Review of Nonhuman Photography
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2017
272 pp., illus. 70 b&w. Trade, $35.00
Although the title of the book Nonhuman Photography suggests it could be yet another one on the popular topic of unmanned photography, this book by Joanna Zylinska is quite a nice theoretical surprise!
Already at the beginning (p.5) Zylinska sets the problem in terms of “a cultural condition in which visual enhancement, algorithmic logic, and mediated perception enable different modes of visuality and self-identification,” defining the field of photography not as a priori cultural, but rather a media one, thus including its technological aspect besides terms of purposes of implementation. Although implementing a terminology of the cultural logic, as a “cultural condition” and “visuality,” this logic is not defined in terms of orthodox styles and period of art history, or epistemic episodes of cultural studies. It is setting a larger set of time-definition in terms of pre and post-Anthropocene. But in defining Anthropocene, the cultural definition overlaps the media one, marking the beginning of the Anthropocene not as the moment of the biological supremacy of a human race on the Earth, but rather of its fall in initialisation of contamination of own environment, falling vaguely in time of Industrial Revolution. And that is precisely the time photographic technology of recording was invented. Thus, this more precise definition of the Anthropocene inevitably connects photography to ecology through theory of media defining the human action in environment by a strict definition of the non-human and human run environments/spaces, as well as warning on the human/posthuman time conditions. Here Zylinska ground her theories close to Durham Peters' theory of Earth as a medium, but also ecological media theories of Sean Cubitt.
From these standpoint of ecology and posthumanism, both being media theories, Zylinska redefines the medium of photography, expanding it to nonhuman one. This photography is “not of, by, or for the human” (ibid, 51), or; it is the one without humans, before humans (in terms of deep time), but also the one after the humans. The definition of photography is expanded as the photography is preceding or succeeding its inventor. It is also not defined as a mere utilitarian tool but rather as a technical phenomenon that includes various phenomena of optical stabilisation of images, as various types of light-imprints, fossils, imprinted shadows, photograms, besides commonly accepted mechanical and digital records.
Redefining photography in terms of the origin and process, Zylinska offers a nonhuman definition of photography that, wide-enough, records the life (on the Planet) rather than merely serving memories of humans. Opposing the cultural definition of photography defined via death (Basin, Barthes, Sontag), Zylinska defines photography as a rather “life-making process” and “quintessential practice of life.” Stripped of its mere-purposiveness, in satisfying the need to visually externalise memory, a new type of vision is absorbed in the definition of the medium; a vision being a data assemblage, rather than a direct experience. Such vision, abandoning the ideological (and thus contaminated) human employment of photographic medium, Zylinska sees as an option of the current posthuman condition.
Along with interesting theories, the author successfully analyses works by contemporary media artists as Trevor Paglen, Tacita Dean, Jana Sterbak, et.al (supplemented with the website providing more colourful versions of artwork www.nonhuman.photography), though more interesting element of the book are Zylinska's own photographs. Producing photographs on a scientifically experimental level, rather than as a mere illustration in humanist sciences, she poses an important question; “Is it possible to practice philosophy as a form of art, while also engaging in photography and image making as ways of philosophizing?” (p.59). And this question shows, in practice, the whole theoretical standpoint consistent and coherent; what indeed photography may serve for today.
An interesting reading, in both theoretical in practical way, this book would be a great reading to photographers, photography theorists, image scientists, media theorists, media ecologists, but also cultural theorists that would find own disciplinary standpoints the most challenged.