Photographic Index and After (Analog & Digital Twists & Turns)

(a “rayograph” by Man Ray)

The theoretical twists and turns relating to photographic index as observed by Rosalind Krauss and others are the twists and turns of the image in relation to the physical world known to the senses. In straight, analog photography, the twist contributing to the idea of aura in photography is the one made possible by the indexical relationship between the real and unreal aspects of an image. Man Ray’s “rayograph” is particularly instructive. By placing objects (everyday objects like feathers or combs, needles, buttons. and other industrially produced things) on light-sensitive paper and then exposing them to light, Man Ray produced photograms whose ghost-like appearance highlights for Krauss “photography’s existence as an index.” By index, Krauss meant “that type of sign which arises as the physical manifestation of a cause, of which traces, imprints, and clues are examples.” Or about Duchamp, Krauss writes, “This language of rapid exposure which produces a state of rest, an isolated sign is, of course, the language of photography. It describes the isolation of something from within the succession of temporality.” Here the image is “suspended” as a physical substance.

As much, however, as the index in analog photography might twist and turn, the image remains anchored to a physical spatial-temporal presence or object.

With the digital image, it would seem that the image finally attains the freedom to twist free of and snaps off from its base in the physical world. As an icon, the digital image does not re-present the world as it necessarily is. Rather, the image can now present a parallel world of its own making. In this, it acts like a painting or cultic symbolic system unto itself. As icon, however, it resembles first and foremost only itself. The digital image is a bright little thing standing at nth degree in relation to the world in which it is enveloped qua object.

(Readers inclined to look for religious significance in the digital image will have to bring to it (or will always already have brought to it) another layer of indexicality. The digital image will be forced to point to a presence no longer fully committed to a place in the physical world given to the senses.

[The comments about and from Krauss are drawn from the 2 essays on Index in The Optical Unconscious. An “index” to her brilliance, these two essays are “iconic”.]

[I’m currently at work on a couple of papers relating to photography and (Jewish) religion. A recent foray into this field is represented by my recent essay in the special edition of Philosophy Today in honor of Edith Wyschogrod, about which I’ve posted before here at JPP. The reflections posted below reflect some current thinking. Any correction, in public or private would be greatly appreciated.] 


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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1 Response to Photographic Index and After (Analog & Digital Twists & Turns)

  1. Maya Balakirsky Katz says:


    I just read your very interesting blog; what a great way to procrastinate my pile this morning. I will think about some of the things you wrote for a very long time.

    Thank you,

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