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The shift from indexical to non-indexical

Much of the discussion related to post-photography has centered on whether the new medium is indexical. (As it turns out, it is not.) While many scholars have attributed this shift to technology, it has as much to do with the attitudes and practices of the photographer.

Photography is indexical.

This means that traditional photos reflect some external reality. This makes sense in a medium that began as a process of recording light using a chemical reaction. Photographers quickly moved beyond simply recording, however, and manipulation and retouching have been part of the photographic process for almost as long as photography has existed. This is probably the reason that, according to communication scholar José van Dijck, digitization did not cause the loss of indexicality (67). Instead, it only made it easier to create non-indexical photos.

Post-photography is non-indexical.

A non-indexical photo (top) constructed from
two stock photos

In other words, it does not necessarily correspond to an external reality. According to English-professor-turned-photography-theorist Alan Trachtenberg, this has as much to do with the postmodern worldview as it does with advances in technology. “Digital photography reinforces the recent post-Enlightenment suspicion that ‘reality’ is something made up, a construction, not something secure for a camera to confirm,” Trachtenberg writes. “More likely the camera itself is part of the game, not to be trusted as a guide to anything but itself” (121). This understanding of the camera as an unreliable guide also points toward a postmodern rejection of meta-narratives.

Of course, technology has contributed to changing attitudes about photography, even it if has not itself produced them. After all, pixels, the building blocks of digital photographs, are easily manipulated. According to William Mitchell, advances in digital technology have produced a “new uncertainty about the status and interpretation of the visual signifier” (Qtd. in Trachtenberg 114). Photos, it would seem, are not longer as “trustworthy” as the once were (Trachtenberg 114).

As a result, public expectations about the “truthfulness” of photos have also shifted. This shift is likely the result of consumers’ exposure to magazine and advertising photos, virtually all of which are retouched (Van Dijck 66). In this new view, photos are seen as building blocks rather than the finished product (Van Dijck 67). They are, as cultural critic Ron Burnett has put it “material for an endless series of digressions,” digressions that have a tendency to lead away from the “real” rather than toward it (Qtd in Van Dijck 67).