Jason Fox is the Editor of World Records.

Introduction: What Do Cameras Do?

Jason Fox

Volume 1Article 1

Introduction: What Do Cameras Do?

Jason Fox

Volume 1Article 1 Download

Introduction: What Do Cameras Do?

Jason Fox
Volume 1/Article 1 Download
Jason Fox is the Editor of World Records.

What Do Cameras Do?

Lens-based recording devices are central to the work of documentary studies. Yet, this ostensibly straightforward question is often sidelined. Ignored because it elicits dry, technical description, or because it suggests that cameras determine our actions a priori, before human perception and action occurs. One response to the question might come by way of the persistent cliché of the gun rights movement, that cameras, like guns, do not do anything. People do. In this view, both are technologies that may be employed in any number of different processes, but they do nothing independently of human use and human will. As much as many might disagree with the politics of this stance as it pertains to gun rights, it is worth considering the ways that it too positions human agency entirely outside a technologically determined logic. In so doing, its underlying assumptions preclude meaningful explorations of the imbrication of human actions within the socio-material technologies and environments that support those actions. This volume adopts an opposing perspective, framing cameras as technologies that are increasingly constitutive of our environment. Before the camera does anything else, it is conditional and recursive, providing and renewing possibilities and limits for action within the ecologies in which we are enmeshed.

“The Documentary Camera” explores cameras through the roles we attribute to them, and few analogies have been more durable over the past half-century than the comparison between cameras and guns. From the work of Newsreel to the writing of Solanas and Getino, and from Abounaddara to the activism surrounding the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, cameras are routinely invoked as an analogical tool of counter power in opposition to the real violence of guns as a tool of the police, imperialism, and global capitalism more broadly. Though the usefulness of this direct analogy largely ends here, the comparison is a helpful entry point to this volume that tracks the narratives — cultural, industrial, and political — that adhere to camera technologies, especially as those narratives are informed by the tradition of documentary.{1} The contributors to this volume explore the relationship between the camera and such documentary tropes as illumination, optimization, immersion and excess, art, weaponry, and human rights and religious witnessing. As our daily environments increasingly comprise cameras at every turn, an examination of how these frames help and hinder our understanding of the social relations that cameras engender takes on increasing urgency. “The Documentary Camera,” like the journal it inaugurates, insists that the field of documentary studies is uniquely suited to exploring a broad range of visual technologies, their social and material environments, and their impacts upon individuals and cultural formations. 

Many histories of cinema’s origins note a puzzling comment that accompanied the 1895 patenting of the cinématographe, the first mobile motion-picture recording and projection device, in Lyon, France. Louis Lumière, pioneer of the new device alongside his brother, Auguste, reportedly described their creation as “an invention without a future.” Yet wherever this apocryphal quote is invoked, it mystifies the scene of invention by intimating that the Lumières, possessed by a mix of radical technical percipience and uncanny cultural ignorance, stumbled by chance upon one of the defining technologies of the century to come. Several characterizations of his remark feature variations on a central theme: a brilliant inventor does not a visionary businessman make. So myopic was Lumière, the story goes, that he refused sale of a cinématographe to George Méliès out of respect for the integrity of the celebrated magician’s career.{2} Though Louis Lumière does not make it out of these origin stories before being made into a punchline, that punchline nevertheless rests on the setup of the genius inventor, a narrative framework driven by a property form that treats technological breakthroughs as the products of a singular vision. It is also one that extends into contemporary accounts of Silicon Valley pioneers of digital imaging. To invoke a mixed geographic metaphor, the Lumières may have been good surfers, but they did not invent the wave.

Media archaeology tracks a different route, challenging the champion of history narrative that approaches technologies as fixed objects created by singular figures. In historian Bertrand Gille’s observation, a “theoretical formalism” always precedes practical design and operation of any new technology.{3} In other words, new technologies absorb the political and ideological contexts in which they are developed. Carolyn Kane explains that narratives such as “profit, economic necessity, scientific progress, efficiency, and rationality are already inscribed into industrial and post industrial practices (and) production processes” long before a new technology appears in the marketplace, conditioning a set of terms for their use.{4} Add to Kane’s list unfulfilled desires and unmet potentials, properties of any technology that are revealed in what Heidegger referred to as the “objectively present,” that moment when tools are seen for what they are once they fail to do the things that they were determined to do.{5} These thinkers see in new technologies ways of ordering and externalizing very human desires and goals that precede new devices themselves and very often the humans who employ them. Looking beyond technologies as black boxes and thinking past their inventors as singular creators allows an engagement with the ways that the camera, as a sustainer of such worlds, weaves together material histories, cultural narratives, and social desires.

Compared to previous tools of image-making such as the magic lantern, the daguerreotype, and Marey’s chronophotographic gun, the motion picture camera seems like a monumental historical rupture. Indeed, it was. The Lumiére’s cinematographe shares many technological similarities to Marey’s chronophotographe that was developed twelve years prior, but by adding a tooth and claw mechanism which would have already been familiar to anyone with a sewing machine, the brothers solved the problem of uniform movement from frame to frame and thus verisimilitude in motion-pictures was born. Yet, if the cinématographe is placed within the broader commercial and social space in which it emerged, then motion, at least through the Lumière’s eyes, begins to look epiphenomenal. The family’s notoriety was first guaranteed through their development of light sensitive, dry-plate photography that freed the act from the confines of the studio and the static subjects required of long exposure times.

Lumière instantaneous photograph of Auguste Lumière, described by L’Amateur photographe, as Tom Gunning notes, as “mischievous.”

They envisioned themselves as suspenders of time rather than extenders of space, marketing the “mastery of a minute,” as Tom Gunning describes, to upwardly mobile Parisian families who might wish to mark their rising stock in the world, to stand outside of it, observe it from afar and to freeze it in time.{6} The camera offered a realignment of time, providing a radical re-visioning that paralleled the realignment of social structure in late 19th Century France. Simulating the laws of physics and continuous space through motion was perhaps tantalizing, but not as compelling as mischievously disobeying those laws, something light-sensitive film stocks already allowed with still photography, and something few others – Meliés was one — had realized that motion could significantly build upon. 

Film Still from LE DÉJEUNER DE BÉBÉ. Auguste Lumière and his wife feed their baby.

Another consideration: was the camera initially viewed as a tool for mimicry or mischief? The consideration of the camera as a device for time travel means both, the stakes of which are determined by who employs it. HG Wells’ The Time Machine, also from 1895, features a protagonist whose self-image aligns well with the “technological elite” of the amateur photography clubs in which the Lumières were immersed.{7} His time traveler is thoroughly modern, consumed by the utopian notion that industrial technology can be yoked by humans to build from scratch the natures that peaceful coexistence needs. He is only wrong by half, it turns out, when he journeys to a distant future in which the haves govern the have-nots through lumenocracy, or rule by light. Wells likely wrote The Time Machine ignorant of the invention of the cinématographe. Still, he was a keen culture critic whose work expresses a realism of the potential, alternately critiquing the utopian narratives of progress and the fears of disengagement from the present that buzzed in the background of the new imaging machine.{8}

Four years later, Wells’ When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) describes a 22nd Century dystopia in which child laborers, living in a world of constant illumination, are made through hypnosis into perfect employees.{9} The text offers a reminder that another aspiration inscribed into the camera and the emerging discipline of psychology alike was to puncture the most “absolute breaches in nature, the boundaries between self and other.”{10} The concepts of telepathy, solipsism, and hypnosis too were creative technologies of the late 19th Century, at once promising the fantasy of effortless communion among citizens by making the inner thoughts of minds accessible to others and stimulating the fear of a new technique of social control.{11} Jonathan Crary observes the ways that Wells’ descriptions of hypnosis can just as easily stand in for the cinema: 

Just as photographic and cinematic innovations in the 1880s and 1890s defined the terms of an automation of perception, hypnosis too … was a technology that offered at least the fantasy of rendering behavior both automatic and predictable.{12}

In the decade to follow, while hypnosis fell from grace as a process of empirical endeavor, the motion-picture camera, and the industry that it helped found, took on a dominant role as an interpreter of dreams, desires, fears and frustrations. More than a century later, the anxiety and optimism of new media supporting Wells’ writing looks both remarkably prescient and hopelessly overdetermined. A bulwark against naïve exuberance in the potential of new technologies to solve social contradictions, he nevertheless recognized in the camera the possibilities and practical gains that come with the ability to freeze time. But Wells also saw both hubris and horror in any project that seeks to blur the boundary between the transient and the eternal.

One hundred and twenty-three years ago, few could envision the economic and cultural juggernaut of cinema that the motion-picture camera would help usher into being. Nor could many predict that the motion-picture camera, through its alignment with commercial cinema, would become a staple of an expressive mode of communication intimately linked not with the dissolution of self, as those like Wells and Henri Bergson feared, but rather with the dissemination of information, entertainment, enticement and art. Today, however, the cinema is but one small application in a rapidly expanding camera industry. 

The continued cultural impact of any technology depends in part on innovation, and for the past several decades, camera models intended for cinematic applications have been the recipient of innovations in imaging technologies that were developed for non-cinematic applications. In 2016, the image sensor market in the United States alone reached approximately twelve billion dollars in sales, with sensors for digital cameras, excluding camera phones, accounting for less than 10% of that amount.{13} The market continues to grow, propelled by significant investments in power-efficient CMOS (complimentary metal-oxide semiconductors) image sensor research from cellphone, automobile, military, and other industrial sectors who wish to further employ cameras in remote devices and applications. The diminution of the cinema to a footnote in the broader camera market cannot be so neatly summarized by the phrase digital revolution, although the expanding infrastructures of digital technology have something to do with it. So too does digital media’s emphasis upon “organization, power, and calculation” over “content, programs, and opinions.”{14}

Wendy Chun’s Updating to Remain the Same (2016) expands upon this line of thought, arguing that contemporary digital ecologies structure interactions with media that are more habitual than cognitive, more organizational than expressive. Her anchoring insight that “media matter most when they seem not to matter at all” emerges from re-reading through the lens of new media a chorus of 19th and 20th Century theorists’ work on habit.{15} New media, whatever else it refers to, signals the increased demands emerging technologies place upon human bodies. Digital devices, in concert with the physical reactions they prompt, have become for Chun second nature, or as she describes, “ideology in action.”{16} Thus, a challenge for documentary studies is how to engage with questions of what images mean when they seem not to mean at all and when cameras’ mere presence in a place or as part of an instrumental process is as or more significant than the meanings that are consciously constructed through the images they produce. It might strain the limits of disciplinary credibility and test the patience of scholars to insist that all of the methodologically, geographically, and politically diverse ways that individuals act through, come into contact with, and are acted upon by cameras should be thought of under the umbrella of the documentary tradition. But by bringing together amateur cellphone videography, video installations, forms of archival activism, site specific guerrilla projection, photography, amateur discourses surrounding new camera technologies, and documentary cinema through the articles, art, and conversations that follow, this volume emphasizes that none of these modes should be studied independently of their position within broader image ecologies.

At the same time that documentary has expanded well past the theatrical mode, technologies that are being pioneered for and by non-theatrical industrial applications such as phones, automobiles and industrial automation demonstrate both significant new affordances and challenges for documentary media makers working in more conventionally cinematic forms. The emergence of lighter weight, light sensitive and more power-efficient cameras amplifies one of the original edicts of the documentary tradition to employ cameras as tools of publicity in support of the democratic ideals of open access to information, visibility, and inclusivity. Responding to the need to reevaluate and complicate contemporary documentary’s relationship to these values, Jonathan Kahana’s Intelligence Work (2008) traces a genealogy of thought through the 1920’s work of social theorists Walter Lippmann, John Dewey, A.D. Lindsay, and others, framing the intellectual environment in which modern documentary was conceived as both a privileged means and mode of democratic publicity.{17} He does so to complicate the notion that documentary is a meaningful stand in for such an abstract cultural formation as representative democracy even as he highlights this formative impulse. For Jodi Dean, a contemporary surfeit of cameras and networked communications infrastructures have produced not more democracy but rather a highly unequal formation of communicative capitalism. Thus, socially engaged media makers must confront a double bind: contemporary ideals of publicity are often based on the digital technologies that promise political access to a democratic public at the same time that those technologies “drive an economic formation whose brutalities render democracy worthless for the majority of people” they aim to edify.{18}

Still, responding in particular to ongoing racialized police violence and the more general sense that broadcast news media profoundly misread the social climate that led to the recent election of Donald Trump, significant recent investments in mobile and immersive video journalism and smartphone documentation applications from the New York Times, the Fledgling Fund, and the ACLU, to name a few, suggests a renewed political purchase in the documentary camera as a privileged form of publicity for a beleaguered populace. 

As it should. A challenge, though, is for analysis to keep pace with the camera’s recursive relationship to the real. It has long been conventional wisdom within documentary studies that the presence of a camera alters the real that it mediates, but less frequently addressed is that the real is always already pre-conditioned by a camera’s potential presence. The possible presence of a camera regardless of actual circumstance long ago transformed the real into a conditional medium, challenging the boundaries between public and private, between nature, culture and technology, and between perception and knowledge.{19} Yet, such an acknowledgement does not signal the drowning of the referent in an infinite sea of signs nor does it indicate a loss of elemental relation to human nature. Rather, following Martha Rosler, it suggests that when the camera suspends time by capturing an image, it also suspends an instant of the social and technological forces that are trafficked through those images.{20} While photographs and films are seldom transparent stand ins for the realities they signify, they can frame the social forces that co produce the real, including the camera as a terminal of the often-invisible infrastructures that brings visions of the world into being.

A still from Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s RUBBER COATED STEEL (2016). The filmmaker performs a detailed acoustic analysis to determine that Israeli soldiers used live ammunition on unarmed Palestinian teenagers and disguised the rifle fire to sound like rubber bullets in case surrounding recording devices documented the incident.

Rosler’s is an outlook that is not lost on the corporations that are investing in new imaging technologies. Few digital camera brands are vertically integrated. Thus, few brands are actively involved in each step of the manufacturing process, from research and development, to design, manufacturing, assembly and marketing. As a result, corporations often rely on third party component manufacturers whose profitability is determined by their ability to successfully orient their assembly lines to match decade-long trend forecasts. Speculations on camera futures are being made today by analysts who are at work divining the very social forces and desires that Rosler addresses. The future then will reveal the present outlook. What cameras will be in ten years and how and by whom they will be used are being determined today. However, speculating on the future is a dangerous game, one that always contains the possibility of surprise.


Background Video: Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Rubber Coated Steel (2016).

{1} Guns offer a direct route to power. The camera itself offers no power, only a link to a presumed social contract of justness and justice ratified and enforced by the worlds comprising those who are watching.
{2} In practice, the Lumiére brothers were quite savvy entrepreneurs. In Erick Barnouw’s telling, they were quick to establish foreign cinématographe premieres across Western Europe, the United States, and Northern Africa. They were also exceptionally proprietary. Lumière operators dispatched across the globe were warned “to reveal its secrets to no one, not even kings and beautiful women.” Barnouw, Erik. Documentary: A history of the non-fiction film. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993, p.11.
{3} Stiegler, Bertrand. Technics and Time 1. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1993, p. 26.
{4} Kane, Carolyn. Chromatic Algorithms: Synthetic Color, Computer Art, and Aesthetics After Code. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014, p. 4.
{5} Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time, translated by Joan Stambaugh. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010. P, 6.
{6} Gunning, Tom, “New Thresholds of Vision: Instantaneous Photography and the Early Cinema of Lumière.” Impossible Presence: Surface and Screen in the Photogenic Era Terry Smith, ed. University of Chicago Press. 2001 p. 74.
{7} Ibid pp 73.
{8} I borrow from McKenzie Wark who suggests science fiction can be read as a “realism of the possible,” helping us to think the present through an imagined future. See Wark, McKenzie. Molecular Red. New York: Verso Books, 2015
{9} See Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, p. 134 n121. It is also with this condition in mind that Baudrillard asks the rhetorical question, “Can you imagine living in real time?” For Baudrillard, such a condition signals an eternal daylight in which one is always identified with a public image of oneself. See Baudrillard, Jean. The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso Books, 1996.
{10} James, William. The Principles of Psychology, Great Books of the Western World, Ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins, vol 53. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952, p. 147.
{11} Elsewhere: Schivelbush remarks that well into the late 19th Century, bourgeois families refused gas light, opting instead for the warmth of candle flame. For Schivelbusch, the act marks a symbolic distancing of interior space from a centralized, exterior control and supply.
{12} Crary, Jonathan. Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999, p. 68.
{13} Image Sensor Market by Technology (CMOS Image Sensor, CCD Image Sensor and Hybrid Image Sensor) for Aerospace, Automotive, Consumer Electronics, Healthcare, Industrial, Entertainment, Security & Surveillance and Other Applications: Global Industry Perspective, Comprehensive Analysis and Forecast, 2016-2022″ https://www.zionmarketresearch.com/report/image-sensor-market.
{14} Peters, John Durham. Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. p. 7.
{15} Chun, Wendy. Updating To Remain the Same: Habitual New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016.
{16} Chun, p. 7.
{17} Kahana, Jonathan. Intelligence Work: The Politics of American Documentary. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.
{18} See Dean, Jodi. Publicity’s Secret: How Technoculture Capitalizes on Democracy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002, p.4.
{19} See, for example, Eyal Weizman’s notion of “negative evidence,” through which Weizman argues that in the absence of photographic evidence, just because something cannot be seen doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.
{20} Rosler, qtd in Paula Rabinowitz, “Voyeurism and Class Consciousness: James Agee and Walker Evans, ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,'” Cultural Critique 21 Spring, 1992. p. 147.