Reading – Geoffrey Batchen: Ectoplasm: Photography in the digital age (notes)

In this paper, Batchen explores discourse around two apparent crises faced by photography that have the potential to threaten the ‘end’ of photography and the culture which it sustains:

Technological – the increasing prevalence of computer based imagery which can be so easily faked that the real can no longer be distinguished from the fake, meaning, the relationship between the photograph and objective truth is threatened.

Epistemological – which is concerned with broader changed in ethics, knowledge and culture, particularly the idea that the artificial nature of the digital image could lead to a time where it is no longer possible to tell the original from its simulation.

Following this, Batchen embarks on an interesting historical survey of the relationship between photography and death – a literal response to the prophesied death of photography by digital imaging. When he returns to directly address this question, the fact that the paper was written in 1994 becomes starkly apparent. Questions such as the value of the digital image over the physical photographic object and the concern about the authenticity of digital imaging have now been considered and accepted. The idea that digital images are closer in spirit to the creative process of art that the truth values of documentary is an interesting notion however. Discussion about photo illustration versus straight photography now seems quaint and the famous case studies of the 1982 National Geographic cover which moved the pyramids closer together (see article here) and the Time magazine cover featuring a digitally darkened mugshot of O.J. Simpson (see here) are historically important. I wonder however, if these images would receive the same attention today, and if not, does this mean we are more visually literate and able to understand the difference between straight photography and illustration, or, that an increased acceptance of changes to images mean that our ethical standards have become lowered?


Batchen, G. (1994) Ectoplasm: photography in the digital age. Available at: [accessed 16th January 2019]

Goldberg, S. (2016) How we spot altered pictures. National Geographic, July 2016. Available at: [accessed 17th March 2019]