Digital imaging throws documentary into ontological crisis

reconfigured-eye-coverScholars have long discussed the ambiguity and subjectivity inherent in photographic representation with its seductive verisimilitude. Bill Mitchell’s The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era (The MIT Press, 1992), the first book-length critical analysis of the digital imaging revolution, can easily be read with the addition of some interpretive and translative filtration as “visual truth in the post-film era.”

Mitchell suggests that after believing for over a hundred years in the notion of objective truth in photography (read film), its hegemony as a reliable witness has come to an end with digital imaging (read digital video). Since the ontology of documentary film (shot on film) is closely tied to that of photography, the effect of digital video on documentary is very similar to that of digital imaging on photography, except that maybe the house of cards has fallen in a different manner, since cinema is “truth at 24 frames per second” as Jean-Luc Godard once said, compared to a picture being worth a thousand words.

True to Marshall McLuhan’s maxim, the content of every new medium is the previous medium. Digital video, when compared to motion picture film, is no different. To suggest that digital imaging contains film is not to suggest that there aren’t several significant philosophical differences in their respective underpinnings. Cinematography is based on photography and digital cinema imaging is based on digital imaging. As Mitchell writes,

…digital imaging technology represents a new “configuration of intention [and] focuses a powerful (though frequently ambivalent and resisted) desire to dismantle the rigidities of photographic seeing and to extend visual discourse beyond the depictive conventions and presumed certitudes of the photographic record. (p. 59)

Without the reliable “indexical” reference of photography, it becomes difficult to claim “I was there” or “this really happened” or “this is evidence of an event,” and documentary, which was already on shaky ground in terms of truth claims, is now thrown into a full fledge ontological crisis. A large number of journalists, scientists, and documentary filmmakers find the malleability of the photographic image disturbing.

We are still in the process of developing a comprehensive theoretical framework to deal with the malleability of images. Mitchell ends Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era with,

…the emergence of digital imaging has irrevocably subverted [...] certainties [of recorded facts], forcing us to adopt a far more wary and more vigilant interpretive stance [...] and confronted us with the inherent instabilities and indeterminacies of [...] meaning. (p. 225)

and continues,

…as we enter the post-photographic era, we must face once again the ineradicable fragility of our ontological distinctions between the imaginary and the real, and the tragic elusiveness of the Cartesian dream. (p. 225)

and thus the possibility of documentary truth comes to an end. Or does it? Truth, whatever we make of it in documentary, is a notion that has never relied exclusively on the photographic image. Rumors of the death of the possibility of truth claims in documentary have been greatly exaggerated. How “truth” is constructed is a complex process that has always involved more than just a dependency on the photographic image, which was never such a reliable witness in the first place.

In his article “From Real to Reel: Entangled in Non-Fiction Film” in Theorizing the Moving Image (Cambridge University Press, 1996), Noël Carroll argues that,

In any given field of research or argument, there are patterns of reasoning, routines for assessing evidence, means of weighing the comparative significance of different types of evidence, and standards for observations, experimentation and for the use of primary and secondary sources that are shared by practitioners in that field. Abiding by these established practices is, at any given time, is believed to be the best method for getting at the truth.

Thus, since photographic evidence is only part of the system of evidence that filmmakers can provide in their documentary, order can be preserved and the ontological crisis is averted, at least for now.

Any given documentary should be analyzed in terms of standards essentially determined by non-photographic evidence, and that “film truth” based on a photographic record never had much substance or validity to start with. Even before digital trickery, documentary filmmakers have used clever editing or inappropriate B-Roll to lie with their images, Michael Moore’s Roger and Me providing a canonical example. It’s always been the rhetorical skill of the filmmaker that most effectively determines veracity of documentary in contrast to fiction. I think many (but certainly not all) documentary filmmakers would agree with Werner Herzog that it is the “ecstasy of truth” we’re after, not some Platonic truth, as if there were such a thing in the first place.

Bill Mitchell died this summer. He was a brilliant scholar and teacher. I never had a chance to take a class from him while I was at MIT, but I did have the pleasure one day of walking with him through the Stata Center as he spoke about the architectural program of the building. It was one of the most informative and delightful tours I’ve ever experienced. Wit, wisdom, and a love of architecture brought the ideas that drove the design of the building alive in my mind.


  1. Zak Ray says

    Perhaps Michael Haneke’s quote is now more relevant than Godard’s: “Film is 24 lies per second at the service of truth”