Keynote Abstracts


Atmospheric Affects: Photography Dispersed 

Photography’s relationship to the world is not a one way process of representation, but one of mutual interpenetration. It is a mobile and evanescent medium that responds to, and is shaped, not just by light, but by atmosphere and environment.  I will discuss ‘atmosphere’ in two senses, the first referring to the air, gases and vapour surrounding the planet (including air pollution, such as smog and fumes, and air temperature), the second referring to shared and pervasive mood or affect. Both kinds of atmosphere do not simply exist, are not simply ‘natural’, but are worked on, altered and manipulated. They also work on the photographic, which is materially sensitive to atmosphere as well as able to depict it. The term ‘fogged’, for example, describes not only the hazy appearance of contaminated film and prints, but the origins of this contamination in adverse atmospheric conditions, in actual fogs.

The connection to affective atmosphere, always present in photographs, takes on new significance in emergent digital practices, centred on what I term ‘affective realism’.  I use corporate video tutorials to show how photographers are being taught to measure the realism of an image according to its ‘truth to feeling’.  Affective realism does not require that an image conforms to what is, or was, objectively present in the world, but rather that it corresponds to and feeds into an idealised, and appropriate affective atmosphere. Image editing software become affect-management technologies. Instead of contaminating the photographic, the external world becomes a prop for the solipcism of the photographer or audience. Ccontemporary digital photography is being reinvented as a set of procedures to defuse and contain our environment and climate at the very moment of collapse.

This paper addresses photography’s dispersal ‘among us’, not only as images, but as a set of technologies and practices. It builds on my recent book on photography’s technical mobility, and my argument that concepts of ‘capture’ and ‘freezing’ are insufficient for understanding photographic images. It also develops out of my research in the archives of the photographic company Ilford Limited, and my analysis of Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom tutorials on Drawing on all of these, I attempt to respond to the idea of photography as disintegrated and dispersed across media, as something that is elusive, transitory and yet deeply embedded in our culture and material surroundings. The phrase ‘images among us’ implies that there is something weirdly alien about photographic images, although they resemble us and our world. I suggest instead that the alien, and alienating, aspect of photography derives from the corporate reinvention of the medium as a solipsistic one, which reduces it to a mirror for our feelings.


Mapping Photography: Some thoughts on ‘Critical Practice’ 

While studies of contemporary photography pay considerable attention to the ubiquity of photographic images, much less has been said about the diverse forms of labour on which photographic cultures rely. When we think about networked photography, for example, it is typically in terms of image content, visual communication and the behaviour of social media users, not mineral extraction in the Congo, smartphone manufacture in Shenzhen, the unpaid self-promotion of freelance creatives, content moderation in the Philippines, or the gruelling work involved in training machines to see like humans.

Exploring a range of practices through which this labour has been made visible—in art, scholarship, advertising, and the media—I consider in precisely what senses this work can be regarded as ‘critical’; particularly as, when understood as labour, the practice of critically reflecting on and through photography is so often situated within similar economic systems to those being scrutinised. Examining the potential of photography’s much-trumpeted ubiquity as a means to make the complexity of larger systems legible at the level of individual actors, I turn my attention towards the social, intellectual and political objectives we hope critical practices might serve, along with their implications for our thinking about both criticality and practice.