Some remarks on Mishka Henner’s _IMG01

The photograph (or image in general) as digital code is a well-trodden subject in photographic theory and a fertile subject for artists. [1] Indeed, the debates surrounding the photograph’s reduction to code and its assumed loss of indexicality are central to my current practice, but it is not the issue of the index on which I wish to focus here.

Mishka Henner’s recent work _IMG01 is a limited edition book that presents the “binary data of historical photographs as literature” [2] – a thick white volume that reproduces in black and white the jumbled symbols, letters and numbers that appear when a digital photograph is opened in a text editor. Accompanying every edition of the book is a 5×7” silver gelatin print of the photograph from which the code is drawn. The book currently displayed on the artist’s website, is from a photograph taken by James Francis (Frank) Hurley on 29th October 1927, showing five Australian men amongst the mud and bare tree trunks of a battleground in Ypres. [3]

My initial reaction on seeing this work was that it seemed to confuse two very different modes of photographic production: analogue and digital.  As Daniel Rubinstein and Katrina Sluis illustrate, something as simple as an image search on Google can uncover a whole spectrum of variations on the same photograph. [4] In their example of Hippolyte Bayard’s Self Portrait as a Drowned Man (1840), we can already see more than thirty variations; no doubt a longer list of results would yield yet more variations. [5] While they argue that in the logic of the network, this suggests a repetition of images without ground and without foundation, [6] it also points to the simple fact that one digitised version of an analogue photograph can vary wildly from the next depending on the equipment and processes used in creating its digital copy.

So, when Henner presents us with the “code of a photograph taken by James Francis (Frank) Hurley on 29th October 1917”, [7] we have to ask what exactly he is presenting the code of.  The production process of the work is not entirely clear.  Was the silver-gelatin print produced from an analogue source and then digitised to generate the code?  Or was the code produced from an analogue source and then used to create the silver-gelatin print?  While both may suggest a relationship along the lines of this is the code of this photograph, neither can be the code of Hurley’s photograph.  Since the photograph is not a digital one, the code can only ever be the code of a digitised analogue source. Indeed, without the ability to see the code rendered as an image, we only have Henner’s word that is does in fact relate to the photograph he claims it does.  In any case, it can only be one possible digitisation of Hurley’s photograph and thus cannot truly encapsulate the whole photograph, as it can only represent a finite amount of data.  It must, as all digital photographs must, have a fixed size – that is a limited number of pixels and colour values.

Zooming in on a digital photograph, it will not be long before it surrenders no more information than a blank coloured square.  To enlarge it beyond its original resolution necessitates creating additional pixels based on the originals. An analogue photograph on the other hand has no such structure and so details only become more blurred the larger it gets.  Since the original has no fixed resolution as such, and so a potentially far larger amount of data, it cannot truly be contained within the grid structure of a digital photograph.  Similarly, the analogue original has no fixed colour values, since the appearance of the final print largely depends on decisions made by a human printer. In fact, whether or not there is any such thing as a definitive state or version of any analogue photograph is not an unreasonable question. [8] [9]

Had Henner chosen a digital photograph as his source material, then there would be no problem with his statement: the code and the photograph are one and the same. The digital photograph can be contained within a digital file precisely because it comes with a fixed resolution and a fixed number of colour values.  In a sense it may be the only kind of photograph that can be exhausted by symbols, which perhaps brings us to the ultimate point of Henner’s work: the very impossibility of truly encapsulating a photograph in words or symbols.

We often find ourselves faced with a need to describe photographs, the very nature of our digital networks necessitates that we describe photographs with words.  It has even been suggested that the unspoken assumption behind tagging is that photographs can be exhausted by description. [10] _IMG01, however, points to the opposite.  The code is presented as literature, a form of description or storytelling that uses words, but literature that is unreadable to human eyes.  The fact it is unreadable might indicate a belief that no photograph – analogue or digital – can be adequately described with words.  On the other hand, the fact that the source of this literature (Hurley’s photograph) is one that truly cannot be exhausted by symbols, might be read as a warning against substituting digitised copies for analogue originals.  In short, that a photograph cannot truly be experienced in a form other than its own.




[1] See, for example: David Birkin, “Embedded” [Online], http://www.davidbirkin.net/work/#/embedded/ (accessed 15 January 2015) and Beckett Mufson, “Here’s What Classic Paintings Look Like as Data,” [Online] The Creators Project, 7 January 2015, http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/en_uk/blog/heres-what-classic-paintings-look-like-as-data (accessed 15 January 2015).

[2] Mishka Henner, “_IMG01 Australian-troops-passing-014.jpg” [Online], http://mishkahenner.com/filter/works/_IMG01-Australian-troops-passing-014-jpg (accessed 15 January 2015).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Daniel Rubinstein and Katrina Sluis, “Notes on the Margins of Metadata,” Photographies 6, 1 (2013): 151 – 158.

[5] Ibid., 155.

[6] Ibid., 156.

[7] Mishka Henner, “_IMG01 Australian-troops-passing-014.jpg.”

[8] Ingrid Hölzl explores this very problem in trying to find a ‘definitive’ version of the photograph by Hiromichi Mine that serves as the basis for David Claerbout’s 2001 piece Vietnam 1967, near Duc Pho (Reconstruction after Hiromichi Mine).  See: Ingrid Hölzl, “The Photographic Now: David Claerbout’s Vietnam,” Intermediality: History and Theory of the Arts, Literature and Technologies 17 (2011): 131 – 145.

[9] From what can be seen of the photograph on the artist’s website, it looks at though Henner has used the ‘official’ digitised version of the original glass plate that appears on the website of the Australian War Memorial.  See: Australian War Memorial, “E01220” [Online], http://www.awm.gov.au/collection/E01220/?image=1#display-image (accessed 15 January 2015).

[10] Daniel Rubinstein, “Tag, Tagging,” Philosophy of Photography 1, 2 (2010): 197 – 200.

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