We hear the word image and, more often than not, we immediately draw invisible lines: Those are images over there; this is reality. On the one side, we see paintings, ads, magazines, tv shows; on the other, we see buildings, mountains, people, traffic. Which is to say, we see images as images of the world, as representations, as reflections. First comes the world, then come images.
Henri Bergson offers a different image of the image. To him, the word matter and the word image can be swapped. The world, Bergson maintains, is images. By which he does not mean that everything is ephemeral, a dream, or hallucination. Rather, he means that everything we encounter is something we perceive — whether it’s a painting, our faces, our brains, our blood.
The Socratic image of the image is something that is a shadow, a replica, a derivative. First, there are Ideas, Forms, abstract beings that are eternal and true. Then come things of this world, bodies and vases and such. And then come images which are imitations of things which are themselves derivatives of Ideas or Forms. There’s the Idea Chair; there are actual different chairs; and there’s a photograph, poem, or painting of a chair. For Socrates, it’s a linear progression, a movement to and away from the eternal truths. Derrida refers to this as the metaphysics of presence: we get closer to or farther from some stable, absolute truth.
Bergson’s image of the image is quite different. Everything in the world is just so much stuff going with other stuff. None of it is privileged. Nothing comes first. There is no hierarchy. When I take a picture of you with my camera, I’m not deriving something from you or the world. I’m making something new. Just as everything comes from other things — you, from a sperm and egg and a vast culture that surrounds you — a photograph comes from other things, namely, a technology, sometimes a person, and a vast culture that surrounds it. This doesn’t make it any less new.
What is an image, then? Well, an image need not be visual. Sounds, words, ideas, smells — these are images, too. They literally make an impression on us, imprint themselves on our bodies, our senses, ourselves. And we imprint and impress (or not) back.
Images are things like other things. But different things go in different ways — a mountain sits content as it aspires, or until it explodes; a car vrooms and exhausts and conveys; I rant and rave and mumble and write. Paintings go as paintings go and different paintings go differently than other paintings. In fact, some paintings go like photographs and some photographs go like poems and some people go like dogs and some dogs go like cats. Things go as they go, with the world around them, as the part of the world.
Photographs are strange in that they are made by a machine that can see. So when you look at a photograph, you’re seeing the seeing of a machine. Of course, this machine is more than just a mechanical device; it includes the mechanics of a human being (usually) and light, not to mention a culture at large. A camera takes a picture of the world — it takes that moment in the world and makes it its own, flattens out, fixes it this way or that. Which is to say, a photograph is not a picture of the world, a representation or reflection: it is another thing, a slice of the world metabolized by machine and culture and eyeballs.
A camera gathers up a perceptive event in its entirety. It’s gloriously stupid, or generous, like that. My eyes don’t always notice what’s right in front of them. But a camera doesn’t know or categorize when it sees: it sees it all. Cameras are radically democratic.
And downright strange in that they do see. What the heck? I can say a rock sees in that the way it takes on the wind and water and other rocks; its wear is its perception. But a camera sees much like we see. In the very event of taking a picture, of making a picture, the camera sees. But, what’s even weirder, is that it not only sees right now: it is a perpetual seeing, at least for that moment. That is to say, I see you and that image enters my body and there it stays, coming out in different ways over time. But a camera offers up its seeing in perpetuity in the form of the photograph. This is seeing untethered by a particular body. A camera promises and threatens — a camera offers — this seeing of you to all eyes everywhere, across time.
That is a different kind of seeing event. And if we are fundamentally beings who perceive and are perceived, then the terms of camera viewing create a different kind of being. When I think about it like that, it seems strange that I ever imagined that a photograph was merely a picture of the world. Cameras create a distinctive imaging event, one that’s different than being seen by another person — it’s being seen by a machine’s eye that is all possible eyes across time and space.
I know that I, for one, get weird when people take my picture. I don’t know how to act naturally. What could that even mean? How the heck do you act naturally in front of a camera? Does that mean to act as if the camera isn’t there? Or does that mean to act as if the camera is there, which it is? What does natural mean in that context?