an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 7, November-December 2010, ISSN 1552-5112




The Catastrophe of the Digital and the Fate of Photography


Gerry Coulter


There is no longer anything but the energy of spectacle and of the simulacrum.[1]



I. Introduction

This essay draws on Baudrillard’s thought concerning both digitality and photography and extends it into an assessment of the fate of photography in the digital era. I begin with an assessment of art in digitality because it is the art world that has perpetrated a hostile takeover of photography. Today a hallmark of acceptance and legitimacy for most photographers is to appear on an art gallery or museum’s walls. Next I turn to specifically assess the work of seven photographers alongside of two photographs by Jean Baudrillard. I point to two destinies of photography and/as art: 1) one in which photography continues to survive despite the continued hostile takeover of its terrain by “art” and 2) the more likely future where photography dies.


II. Liberation into Digital Servitude

Art, when it is artful, creates a void which arrests our gaze and commands our thoughts with its energetic force. The experience of such art is a moment of near perfect singularity which can also expose the malignancy of culture. Marcel Duchamp, who was perhaps the most important artist of the twentieth century, did just that with his Fountain (1913), as did Andy Warhol with his Brillo Box (1964). The difference is that with Warhol it was the final dance for energetic art as it was transformed by him into a prosthetic of our metastatic promotional culture.


In the 1940s and 1950s abstract expressionism began to seek the hyperreal (the more real than real), in a search for hidden structure through a quest for truth after mimesis.[2] Abstract expressionism forced an analytical stop no less significant than the one created by the explosion of the atomic bomb over civilian populations. The days of the avant-garde were coming to an end. Robert Rauschenberg was among those to erect modernism’s grave markers with his canvases of monochrome black oil paint (the Black Paintings of 1952-1954).


Heroism in art, dependent upon lively and vigorous exploration, had begun its exit as did the effort to go beyond the reality principle. With Warhol simulation would reign – infinite reproduction followed – the stage was cleared for a signal marker of the posthuman and what would follow was the fulfillment of the digital destiny of art. Photography, longer under siege from art, would soon see its independent existence threatened. Art would soon largely become image and demands would be placed on the camera as never before (but now as a mere prosthetic of the computer) to provide much of art’s unrefined substance. Alongside of developments such as making art from garbage, computer generated art actually is worthless. In its quest to be real, more real than real, it has discovered only banality – the end of artifice, and a place where art stops at the level of appearances, lacking illusion – which is the one other thing (along with energy) – that art must possess to be “art”. And so art, drained of its energy by a period of great expenditure that we know as modernism, gave way to the digital and the hyperreal.


Art was alive and well on the floor of Jackson Pollock’s garage in Long Island, but with the end of abstract expressionism, energetic art was at an end. At the moment when Pollock could drip and fling his paint from above – his bird’s eye view of art’s final horizon – art was still subversive. Abstract expressionism was the most radical deconstruction of the object art had ever known. A fulfillment of science in twentieth century art just as the atomic bomb, which coincided with this art, was another agent of dematerialization. In the 1970’s we would talk about the dematerialization of the art object – but we were too late. By the 1980’s we should have been talking about the enervation of art but by then the art world had already (mostly) tumbled into inauthentic simulation (even Warhol repeated himself in the 1980s), no longer able to believe in art’s illusion. Precisely when art was pressing photography to be “art”, art itself was losing touch with its own soul.


By courting the hyperreal art lost its ability to challenge and negate the real (has art any other use really?). If art goes looking for truth it must remember that the highest arts are illusion and challenge. Art, when it was modern, could make a void. As it passed into the marginal spaces of the postmodern, art tumbled into a void – the vast emptiness of the virtual. With Pollock modern art found a way to be a part of the accursed share and provide a strong alternative to reality. Abstract expressionism forced an eruption of unreality into reality and provided us with a poetic transfiguration of the real.[3] Today, in the world of the digital, art can no longer speak with this authority as it is hyperreal from the beginning.[4] We occupy an advanced phase of collapse and disintegration when art no longer interrupts our gaze for the purpose of contemplation, but rather, forces our gaze into the seamless computer network which is devouring it.

C:\Documents and Settings\USER\My Documents\My Pictures\M   All Published Images (OLD)\Track 07 Images\1. Adam Brown. Computer Generated Landscape. 2004.jpg

1. Adam Brown. Computer Generated Landscape (2004)

Art once contained a vital energy whereas today in its digitalized appearance art merely enervates. This too is part of art’s ongoing ambivalence about the social and who today is more ambivalent than the “artist” prosthetic of computer generated imagery? In the digital we know an art which is less vital – an enervate, monotonous art, wanting in human strength and spirit. With our passage into the postmodern, many artists have moved from innovators to enervators and have, along with art, fallen into an entropic indifference. The loss of energy implies a loss also of momentum – and of a positive direction – therefore the digital is a fitting grave for art in the postmodern. There are still a few who avoid this fate –  Francis Bacon held out to the end as does Odd Nerdrum today.


2. Odd Nerdrum. The Water Protectors (1985).

Nerdrum like Bacon possesses vigor and commands feelings of deep ambivalence. One wonders though: could it be that art, ever fashionable, in our “green” era, has for the most part merely entered a kind of energy conservation mode while a few radicals like Nerdrum still seek to participate in the expenditure of excess. In Nerdrum’s case this involves the constant reminder that evil, which can never be fully expended, lies before and after everything. Energy is a vital part of the principle of evil.[5] Art draws on the energy of Evil and in our effort to drive out Evil, we have largely driven out art. Evil breathes deeply in an Odd Nerdrum work and there are few evil geniuses of Nerdrum’s kind around today.[6]


Art in the digital accelerates the hostile takeover of photography. Digitally manipulated photographs pulse only with the artificial energy of our cities – the catastrophe in slow motion which is the West. If digital “art” possesses anything of art’s former energy it is now that of the virus – a virus that is also part of the human on its way to the post human. Our wearable computers with retinal interface will soon include digital cameras for up to the minute manipulation of our “seen” environment. Finally, through the digital, the brave new world will be realized through technological means – and it will be networked. We will not need the “Soma” after all Mr. Huxley.


The energy of the digital is the negative energy of the simulacrum – the inauthentic – and this provides its only originality and its (virtual) power.  The catastrophe that is digital art has come to us not from the depletion of natural resources, but ironically, from the proliferation of runaway energy flows – a world in which there is far more artificial than human intelligence. Never has there been an art more appropriate for its time than digital art and computer generated imagery. The virtual was the fate of energy as the post human is the fate of the human. Here art performs the vital public service of propagandizing the veracity of the digital – the obsession of our time – the lack of distinction between the real and the virtual.[7]

Already, in some homes, masterpieces appear on programmable screens which now frame the art of history, and each day a new masterpiece appears. When one has virtual power what need has one of actual art? Rather than liberation by abstraction we are now liberated by the abstraction of energy. And so art no longer refers to contemporary science but is rather part of it and participates in the flow of images and digitality in increasing acceleration. Of course modern science also told us that any flow, when accelerated, only hastens catastrophe. Ours is the first culture to depend on the liberation of energy for its necessary attitude[8] and so it should not surprise us that energy has also been liberated from art. Art now enters the realm of the digital, the realm of fantasy as a kind of projection of all of modernity’s hopes (and fears). We were told that we would be liberated from modernism and indeed we have been. We have been liberated from a time when art was invested with energy into a digital (technological) servitude. This is where we find photography today – toiling in the sickly artificial glow of the impoverished light of the digital – almost the only significant force which remains.


As the photographic image is so vital to the art of postmodernity I turn now to address the work of seven photographers alongside of two images by Jean Baudrillard. This analysis points to the two destinies of photography and/as art: 1) a future where photography continues to survive despite the continued hostile takeover of its terrain by “art” and 2) the more likely future where photography dies as digital art pushes it past its end point into the lassitude of the networks. In this later scenario the world of digital-art swallows photography while a gulf is opened between both it and art and the energy of modernism.


III. Photographies Destinies

It is not all bad news in the digital era. Rochelle Costi is a contemporary photographer whose work captures enigmatic moments such as in the construction of people’s dwelling places. In Tijolo a vista (2003) someone has hand painted the appearance of a brick wall over bare plywood sheeting. Here even the reality of poverty attempts to situate itself beneath the appearance of a more sturdy exterior. As in Baudrillard’s photograph Sao Paolo (1998) the cracks of ruination open as the plywood has begun

Rochelle Costi Tijolo a vista (2003) p 68

3. Rochelle Costi. Tijolo a vista (2003)


4. Jean Baudrillard. Sao Paolo (1998)

to disintegrate. As in the vast majority of Baudrillard’s photographs we do not see people in Costi’s photograph but merely the objects which signify their existence. Human absence here serves to illustrate not only disappearance but marginality – the marginal existence of the occupant of this dwelling while pointing to the vital relationship between people and objects. Like so many of Baudrillard’s images, Tijolo a vista  indifferently records what could easily be a understood as a politicized image, but in a manner which is also not in any way supportive of the system. This image records something of what Baudrillard refers to as an ambivalence which awaits even the most advanced systems.[9] It also points to the illusory nature of globalization (especially the myth of an increased standard of living accompanying the spread of capitalist production) as it represents what the majority of dwellings on planet earth now resemble. Costi’s photograph brings home to the prosperous world of art and photography galleries other realities – what Baudrillard refers to as “the bottom-up leveling”.[10] As we survey its deteriorating state we are reminded of the strong current of reversibility that inhabits our world and that the globe itself resists globalization.[11] The sun (natural light is present here, muted by shadows) may well be setting on more than this house.


Costi points to some the most interesting of all photographic objects in recent years – the waste areas and fragments of the world’s decline which call out to us. These photographs record a reversibility which is stronger than any conception of reality.  Such photographs as Zoe Leonard’s take photography a long way from the culture of promotion where so many of our values (including those of photographers), are now market values. Leonard does not seek a kind of minimalism within the cities of the “first

Zoe Leonard Wall (2002) p 163

5. Zoe Leonard. Wall (2002)


world”. Her eye for detail (Leonard’s work is akin to the American photographer of urban ruins Camilo José Vergara), is for the maximal effect of the modern ruin as part of postmodern daily life.


6. Jose-Camilo Vergara. Columbus Homes, Newark (1994)


Leonard, like Vergara, makes photographs which are well suited to the politically indifferent times of our transpolitical circumstances. Wall (2002) is also a recording of a building which is as indifferent to us as we are to it. This dual of indifference between subject and object, mediated by the photograph, operates as a kind of enigmatic memento-mori. Our own death and decay, and that of the system, are always just beneath the surface of such photographs and it is here that they make their challenge felt. Leonard’s photograph, like many of  Vergara’s, show a talent for understanding the ruined object’s demand to be photographed. In the place of meaning these images provide us with evidence of its radical loss. Leonard’s photographs of the fragments of urban deserts, especially the bricked up and boarded over windows she photographs, are metaphors for the end of former visions of progress. They are also, like Vergara’s photographs of urban decay, memories of the inevitable and ongoing process of decay. In a strikingly optimistic and Baudrillardian manner, melancholy is here elevated to an ecstatic form of  jouissance. In them we find the end of modernity as surely as we find the end of modernism in Warhol’s work.            


These works show us that energy remains in photography even in the era of the digital. Photographers like Costi, Leonard, and Vergara point to a possible future where photography continues to exist as Nerdrum points to one where painting can exist separate from the digital. However, others who travel under the name “photographer” participate more actively in the hostile takeover of photography by art and attempt to convince us that photography has no future other than as a digital art, [is there a more a more postmodern oxymoron than “digital art”?] I turn now to the work of four of these digital “artists” who use a camera to push photography beyond its endpoint, and art into the network, where the former energy of art is not to be found: Rut Blees Luxemburg, Florian Maier-Aichen, the AES+F Group, and Luchezar Boyadjiev. Here we find four “photographic artists” working to remove the primary energy which has informed photography since its inception: the light / energy of the sun.


The most important aspect of photography, as Baudrillard has argued so very well, involves how well it engages with the object under conditions of natural light. Photographs record not only the fragments of the world but fragments of light as it breaks against the surface of the object (including the human object).[12] At the heart of the photograph which interests me more than most others (as in Barthes concept of punctum)[13] often rests the magnificent energy of natural light. Whatever else photography may be said to be, it is a record of the moment of poetic convergence “between the light from the object and the light from the gaze”.[14] The effect of natural light on objects often makes the world all the more enigmatic as is the case with Baudrillard’s photograph Amsterdam (1989). This photograph is a brilliant example of

Baudrillard Amsterdam (1989)

7. Jean Baudrillard. Amsterdam (1989)


the photography of fragments of the world as the energy of natural light breaks upon them – revealing forms which destabilize our sense of reality. This cannot happen in such an energetic manner under conditions of digital manipulation as the image by Rut Blees Luxemburg shows.

Rut Blees Luxemburg In Deeper (1999)

8. Rut Blees Luxemburg. In Deeper (1999)


Luxemburg’s In Deeper (1999) is not a photograph under natural light but one taken at night where the light comes from portable lighting. As such it constitutes a rigorous challenge, and an interesting one, to mine and Baudrillard’s understanding of the place of natural light in photography.  Luxemburg’s challenge points to the possibility that night-photography (understood in the Baudrillardian sense as “light-writing”), can be used to contribute to the enigma of the world. For me Luxemburg’s image ultimately fails in this regard as we see when it is placed next to Baudrillard’s which relies on the even more enigmatic qualities of natural light. The problem I am raising for Luxemburg’s fascinating image is that it possess a human-made aesthetic quality which is constructed by the photographer rather than the object recorded by the photographer as in Baudrillard’s photographs. While I appreciate that all photography (like all theory) is a simulation of an enigmatic world, Baudrillard’s photograph succeeds in accentuating this enigmatic quality without attempting to manipulate / aestheticize the scene. Amsterdam does not rely on digital manipulations or aesthetic considerations, but rather, is exemplary of “traditional” (straight) photography using natural light on film. It records the object which seized the attention of the photographer under the specific conditions of light / energy in which they appeared. Luxemburg’s gorgeous image manufactures the scene by way of the artificial intervention of staged lighting. Baudrillard’s image destabilizes our sense of reality (its illusory quality) by photographing it under the conditions of its appearance – not a manufactured condition. In this process the object retains its power of attraction. The power of the object is ruptured in Luxemburg’s process and disappears when photographers add digital manipulations. The power of the object which reigns in Baudrillard’s photograph is replaced by the power of the image maker in Luxembourg’s image.


Today many digital photographers seek to replicate the stunning colour effects which occur in photographs such as Baudrillard’s Amsterdam by using the artificial light of the digital to “colorize” images. One example of the extent to which some contemporary photographers are willing to go into the virtual and technological applications of colour is Florian Maier-Aichen’s Untitled (2005). Maier-Aichen’s sumptuous image is visually stunning – it is digital art but not a photograph as

Florian Untitled (2005) p 171

9. Florian Maier-Aichen. Untitled (2005)

Baudrillard, Costi, Leonard, or Vergara, understand it. Indeed it may be seen as a case of “anti-photography”[15] which is an essential aspect of what Baudrillard referred to as the hostile takeover of photography by aesthetics and science. Maier-Aichen takes an iconic California highway (a scene along US Highway 1), and manipulates the green scenery to appear in varying red tones. Some might argue that this mirrors Baudrillard’s efforts to show us an enigmatic and unintelligible aspect of our world which can be made to look like another world (as in Amsterdam, 1989). But Baudrillard’s photography accomplishes the effect without recourse to the artificial manipulation of the computer program. Maier-Aichen’s image drowns in the artificial light of the computer and is indeed not a photograph of this world – but an image of the world’s double which exists only inside the computer. This is an art form devoid of the most powerful energy we know – the light of the sun. Among the most poignant features of the postmodern era of digital art is the loss of natural light. By contrasting any of the other images in this section with Baudrillard’s Amsterdam (1989), Paris (1986) [or even Nerdrum’s  painting] we see the extent of this change which I mark as a loss.


If Maier-Aichen is trying to show us that photography cannot be trusted it is a banal lesson today as it is one we have learned long before the digital. If however Maier-Aichen is attempting to make art, then he has succeeded. The one price that must be levied however is that we can no longer call this art “photography”. For photography to exist the object must remain a powerful part of the process demanding our attention as light-energy breaks across it. In digital manipulation the object loses its force and natural light is usually eliminated. Perhaps the most profound outcome of the pictographic age that is the digital will be that it once again leads to a separation of “photography” and “art”. Photography may, in the end, prove too energetic for “art” to contain but at present there exists only diminishing hope as photography is reduced to a handmaiden of the computer.


Digital manipulation and computer generation have enabled the construction of many fantastic scenes. The AES+F group[16] has supplanted Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao with Islamic architectural features. While this work of digital collage raises interesting questions about Western and Islamic art, it is, in the end, an exemplar only of the banality of computer generation and its sickly pale tones. AES + F Group Guggenheim Bilbao (2006) [Islamic Project]

10. AES+F Group. Guggenheim Bilbao (digital collage, 2006)


11. Jean Baudrillard. Paris (1986)

In contrast to Baudrillard’s “light writing” in Paris (1986), which relies to no small extent on the registering of shadows (skiagraphy)[17] – these are strong shadows of the kind we do not find inside of the screen of digital manipulation. Shadows are poetic but in the digital the prosaic holds sway. In the case of AES+F, given the widespread knowledge of the building in question, the work immediately appears as a banal fiction. It does not make the world more enigmatic, but merely more manufactured and stage-managed. This is a huge problem to which Baudrillard’s images call attention – that contemporary digitalization is losing the ability to capture appearances and is in danger of falling into them forever. As we move into the digital we work away from what Baudrillard called “evidence of appearances” toward the a more fractal realm of generalization. Luchezar Boyadjiev’s image Billboard Heaven addresses this problem is a complex way.

Luchezar Boyadjiev Billboard Heaven 4 (2005) p 40

12. Luchezar Boyadjiev. Billboard Heaven (digital collage, 2005)



Baudrillard once told an interviewer something that may be of help in understanding the work of Luchezar Boyadjiev. “All that remains to be done” he said “is playing with the pieces, that is post- modern”.[18] Boyadjiev‘s collage is already an outdated idea (his effort to juxtapose life context and advertising culture) as advertisers in Europe have already begun to spread large perforated screens covered in advertising over buildings under renovation – including many apartment towers. If Boyadjiev sought to be original – the construction industry beat him to the punch. It is however, an interesting example of the kind of “play” that has replaced a focus on the object as light breaks on it which was once the serious concern of something that was known as photography.


IV. Escape Velocity

The work of Luxemburg, Maier-Aichen, AES + F and Boyadjiev, stakes a significant challenge to the continued existence of photography despite the efforts of Baudrillard, Costi, Leonard, or Vergara. The true importance of the digital “image makers” is that they usher us into the post-photographic age. This is the image of the future – it may be art – but photography dies here. Digital image making is an art form but a less energetic and vital one than we knew only fifty years ago. When it tumbles into digital manipulation it opens the question: Can photography survive digital art?


The catastrophe of the digital is its lack of vital energy and the substitution of energy with the banal enervations of the screen and the program. This is the disaster in slow motion (without end) which we now face as we achieve escape velocity from the margins of postmodernity out into the boundless hell of the digital networks. When energy in art disappears enervating forms dominate and servitude becomes the meaning of the expression “our digital destiny”. Do we prefer the “exile of the virtual” to the “catastrophe of the real”?[19] And why are we so eager to volunteer for this particular form of technological servitude? In the programs and networks of the postmodern the artistic and photographic energy we knew not so long ago is being reduced to digital lassitude.



an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 7, November-December 2010, ISSN 1552-5112




[1] Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. Edited by Mike Gane. London: Routledge, 1993:163.


[2] See also Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm: Interviews with Philippe Petit. New York: verso, 1998:108.


[3] Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Cool Memories III. New York: Verso, 1997:140.


[4] See Jean Baudrillard. Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2002:182.


[5] Jean Baudrillard. The Conspiracy of Art. New York: Semiotext(e), 2005:153. Edited by Sylvere Lotringer.


[6] See Victoria Alexander.  “The Evil Genius of Odd Nerdrum”. In Big, Red, and Shiny, Number 68, September 2, 2007:


[7] Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories V. London: Polity Press, 2006:92.


[8] See also Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil. New York: Verso, 1993:100.


[9] Jean Baudrillard. Symbolic Exchange and Death (c 1976). London: SAGE, 1993:4


[10] Jean Baudrillard. The Singular Objects of Architecture (with Jean Nouvel). Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 2002:69.


[11] See Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories IV. New York: Verso, 2002:26.


[12] Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Conversations With Francois L’Yvonnet. London: Routledge, 2004:100.


[13] Rolland Barthes. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981:26 ff.


[14] Jean Baudrillard (with a nod to Plato) in The Lucidity Pact or, The Intelligence of Evil. London: Berg, 2005:104. This convergence involves a poetic reading of the world as opposed to a scientific approach.


[15] See Gerry Coulter. “Seizing the Object by the Throat – The Anti-Photography of Jeff Wall” in Euro Art (Online) Magazine Number 2, (April-May, 2007):


[16] AES + F is a group of four photographers: Tatiana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovich, Evgeney Svyatsky and Vladimir Fridkes.


[17] The word “skiagraphy” originally referred to “shadow painting”. See OED.


[18] Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. London: Routledge, 1993:95.


[19] Jean Baudrillard. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Bloomington, Indiana: University of Indiana Press, 1995:28.