The Permanent Incognito

There is a fundamental difference between photography and painting. The one observes, the other creates. The one is a document and remains a document, even if devoid of all general interest. The other is based entirely on personality, and everything crumbles into a mess of fine materials if the latter is defective. How can one talk of a rivalry between the two? Only photographic painting and pictorial photography are rivals. They should devour each other, so that they may disappear for ever! Photography is the very conscience of painting. It constantly reminds the latter of what it must not do. So let painting take its responsibilities. . . . After admiring all that the sensitive photographic plate can reveal to us, we must search for a new sensitivity — namely, that of the photographer. What attracts the photographer is precisely the chance to penetrate inside phenomena, to uncover forms. That impersonal presence! The permanent incognito! The humblest of servants, the dislocated being par excellence, lives only in latent images. He pursues them into their last refuges and surprises them at their most positive, their most material and true. As for knowing whether he should be distinguished with so controversial an name as ‘artist’, in truth it is of absolutely no importance whatsoever.

Brassai, L’Intransigeant 15 November 1932, qtd. in Henri Cartier Bresson: A Biography (2005), p. 59.

Celebration of the latent image has long been a part of photographic theory. In the beginning, the process of Daguerre and later variants such as the tintype are not so dependent on it. The triumph of the negative/positive processes have lead to much thought about invisible potentialities. It might be a matter of duration; metal/glass plate processes go from a state of latency to fulfillment of their potential almost immediately. Negative/positive processes leave evidence of their latency in the form a doppleganger, a negative lurking filled with secrets. It’s akin to thermodynamics: the latent heat of a material is its ability to absorb energy without reacting until a sudden change of state, i.e. boiling or freezing. Materiality is absorbed into latent image and through the agency of photographic development, made to appear as an image. In the beginning, it occurred only once; during the intense moments of photographic discovery/theory in the early twentieth century it was something in need of constant attention as a necessary part of photographic reproduction. Alchemy in the transmutation of images was an omnipresent force to be reckoned with.

It seemed to me, for a moment, that all this talk of latent images might be a thing of the past. After all, the digital image is instantaneously processed (or so it seems) and appears as an image fully formed without even the slightest hint of chemical vapors or potions. No alchemy at all— perhaps part of the reason that photography has seemed to lose its luster in the digital age. But on deeper reflection, I don’t think this is the case. Photographers still speak of “digital darkrooms” and Adobe sought to resurrect the negative as a universal form. Their “digital negative” is a standardized transformation of raw digital data files into a interoperable format for image production. A “latent image” is contained within sensor data. This latent data, if anything, is evidence of a richer materiality, even more importantly, this “impersonal presence” is now linked to geographic data and timestamps, as well as hardware identifiers that reveal limitations and biases of the image. Alchemy still exists, in the form of algorithms and transformations of these codes. Digital images are still containers for what Brassi labeled “the permanent incognito”— documents divorced from personalities that created them. Images still reveal sensitivities rather than personalities; the added bonus is a surfeit of documentary potential in the form of bonus data to be mined.

In a profound sense the latent image has been taken to the next level; a level filled with patterns beyond our comprehension. The latent heat of images linked through the interwebs makes me really wonder what the the next state will be. Questions regarding the status of art/artists/artistry seem absolutely trivial in the face of that. What are the sensitivities that will serve us in an environment overflowing with code? That seems to be a more pressing concern.