Traces: Photographic Negatives and the Quest for Truth

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Department of Humanities


Machine learning algorithms and artificial intelligence have made photographic manipulation easy and seamless. In thinking about the ways in which artificial intelligence has altered the truth-value of photography, this article explores the importance of situating the current debates over fake news and photographic manipulation in a larger historical context. More specifically, it suggests that it is equally important to understand both the inner workings of artificial intelligence as well as the foundations of indexicality that warrant the truth-value of both analog film and video. In the era of analog flexible film then, the negative was often seen as a source of truth, whereas the positive was understood as being manipulatable and manipulated. In the age of digital photography, the idea of a digital negative has come to articulate yet another attempt to anchor the visual in a regime of truth. RAW formats are now seen as comparable to an analog negative. These RAW formats are developed in an Adobe software application called Lightroom rather than in a physical darkroom which facilitated the making of an analog positive image out of an analog negative. The article concludes with an appeal for the importance of teaching both current and obsolete methods of media making in order to foster critical visual literacy and argues that the darkroom has become yet again a crucial place for rediscovering the power of photography to expose both its authenticity and its malleability.

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Visual Resources