals this to be the case. In the quantum world a particle is actualised (or becomes determinate) only through the process of observation, by bringing it into the world of human consciousness, to bring it into being from its latent state.

The virtual is a latent image that becomes actualised through perception. The virtual is neither object nor representation but sits at the intersection between objects and their representations. Bergson provides a useful photographic metaphor to describe how the virtual in latent memory is actualised:


…we detach ourselves from the present in order to replace ourselves, first, in the past in general, then, in a certain region of the past - a work of adjustment, something like the focusing of a camera. But our recollection still remains virtual; we simply prepare ourselves to receive it by adopting the appropriate attitude. Little by little it comes into view like a condensing cloud; from the virtual state it passes into the actual; and as its outlines become more distinct and its surface takes on color, it tends to imitate perception.


We might think of the virtual then as being in a perpetual state of wanting to be resolved into the domain of the actual, which is performed through a transformation from a virtual immaterial state to an actual material state. In this sense the virtual acts as a metaphysical background from which actual things are made concrete. Forms in the virtual space emerge from the algorithmically determined conceptual space of the computer apparatus and become actualised in an image that is consolidated and conceivable.


The 3D space digital is temporal. As I navigate the 3D digital space, I am the dynamic agent of a singular perspectival viewpoint while the internal environment is fixed, multi-dimensional and infinite. The constructed objects remain static until interacted with in some way. Objects lack gravity; they are frozen in the form of a three-dimensional image. It is a space where the natural laws of physics do not apply, a space of illusion but one with no apparent intention to deceive.  Though the possibilities are almost limitless in this space, I am drawn to the standard geometric polygon and planar selections and I use the software’s basic tools of construction, its most simple types of illumination and application of colour that represent the fundamental features of the software that are paradoxically also highly complex.  The images that emerge are auto-referential abstractions that have been freed from the burden of photographic representation, an activity of visualisation that requires looking outwards. Instead, these abstract images look inwards, to the world of photographable things generated in the system. Lambert Weising describes this dichotomy as ‘visualising turning towards’ and ‘abstracting turning away.’


In many respects the work I am making references the Concrete Photographic practices that emerged in Germany in the 1960’s. Interested in representing photography’s inner conditions, concrete photography was inspired by Theo van Doesburg’s wider concept of concrete art which emerged in the 1930s, and later through the activities of modernist artists who were experimenting with light and objects to form photographic abstractions. These were images made in a darkroom by analogue means combining photographic paper, objects, light and surfaces to form direct abstract photograms. More recently the photographer, Thomas Rüff working directly with a software engineer, has generated a series of digital photograms. Unhappy with the one-to-one scaling limitations of the traditional photogram, Rüff in 2008 set to work to create digital photogram that mimic, yet enhance the aesthetic of the conventional photogram by taking the advantage of digitally reproducing his work way beyond the scale of most traditional photograms.


The German photographer Gottried Jaeger, who in the 1960’s is credited with promoted the term, ‘concrete photography’, describes it as  ‘pure photography: not abstractions of the real world, but rather concretions of the pictorial possibilities contained within photography.’  Concrete photographs ‘are not a semantic medium, but aesthetic objects; they are not represented, but presented, not reproduced, but produced…….. They do not want to illustrate anything; they do not want to represent anything. They are nothing but themselves: objects referring to themselves; they are independent, authentic, autonomous, autogenic: photographs of photography.’


Concrete photography and what has now become termed ‘generative photography’ is a form of cameraless image making Concrete photography represents a return to the essence of the photographic, where interactions of light and objects and surfaces form the basis of an image. This is reminiscent of Fox Talbot’s early photogenic drawings that were an attempt at depicting not the object itself, but rather the fixing of its shadow. The terms generative photography and concrete photography are used almost synonymously, and are similar in the sense that they both strive to make the abstract concrete, but they differ in one key aspect. In generative photography, the technology becomes an intrinsic part of the image making process, which for Flusser necessitates a different type of human producer that he refers to as an ‘envisioner’. ‘The power to envision’, says Flusser, ‘is the power of drawing the concrete out of the abstract.’ He identifies the camera as a programmed mysterious black box apparatus that, along with the photographer, forms a single functional-unit, ‘the photographer is committed to the exhaustion of the photo-programme, and to the realization of all the virtualities contained there. The programme, however, is rich and nearly impenetrable. The photographer is committed then, to discovering hidden virtualities in the program (Flusser pp19). For me, the abstract is the arena for testing photography and for exploring the essence of the photographic.


In my work, images are built from the inside, from the electrons whirring through the circuitry of the black box of the computer in the form of data and emerging as concretions that are made actual by the abstract virtualities of the programme. My work is generative in nature but is not camera-less. I use a virtual camera that is embedded in the software that can be moved into any position, focused on any point, set on any focal length and adjusted using a complete range of aperture settings.


As in all photographic image making, there comes a point when a decision has to be made that will determine the outcome of the final image. It is the point that a a decision is made to make the image by pressing the shutter release, or by exposing the photographic paper in the darkroom, a decisive moment when the objects the lighting, the colour and the composition coagulate to form the image.  In 3D imaging software, this moment is represented by shifting from scene mode to render mode, when the algorithms determine the image. It is this shift which forms a simulated photographic moment, where a transformation takes place from that of a digitally determined latent image to one that is fixed. Processing photographic materials through chemical means and rendering data images share a similar sense of expectation, that of the few minutes of waiting for the image to emerge; to come to fruition. In chemical photography this takes place through interactions with silver halides and chemicals, in data imaging, it is the code that enables the transformation of the image.


Algorithms now determine how we experience the visual field photographically. Images are situated in the virtual realm, bound in the logic of the digital space. Perhaps this is why printing them and making them concrete is so profound. Darkroom printing and computer imaging are processes separated only by their technological developments, but inhabit the same conceptual space, shifting as they do from the virtual/abstract to actual/concrete. Ultimately, and perhaps most importantly, they share the same sense of alchemy and hold the same moment of anticipation, the same fascination and intrinsic sense of magic.