Michelle Henning



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 Lynda.com. 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.


Michelle Henning is Chair in Photography and Media at the University of Liverpool, School of the Arts.

An artist and designer as well as an academic, Henning has written on photography, cultural history, museums, modernism, and new media. Her books are Museums, Media and Cultural Theory (2006), Museum Media (2015) and Photography: The Unfettered Image (2018). She is one of the contributors to Photography: A Critical Introduction (2015, 5th ed.), and to the original 1995 edition of The Photographic Image in Digital Culture.

She has written numerous chapters and articles for journals such as photographies, New Formations, Radical Philosophy and Visual Culture in Britain. She was art director for PJ Harvey’s album The Hope Six Demolition Project (2015) and designed the cover of her Let England Shake (2011). In 2018-19 she was awarded an AHRC Leadership Fellowship for a project entitled Aesthetics, Industry and Innovation in Twentieth Century Photography: The Ilford Archive. This project set out to contribute to a larger move in photography studies, away from older analyses of a break between analogue and digital image to a more nuanced understanding of the material, industrial and technological basis of twentieth-century photographic practices, through a case study on Ilford Limited. This has led to public workshops at The Photographers Gallery, London, a conference Light | Sensitive | Material in 2019 and journal articles including a special issue of photographies journal in 2021 (14:3) , “The Worlding of Light and Air: Dufaycolor and Selochrome in the 1930s”, in Visual Culture in Britain (21:2) and “Colorsnap! Colour Photography, the Market in Patents and the 1929 Crash”, in History of Photography (44:4).

Her recent writing also addresses the conversational and emotional aspects of photography, especially in relation to social media — her publications on this include “Feeling Photos: Photography, Picture Language and Mood Capture” in Tomáš Dvořák and Jussi Parikka (eds), Photography Off the Scale (2021),  “Kind of Blue: Social Media Photography and Emotion”, in Digital Culture & Society journal (2021), and “That Liking Feeling: Mood, Emotion and Social Media Photography”  in Jacob Lewis and Kyle Parry (eds) Ubiquity: Photography’s Multitudes  (2021).

Henning is on the editorial boards of Revista de Comunicação e Linguagens, the Science Museum Group Journal and photographies journal.