Reading – Joan Fontcuberta: I knew the Spice Girls (notes)

Fontcuberta - Pandora's Camera

In ‘I knew the Spice Girls’, Fontcuberta explores the differences, both practical and philosophical,  between analogue and digital photography using the analogy of a digital photo booth. This is a disarmingly simple conceit to use which helps make sense of the complex arguments made – the essay is enjoyably readable and the amusing anecdote of Fontcuberta using a digital photo booth to place himself alongside the Spice Girls in order to impress his daughter is both lighthearted and encourages the reader to identify with his point of view.

The central thesis of the paper is that the technological changes inherent in digital photography creates a whole new category of images that have to be regarded as ‘post-photographic’. Although the eye is unable to tell the difference between a digital and analogue image, the cultural values of photography such as objectivity, truth, identity, memory, document and observation are threatened by a new culture of the “virtual and speculative.” Analogue photography is described as being “inscribed”, of a mechanical nature that is apparently automatic and occurs without intervention – it reflects the real world (although this notion is a symptom of photographic theory around “documentary imperatives” rather than fact.)  Digital photography is “written”, that is it is composed in a way that is closer to the choices made by an artist/author when they are faced with a blank canvas/page. Despite this, digital imagery still simulates analogue culture:

“The paradox, however, is that although we agree that digital technology generically undermines the credibility of the photographic document, this is not really because it allows more or less astonishing, spectacular and seamless interventions in photographic images. The same effects, although more difficult to pull off, could be and were achieved with traditional manipulation techniques. The difference now is our degree of familiarity with these techniques and how easy they are to use.”

The widespread access and understanding of computers and software has demystified and defetishised photographs leading to a “new critical awareness in the viewer” and a “paradigm shift in our reception of images.”

Although digital photography is simpler to use, faster, more powerful, cheaper and cleaner than chemical photography, Fontcuberta ends with a warning that the elimination of chance and ability to correct errors could have the unforeseen side effect on the cameras gaze, particularly the “happy accident”, being neutralised by too much control and rationality. He ends:

“Every innovation obliges us to distinguish between benefits and losses. Of course we want the advantages significantly to outweigh the disadvantages, but since the former always appears at first as promises of happiness, only time and experience will reveal the collateral damage and let is see what we have lost.”

The lack of certainty about where photography and photographic theory is heading because of digital imaging is simultaneously reassuring and troubling. For ideas such as objectivity and realism to be questioned is healthy, but if this means we can no longer trust anything we see then surely this is a depressing state of affairs – something that we unfortunately appear to be heading towards in the age of ‘post truth’.


Fontcuberta, J. (2014) ‘I knew the Spice Girls’ in pps. 56-63 Pandora’s camera: photogr@phy after photography. London: MACK

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