On this particular field trip to the Hyytiälä field station, I took several landscape photographs. Landscapes are pictures that depict natural scenery. Early photography theorists considered photographs to be an anomaly in the pictorial tradition because they do not merely capture Nature, as in drawing; rather, as Daguerre claimed, photographs "give her the power to reproduce herself" (Batchen 1999:66). The realism of a landscape is sustained by the ideology that the photograph replicates nature with minimal human intervention — that a piece of landscape photography is nature itself.
Reconfiguring this imaginary relationship is central to the arguments of writers like Geoffrey Batchen and Rosalind Krauss, who have instead argued that landscape is mediated nature rather than pure natural view (Batchen 1999, Krauss 1982). Batchen, for instance, has noted that concurrent to the invention of photography, landscape was considered under the aesthetic regime of the picturesque. The picturesque put forth rules about framing and composition "expressive of that peculiar kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture", forming a technical language and conceptual framework by which nature is considered to be translated onto an image (Batchen 1999: 72).
From early photography to today, landscape — even with its aim centering on the capturing of nature — is neither objective nor natural. Rather it embodies the nature-culture, ideal-real paradox that underpins visual representation. According to Batchen, the paradox is apparent as early as the nineteenth century; it can be found in Talbot’s writings, among others. Talbot wrote that photography is both a mode of drawing and a system of representation in which no drawing takes place. His inability to pin down a singular definition hinted at the multifaceted nature of photography as something simultaneously both natural and cultural.
Daniel and I are in nature together, but we are creating different landscapes at the same time. Holding a camera, I, perhaps subconsciously, direct my eyes in the manner of the picturesque, concentrating on composing with the zone system. Daniel, operating a laser scanner, is concerned with gathering accurate data for the development of a model.
Objectivity assumes a view from nowhere, or a neutral apparatus from which the world can be observed. This imaginary relationship between the world and the individual is an ontology — one that suggests that the observing subject is independent of the observed, and that the acts of observation and use of the apparatus through which one observes do not affect reality. Images are the material existence that sustains this ideology of objectivity. People have been attempting the invention of such machines that produce ‘objective’ images for centuries. Worthington and others in the history of photography praised the camera for its objectivity. But in truth, machines are not objective. Machines measure. They are simply manifestations of human intention. Human intention is what decides their programming and their uses.
The portrait I am making of Daniel is not nature itself. It will always contain my intention to communicate my experience. It is not a sign, but a signpost pointing towards the world. Photographers such as Worthington believed the camera was objective — that its images allowed for a truer depiction of reality, one that could counteract the flaws of the human eye. But technical vision does not guarantee better vision. It seems so only when people abiding by a representational system accept its artifices; the adjusting of exposure is standard, the adding of colour filters is acceptable.
At the same time, other inventions are considered to go too far, to interfere with realism. Digital cloning is one, for instance — considered a violation of the realism of a photograph. These rules are historical and contingent, constantly changing according to current trends and technological developments. Photography scholar John Tagg remarked that "realism is a social practice of representation, an overall form of discursive production, a normality which allows a strictly delimited range of variations" (Tagg 1999: 271). To continue his line of thought under this specific context, realism is the process in which what is really culture is imagined to become nature. It is a discursive process in which a cultural artefact becomes conflated with nature itself, an imaginary relationship naturalized and institutionalized. Nineteenth-century realist paintings, the Tank-Man photograph, the digital image of the M87 black hole created using data captured by the Event Horizon Telescope — are all ‘real’. Still, their realisms are sustained within different epistemological paradigms. An image is a symptom of an ideological apparatus that configures ‘the imaginary’ and ‘reality’. A photograph is one manifestation; a point cloud is another. As Daniel and I engage in an interdisciplinary dialogue, we look back into the parallel apparatuses we operate, and thinking through each of our entanglements between image and reality.
On this summer night, Daniel and I are standing on a forest plot at Hyytiälä field station in the middle of Finland. We are both observing from the ground level, but for different reasons. Daniel belongs to a team of remote sensing researchers led by associate professor Miina Rautiainen. The official aim of their research project, ‘From needles to landscapes: a novel approach to scaling forest spectra’, is to develop a better model for the interpretation of multi-sensor satellite images of forests (Hovi et al 2019). Remote sensing is the technique of near real-time environmental monitoring using open access data without on-site observation (Schraik 2022: 15). Remote sensing frequently refers to planetary observation. For instance, the Opportunity Rover, equipped with a panoramic camera capable of photographing a scene with thirteen colour filters, was designed as a remote sensing endeavour to explore the extra-terrestrial landscape of Mars. On Earth, orbiting satellites collect data on environmental elements from surface temperature to vegetation coverage through multispectral sensors. The network of satellites forms a planetary sensorial system monitoring Earth in real-time. Each satellite imagery is telepresence: relaying the top-down view once imagined as a supernatural power, now becomes accessible to the human eye.
Photography is also a form of telepresence, but one mostly confined to the visible light spectrum. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan described media as an extension of the human senses (McLuhan 1964). In that sense, a photograph is a tool able to transport perspective from a single position, be it geographical, socioeconomic or political, to another. Scientific photography, space photography, remote sensing all do this uniquely.
The Sentinel satellites, for instance, record images of multiple spectrums — from high-resolution optical photographs to radar and infrared imaging. The satellite’s gaze dissects the Earth into multiple electromagnetic spectra, each with its own visibilities and invisibilities. Optical light is natural to the human eye but is easily obstructed by the Earth’s atmosphere; Infrared light is sensitive to photosynthetic surfaces but has poor spatial resolution. Researchers switch between different data layers, triangulating useful information from the complementary spectrums.
I like to think of remote sensing as vision escaping the human body. The sensorial organ expands to a distributed global network, and perception escapes the visual cortex to be incorporated into algorithms. The information contained in an image is no longer confined to the humanly perceptible, but now, to the machine-readable (Bratton 2015, Hansen 2015).
The portrait I have taken of Daniel, I have scanned at 3200ppi in 16 bits RGB, occupying 360.8 MB of memory. The image on the negative is 68mm by 56mm. The digital scan is a matrix of 8540 by 7040 pixels. Each pixel contains information that expresses one of 65,536 possible tonal variations on an RGB scale. The colour depth gives an illusion of smooth tones even though the image comprises discrete squares of colours.
The satellite image taken by Sentinel 2 using a multispectral instrument on 7 May 2021 is 665.96 MB. The image, covering an area of 100 square kilometres, contains the reflectance map of multiple spectral bands. Each map records the intensity of a certain wave spectrum as reflected back from Earth’s surface to the satellite. Some spectrums are invisible to the human eye. Each image contains deep layers of information. The information of a map can be translated to a value in one of each RGB channel, which, when combined, form a colour image. This type of image is also called a false colour image because the optical layer is an interpretation of the data rather than the physical spectrum registered by the sensors. The red in a false colour image does not have a direct physical relationship with the world as we experience the colour red; here it signifies the reflectance of an invisible wave.
In these practices, a camera is a measuring apparatus. A photograph depicts the geometric measurement of visible light in a given direction for each pixel (Yiu and Schraik 2022). From the scientist’s point of view, the informational capability of a photograph eclipses its aesthetic quality. This view is further exemplified by the digitization of the medium and the advent of novel computational techniques. Artist/theorists such as Harun Farocki also investigate the varied social roles of images, as in his well-known trilogy Eye/Machine that examined the military-industrial complex (Farocki 2003). Farocki’s notion of ‘operational image’ succinctly points out the new functionalities of photography beyond mere representation, drawing attention to fields in which images are embedded into a computer vision system and used as interfaces to simulate combat and target moving objects. Farocki’s works are frequently referenced in a new wave of exploratory thinking that shifts the focus from the visual to the unvisual, work that scrutinizes the computational dimension (Ingrid and Hoelzl 2015, Beller 2016); and also, its underlying networked infrastructure (Sluis and Rubinstein 2008, MacKenzie and Munster 2019).
These practices stand in stark contrast to traditional, narrow, optical, or parochial views of photography. (Rubinstein 2020: 5). Contrary to contemplation of the individual aesthetic piece, they address images from a systemic perspective. They theorize the image not as the representation of reality, but as ‘a button with a picture’ (Bratton 2015: 224). Those who work in such areas are deliberately attempting to rid themselves of the ocular-centric, the perspectival, and the representational baggage. Such work constitutes what is often known as post-representational photography theory (Rubinstein 2018: 8-18).
Daniel describes a pixel as a coordinate on an image, from which he is able to manipulate and extract information. Thus a pixel serves as a repository for data. Data, while it encodes information, also stands in for our absence, and thus becomes a proxy of the world. Satellite images, for instance, are signs of the presence of data and the absence of the human witness. Most satellite images depict wavelengths invisible to humans, collected by non-human agents. executing pre-written programmes. How can one justify the sporadic absence of humans in the process of information acquisition?
This is a question that is equally relevant to photography, even as there the absence of the human may be less obvious given that photographers maintain more direct contact with the camera. At the same time, my finger on the shutter does not give me more control over the internal automatic camera mechanism. The camera remains a black box. Articulating a new paradigm in photography, Daniel Rubinstein has recently written that "[w]hether a camera or computer, a black box is a device with an input and an output. If you feed data into a black box, it will be output as information" (Rubinstein 2020: 4). No matter how thoroughly a photograph imitates the human visual experience of the world, it does not disguise the fact that the photograph is a stand-in for something the viewer did not experience physically. Photography is, thus, remote sensing in the broadest sense. Both mediums require an imaginary relationship between the image and reality to justify the human absence. In both cases, human presence can be either emphasized or minimized in the creation of respective realisms.