One of these apples is no longer attached to this tree. It was thrown into the camera’s view and an image was made as it crashed through the branches and presumably fell to the ground, with some noise. The photograph was not taken by a human hand, but rather by a motion detector; triggered by a single, unattached apple moving vertically through the frame.
Looking at this picture I know it is a photograph, and therefore I know the apple tree is dead. There is an absence in this image that attracts me to it. Like other interesting photographs, this one thinks. Like all other photographs, this one lies. I enjoy this picture because I know there is nothing more difficult to photograph than an apple, but in some unavoidable way, I am lying too: if I think photography has nothing whatsoever to do with truth then any reflection upon it cannot contain a modicum of certainty.
In 1912 Gustav Klimt painted an apple tree. The tree fills most of the canvas; its rounded form practically inseparable from a background of other foliage dabbed out in oil paint. Klimt’s painting is confusing, dense, noisy even. His ritualistic brushstrokes render him present: they are incessant in some frustratingly colourful manner. The apples are alive in Klimt’s painting, as are the flowers growing in the foreground. The painting does something that a photograph cannot; it keeps the apple tree alive.
Apple maggots bury themselves in the core of ripe apples still attached to the tree. Their birthed larvae eat the fruit from the inside out, causing it to rot and bruise. When an apple is rotten, it falls to the ground. An apple maggot, now fully grown into a fly, emerges from the apple’s inside only to mimic a jumping spider – so it may disguise itself before flight. The fly emerges from the apple, denies its crime, announces itself as something that it is not and disappears.
This photograph alludes to a particular state of photography: that supposed end-point at which a photographer seems completely unable to remove their falsely trusting desire to create an unexplainable and rhetorical emotional response within a photograph; something that ‘pricks’ at its viewer. In similar words Roland Barthes, in Camera Lucida, called this phenomenon the punctum; in exact words Barthes also admitted that “The punctum shows no preference for morality or good taste: the punctum can be ill-bred.” Barthes offers two different types of possible expansion for the punctum as a phenomenon, neither of which helps us to understand the meaning of photography, I would argue. This photograph successfully removes the possibility of a punctum within it, and therefore its expansion, because to know this photograph is to acknowledge it exists to disrupt the reliance on emotional response we so often have when viewing photographs, and to think beyond the need for a punctum at all. By taking away something in the making of this photograph, we are offered something dead and rotten with no sharp ends. The picture allows us to think politically: to think beyond one human and one response and instead to the wider social function of a particular form of photographic technology as it relates to the authority of images.
At the end of the First World War, Léon Theramin invented the earliest motion detector. The device, given the name Radio Watchman, was what we would colloquially now call a burglar alarm. The device that led to the development of the motion-sensor-triggered-camera-shutter was designed to alert one individual to the presence of another, possibly one attempting to steal something from the other. In this sense one could read the nature of this form of technology within the context of photography, as existing to mechanically capture, yet immediately prohibit, the long presence of an individual or object. If a subject were unaware of the presence of the device when approaching an area where one has been set-up, a brief shock or moment of surprise would ensue. Click – that sense of immediate personal insecurity that many of us experience when being photographed. When a moving subject triggers the device, an alarm is sounded – this alarm is the shutter itself. The camera as alarm: technology left to its own devices, with no human operator, wards off the presence of a moving subject. This invention, traced historically from the end of the First World War to the present day, essentially seeks to banish or inhibit the presence of human subjects: within the context of photography it seems to state: ‘Click, get away from here, your presence has been noted.’
Human agency is stripped away here in part. The photographer sets up the possibility for the camera to trigger itself with the onset of movement, but the camera then takes the timing and the image capturing under its own control. Camera technology, without the properly manual intervention of a human hand, becomes a strange mechanical-natural cause: a series of deterministic processes.
What is a photographic image rendered entirely by the technology that produces it, with no human intervention at the point of capture? Since the invention of the mechanical motion detector, this is a genuine point for photography’s consideration. As the motion detector – a small piece in the larger puzzle of technological development – has contributed to the revealing of photography as a potentially humanless form of picture making, there are further questions revealed about the state of photographic images. There are differences between an individual controlling the camera, and the camera being left alone under the stipulations of a particular mechanical or digital setting, to take a picture of its own accord.
The manual, hands-on taking of a photograph is a complicated choice; a perfect mix of individual and social determination. A person captures an image of the world beginning at a chosen time and lasting for a particular duration. This act of photographing is instigated by the individual, but carried out by the camera. The resulting picture exists as a synthesis of human individuality and social influence (agency and structure). A triangle is formed here between a human, a camera and the rest of society: human agency is mediated by technology to give a photographic impression of the (social) structure of our world. The ritual of human agency within photography is consumed by technology, perhaps to the benefit of its proper exposition. One might recall Walter Benjamin at this point: “For the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.” If a photograph is a work of art, its mechanical reproduction frees it from its dependence on human agency. Human agency, as individual ritual, is exposed by the act of photographing. The further the auto-mechanical essence of photography is accelerated, the more this ritual is exposed, in Benjamin’s words, as a parasite.
This parasite has a name: the punctum. It is the presence of human ritual in every photograph: it obscures the proper understanding of the relationship between social and technological phenomena. To remove the affective pinprick from a photograph is to cure photography from the parasite of human agency: the punctum, as doxa, embedded under emulsion or ink. This parasite is human narcissism itself, made clear by Roland Barthes mournful, solipsistic Camera Lucida. Like the definition of a parasite, the punctum ‘eats at the table’ of authenticity, fattening itself on the meal of another. The ‘other’ in this analogy is the relationship between the auto-mechanical and society.
Photographs taken with the mechanical motion detector are photographs emancipated from their dependence on human ritual. The punctum emerges from the photograph, denies its crime, announces itself as something that it is not and disappears.
Daniel Campbell Blight is a writer, curator and academic based in London. He currently works in the education department at The Photographers’ Gallery and is a dissertation supervisor in photography at the University of Brighton.