Remediation has a long history, a history which stretches back far before the advent of digital media. I am going to attempt to explore this history, and offer some thoughts on how pre-digital remediation relates to post-digital remediation, by focusing on various iterations of landscape photography from the turn of the nineteenth century to the present. By remediation I refer to the process by which (any) new media replicates the (generally) visual paradigms of older media, with new and unfamiliar media thus gaining legitimacy and eventual acceptance in popular culture.
Jay Boulter and Richard Grusin theorise that there are ‘two logics of remediation’ (p.21), immediacy and hypermediacy. An example of the first, immediacy, is the computer interface. For Boulter and Grusin, ‘the desktop metaphor […] is supposed to assimilate the computer to the physical desktop and to the materials (file folders, sheets of paper, inbox, trash basket, etc.) familiar to office workers’ (p.23). They go on to show that a truly ‘transparent interface would be the one that erases itself, so that the user is no longer aware of confronting a medium, but instead stands in an immediate relationship to the contents of that medium’ (pp.23-4).
Immediacy, therefore, is a chimera. New media may strive towards achieving immediacy, but it is unlikely the user will ever stand in the wholly immediate relationship of the truly transparent interface. The limits are not inherent to technology (improvements in virtual reality may lead to all manner of immersive media), but rather to the practice of remediation itself. Immediacy can, at least in the case of digital media, be understood as the first stage of remediation. It is, in part, the initial process by which new media gain legitimacy and acceptance in popular culture by attempting to faithfully replicate what has gone before. Following from early immediacy come more complex conceptions of hypermediacy as new (in this case digital) media evolve.
Tracing the evolution of landscape photography from the nineteenth century into the digital age is an interesting example of this process. Boulter and Grusin, briefly detailing the rise of the camera obscura, write that ‘the invention of photography represented the perfection of linear perspective’ (p.25), itself an attempt at immediacy stemming from Enlightenment mathematics and Renaissance painting. The invention of photography ‘seemed to many to complete the earlier trend to conceal both the process and the artist’ (p.25) and thus ‘apparently removed the artist as an agent who stood between the viewer and the reality of the image’ (p.26). True immediacy, it seemed, had been achieved.
Except, of course, it hadn’t. The seeming erasure of the artist in the mechanistic process of photography, where ‘the shutter opens, and light streams in through the lens [to be] focused on a chemical film’ (p.27), is ultimately illusory. The human subject remains present as the agent of artistic composition, framing the image to appeal to specific aesthetic and cultural criteria. If we consider photography as a continuation of a post-enlightenment drive towards immediacy in remediation, it’s interesting to note how closely related Victorian media operated under the logic of hypermediacy at the same time. Devices such as the diorama, the phenakistoscope, and the stereoscope were ‘characterised by multiple images, moving images, or sometimes moving observers [… as …] hypermediacy manifested itself in the nineteenth century alongside and around the transparent technology of photography’(pp.37-8). Photographic immediacy, however, remained dominant, with these now archaic technologies becoming obsolete.
To borrow terminology from Lawrence Lessig, neither the diorama, the phenakistoscope, nor the stereoscope survived, at least in part, because they are ‘Read/Only’ (R/O) media. This is in contrast to the conventional camera and the ‘Read/Write’ (R/W) culture of photography. For Lessig, the human subject ‘add[s] to the culture they read’ (read here meaning consume) ‘by creating and re-creating the culture around them’ (p.28). This begs the question, have the camera as technology and photographic immediacy as a logic of remediation both become dominant in visual culture precisely because photography is an accessible and participative cultural enterprise?
If the answer to this question is yes, as I believe it might be, then what does the future hold for photographic immediacy? Digital media are becoming increasingly dominant in photography, and nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the rise of Instagram. Instagram is the latest iteration of RW photography, but the creative opportunities of the windowed interface mean that, like those obsolete nineteenth century technologies, we are seeing ‘transparent immediacy incorporated within hypermediacy’ (p.32). Consider Instagram’s interface where, to borrow Boulter and Grusin’s words, ‘the multiple representations inside the windows (text, graphics, video) create a heterogenous space, as they compete for the viewer’s attention’ (p.32). They go on to say that, ‘unlike a perspective painting or three-dimensional computer graphic, this windowed interface does not attempt to unify the space around any one point of view’ (p.33). With Instagram, photographic immediacy is incorporated into digital hypermediacy.
If we consider landscape photography, the simple white background of the app’s interface focuses the user’s attention on spectacular images of the natural world, images which can be digitally enhanced using filters. The hashtag sharing system (#nature appended to 207,199,599 posts at the time of writing) encourages not only the sharing of images, but allows related posts to be linked together in an interconnected network. These posts contain not only photos or video, but also explicatory text which can link to content on the wider internet. As Lessig argues, ‘the RW Internet is an ecosystem’ (p.63), so might we call this network of posts the ecology of Instagram? If we consider Instagram as a vast online collection of images, we can speak more broadly of the ecology of the digital archive. Without hashtags, and human agents to use these tools to link images together, this term would be inappropriate, for we would only have a random collection of digital images. Digitisation, it is important to note, is not the same as remediation.
Like the logic of immediacy, the move to hypermediacy comes in many different forms and is difficult to define. What is clear is that hypermediacy is heterogenous. Instagram draws on many different older media (text, photo, video) and allows users to partake in the construction of visual culture rather than simply consuming it. It is, however, perhaps over-hasty to suggest that the digital will move away from transparent immediacy in favour of hypermediacy altogether. Are the two logics of remediation, while seeming to be oppositional, really complimentary? Instagram undoubtedly marks a return to multiplicity and hypermediacy in the visual culture of today and this return is particularly intriguing after the obsolescence of Victorian technologies of hypermediacy such as the diorama. That said, in the popularity of the ‘instagrammed’ landscape photograph, do we not see that the desire for transparent immediacy remains equally prevalent in the digital culture of the present? After all, often linked to the ‘#nature’ tag is the ‘#nofilter’, appended to 181,018,964 posts at time of writing.
Jay David Boulter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999)
Lawrence Lessig, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy (London: Penguin, 2008)