Neither the One nor the Other: Photographic Errors—Subjectivity, Subversion and the In-Between

by: , May 1, 2018

I like photographs that have gone wrong. A photograph that, either through some technological fault or human error, has not come out right: that doesn’t represent the scene in front of the camera according to the intentions of the photographer. This can include a wide range of potential and familiar photographic ‘errors’—motion blur, light leaks, de-focussing, over- or under-exposure, poor framing, inadvertent cropping, or combinations of these things.

As an artist and photographer I have been attracted to these off-kilter, awkward images for some time. I would often be delighted to find one of these peculiar, haphazard images in my downloads or negatives and I began to wonder what attracted me to these ‘wrong’ images, and why I found them visually compelling. To find out if my interests were shared with others I started a research project called In Pursuit of Error [1] through which I invited people to send me their photographic errors and share with me how the images had come about and what they felt about them. The project has enabled me to investigate how photographers interpret mistakes in their own work, to what extent they are welcomed and sought, and to explore the relevance of the error in the context of digital photography today.

The creative activity of photography is unique in being a complex fusion of human agency and technological processes. In this context of combined endeavour, the photographic error offers a different way of (photographically) seeing the world. On one hand this ‘seeing’ is offered by the instrument of the camera, a sort of machine-vision, which creates an image without much intervention from the photographer and in so doing presents an alternative way of viewing the world governed by technological and computational rules. On the other hand, the error reflects human ways of seeing which are partial, subjective and affected by our bodily actions and the contexts of time and place. The photographic error opens up a paradoxical space between machine and human and presents this space as a gap, an aporia in the conventions of photographic practice both technologically and culturally. This aporia is a rich space of wonder, surprise and not-knowing which in itself has been explored by artists for many years. Artists and photographers are often drawn to push the limits of their technology in extreme directions. The Provoke movement in Japan was based on the principles of are-bure-boke: blurry, grainy, out of focus pictures (Chong 2012) and the contributors to In Pursuit of Error suggest that this type of experimentation is alive and well. However, the photographic error can also be set against the prevailing cultural assumptions of photographic production and consumption which govern our contemporary image-world. By this I mean the dominant ideologies of the digital consumer camera market which seeks and values automation, simplicity, and veracity in photography and photographs, striving toward the goal of clearer, better images, quickly and easily achieved.

The contributions to In Pursuit of Error cover a broad range of subjects and a wide gamut of errors from the smallest maladjustment to the wildest abstraction. The images have been created on digital and analogue cameras, and have variously occurred at the point of capture or at the point of development or download. This broad range of errors suggests that they are a relatively common, if not frequent, occurrence for many photographers. The fact that these images have been retained long enough to be shared also suggests the value that the creators put on these error-images; often contributors indicate a sense of curiosity, or potential, which compelled them to keep the image.

The main aspect that I ask contributors to comment upon is how the photograph occurred: whether accidentally, or as a result of some deliberate action on their part. This distinguishes images that have been created through mismanagement or malfunction of the technology, thereby producing an unexpected image, and those in which the technology has been manipulated in such a way as to produce an unknown outcome. The distinction is not necessarily noticeable visually, and it does not negate an error if it is deliberate, because in either case the outcome cannot be predicted. However, the distinction between accidental and deliberate errors provides a useful starting point from which to investigate the photographic error in more detail and to explore the interplay between photographer and camera that takes place in the act of photographing.

Accidental errors – machine vision and the photographic event

‘No photographer…can entirely get to the bottom of what a correctly programmed camera is up to. It is a black box.’ (Flusser 2000: 27)

 

In its early years, photography was conceived as a primarily technical process with the photographer acting as a mere operative for the complex machinations of the camera. Despite our greater acceptance of photography as a creative art, our reliance upon and lack of understanding of the technologies that bring photographs into being affects our attitude toward photography. We envisage the photograph as occurring in a space which is somehow inaccessible to us, a mysterious process through which scene becomes image.

From the optics of the camera apparatus through to exposure formulae, chemical development, and printing, photography remains a creative activity which relies on knowledge and understanding of the technology and technological processes required in order to bring forth the image. With the advent of the digital camera many of these processes have become obscured in the computational ‘black box’ of the camera’s programme and memory chip.

Modern camera programmes have become more sophisticated, and more oblique, as the menus and options stack up, leaving the ordinary user baffled. The increasing automation of photography takes much of the decision making out of the hands of the photographer, programming out the fallibilities that may beset the amateur in order to produce ‘better’ pictures. This automation produces images which are the product of the machine, or more exactly in the case of the digital camera, the computation. The computation creates an algorithmic image (Rubinstein and Sluis 2013), an algorithm not just confined to the digital rendering of a particular scene, but created through the decision-making processes of the camera programme which selects aperture, shutter speed, white balance, and the like.

However, while these settings are fixed, the situation in front of the camera is subject to change, and it is this misalignment between programme and context that produces the accidental error: an image which records how the camera has ‘seen’ through its programme at a given point in time.

Accidental errors occur most often when the photographer evades or misunderstands an aspect of the camera’s programme. When there is a breakdown of ability in the photographer (for example leaving a shutter speed too slow, or aperture too wide), the camera will ‘see’ according to those settings, resulting in an error image. Whether the accidental error is a product of the malfunction of human or technology, it gives rise to images which are fundamentally unintended by both the photographer and the camera’s programme.

Fig. 1: ‘My error was an accident. I was taking a long exposure of a video projection, I must have moved or jogged the tripod without realising and this image happened.’ Abi Miller

The images that result from this form of technological disruption can be a liberating reminder of a fundamental aspect of photography which is often absent from discussions both aesthetic and technological – that taking a photograph is a process. To see the relationship between the thing photographed and the resulting image in a strictly causal relation, as a form of transmittal, is to overlook the photographic event, a time-based action during which an image is recorded (Philips 2009: 337). In the photographic event the variables of situation, time, light, camera and human actions all coalesce to create the image. Unexpected variations in any of these components can contribute to the creation of an error.

The accidental error exposes the collision of system and flux which occurs in photography. The system is the camera’s programme, or the physical and optical conditions of exposure or focus. Flux is ‘everything else’, and it is this imposition of a vast unknown into the system which can lead to a disrupted outcome.

Fig. 2: ‘I am still not entirely sure what happened to create this image but guess it must have been something to do with a mechanical issue with the shutter. It is the only photo I have like this as it never happened again.’ Richard Shipp

Subjective technology

The difference between what the camera sees and what the photographer sees is at the heart of how the accidental error is arrived at and why it may offer another way of seeing the world when it occurs. For what we are presented with is not a product of human intention but a vision of computational or technological seeing, a vision which can nonetheless still be recognised as ‘photography’.

The accidental error proposes a different conception of the camera as having its own subjectivity, within the limits of its design and operation. The accidental error makes us aware of the intercession of the technology in the creation of the image by making it visible, although this is an aspect of all photography. When we become aware of the intervention of the technology we understand better how our photographs relate to the objects and events that we picture. Camera-seeing involves a translation from that event to this image, with the camera placing its own perspective onto the image that is produced. This reveals as a fallacy our notion that the camera is somehow objective or that photography is a form of seamless transmission. To understand the subjectivity of the camera therefore exposes notions of the objectivity or ‘truth’ of the photograph as a lie and offers a radically different way of conceiving the camera as a linked subjective presence in the creation of the image.

 

Fig. 3: ‘[M]y film camera fell from my shoulder. Happy that it was still alive, I continued taking photos with it, not knowing that something was broken inside. When I came back home, and developed the film I realized that the camera was shooting everything only in one frame.’ Ivana Čavić

Comments from In Pursuit of Error contributors about their accidental errors suggest that they see the camera as somehow performing its own actions independently from their intentions. This relinquishment of responsibility for the image from human to technology is a curious example of the camera’s intentionality and its inherent mystery—we ask ‘how did it do that?’ and we are unable to fathom the answer. We are also unable to replicate the circumstances that brought the image into being.

Deliberate errors – performing photography and subverting the programme

‘The work to be carried out…happens automatically: the tool side of the camera is ‘done with’, the human being is now only engaged with the play side of the camera.’ (Flusser 2000: 29)

 

The camera is an integral part of the photographic process, and as such, it is a tool which can be manipulated in order to perform outside of its programmed parameters by a knowing collaborator. Deliberate errors can be ‘conjured’ through a variety of means such as moving the camera during exposure, leaving the shutter open, or playing with the focus controls.

The deliberate error uses the camera against itself, disrupting the settings in order to produce an error image. While there are certain actions which can be predicted it is also the case that knowledge of a proposed outcome can only be partial. I might know that reducing the shutter speed will produce blur, but I cannot predict what the resulting image will look like based on that intervention alone. The situation being photographed, as well as light and time, will all contribute additional, unforeseen elements to the resulting photograph.

Reviewing the history of photography one might see evidence of the first feminist subversion of a masculine conception of photography in the work of Julia Margaret Cameron.

The performance of the error can only be scripted up to a certain point, in terms of the manipulation of the controls and what the camera is pointed at and how. The error cannot be ‘created’ in the same sense that a conventional photograph is created, by observing and directing the subject in the frame, or by applying the particular authorial or stylistic methods of the individual photographer (Armstrong 2012). The deliberate error, created through manipulation of the camera, lacks authorial control in the same way that the accidental error does, precisely because it is not possible to stamp the authority of the photographer’s vision on the error image. The appearance of the error will be a surprise, whether occurring accidentally or deliberately; the only difference will be the photographer’s knowledge or lack of knowledge of the performative actions which brought the error into being.

The question that arises is why photographers would deliberately choose to create errors in the first place. It’s likely that the automation of the camera and the unknowability of the black box combine to create opportunities for play which before may not have existed. Automation liberates the photographer from the work of making pictures and instead prompts opportunities to explore the limits and extent of photography through an engagement with its fundamental principles of light and time.

For many In Pursuit of Error contributors the desire to manipulate and play is at the heart of the drive to create errors, resulting in experiments with light, movement and multiple exposure which form abstract works with painterly connotations. These painterly images contradict assumptions about what photography should be, disrupting the visual indexicality of the photograph and replacing it with a performative indexicality. The deliberate errors of contributors such Jukka-Pekka Jalovaara and Var Sahakyan are explorations of photography as process: doing’ photography rather than ‘taking’ photographs.

Fig. 4: ‘I spent whole summer of 2015 doing experiments: shaking the camera horizontally, vertically and circular movements. Actually I got obsessed doing so.’ Jukka-Pekka Jalovaara

Fig. 5: ‘For me the camera has been another form of tool, a brush, if you may, with which I have sought to catch a source of light, a shape and paint with it.’ Var Sahakyan

The deliberate error proposes a remedy to the ‘fatality’ of photography’s entanglement with its referent (Barthes 1993: 6) as the conventions of subject and depiction are obscured by the time-based experiment.

The deliberate error foregrounds the performativity of the photographic event in the same way that the accidental error foregrounds the subjective vision of the camera. In each case the contexts and actions which bring the photographic image into being are made visible. The error removes from the resulting photograph the potential for timelessness and instead grounds it in the specific context of the event of photographing – the moment in which the error was created.

The photographic universe – transparency and truth

‘To be in the photographic universe means to experience, to know and to evaluate the world as a function of photographs.’ (Flusser 2000: 70)

 

In Towards a Philosophy of Photography Flusser frames the relationship between photographer and camera as a form of push and pull between the intentions of each. The camera’s ‘intentions’ lie within the framework of the program, which for Flusser is not simply the digital encoding of automaticity which we encounter in the functions of the camera, but a meta structure which reflects the way in which the camera’s programme effectively creates an image universe through which a version of society is reflected.

The notion that society constructs and understands itself through photographs is highly relevant to our digital image culture and in this context the absence of the error from this image-world is consequential.

We are rarely given opportunities to encounter photography that has gone wrong in some way. On the internet, which is the predominant location for image consumption, we are often only presented with ‘good’ photographs, and in most cases the measure of their success lies in their accuracy. These images seem to depict things as they are and to offer a window through which we can view the world clearly and objectively. The immediacy of digital technologies reduces the time between image capture and delivery, undermining our appreciation of the photographic act and the processes involved in the transmission from event to picture. This gives our internet-image-world a peculiar flavour and texture – full of accurate, seemingly neutral images which appear to be spontaneously generated in real time.

Digital photography has returned us to an era when the truth claims for photography could be at their highest. The notion of ‘truth’ is used here in the sense of ‘neutrality’: the apparent seamless route from reality through the lens to the screen without any seeming interference by a contextualised and embodied human presence. The burden of impartiality and objectivity which has plagued photography since its invention is felt today in the quantity of anonymous and apparently ‘authorless’ images which appear on the internet.

These transparent, authorless photographs serve to reinforce a culture of photography which foregrounds the technology of digital photography as a form of mastery over the messy and subjective nature of human experience.

Technology has the capacity to simplify and to organise human actions toward more refined and linear patterns of behaviour. Wajcman (2004) argues that technology is symbolically linked with notions of mastery and control and in digital photography these concepts of mastery are apparent in the developmental drive to make ‘better’ images, faster and with less human intervention; serving up an ‘Auto’ image which satisfies the desire to represent the scene as accurately and as rapidly as possible. The technological developments in digital photography since the early 2000s, when consumer digital cameras became widely available, has progressed our image-making skills and outputs in unprecedented ways with the drive toward increased resolutions (megapixels) being a case in point. While the immediacy and screen-based nature of digital photography is the main observable change to photographic practices in the digital era, it is also the case that these technological advances have removed many of the awkward and faulty aspects of photography inherent in both camera and human.

The possibility of error was a greater factor in film photography simply due to the mechanics of the instruments being used. Film cameras offered many potential pitfalls for the user through the whole cycle of loading, shooting, developing and printing. In all of these phases the sensitivity of the materials provided chances for things not to turn out as planned and for serendipity to enter the process of making photographs in a far more overt fashion. In all family albums there are examples of the image that hasn’t come out quite right, but which is still retained with the others in the series despite its light leaks or its inadvertent crop. The value of the image goes beyond its accuracy; it conveys something else about time and place that is not easily traded in for a ‘better’ version.

With the advent of digital photography, the parameters of such casual error-creation changed. With film, the error was harboured until the moment of its revelation in the print lab or darkroom. In this context the distance between making and viewing the image was long enough that a certain nostalgia or lack of recollection would make the analogue error a point of interest, of charm even. By contrast, digital photography has vastly shortened the distance between the taking and viewing of the image. With early digital cameras one had to wait at least until the images were downloaded onto a computer, but now the image can be previewed seconds after capture. The immediacy of noticing an error now makes us more inclined to delete it and retake the image, over and over again if necessary.

While the occasional digital error might survive this immediate cull, it is very unlikely that error images will be published or seen in the online spaces which are occupied by all the other photographs that we encounter. Posting images online is now an important part of the social economy through which we communicate our sense of self to others. To present one’s ‘failures’ in this public way is not a natural human tendency and this means that in the age of digital photography the error image is a rarity. There arises an imbalance—a vast quantity of ‘transparent’ images which make up our daily photographic diet and very few images which speak of the contingency of photographing, the intersection of place, light, camera and photographer.

Subverting the programme – re-embodying the digital

Photography is unique amongst the creative arts in its fundamental association with technology. The early history of photography was consumed with the nature and status of the medium as, on one hand, a predominantly technical pursuit, and on the other, an emergent artistic craft, and this tension between the status of the camera and photographer in the production of the image continues to permeate photography even now. Photography’s ideological association with technical skill has not changed markedly in the last fifty or so years, and the marketing of cameras to the amateur photographic market is heavily biased toward a cultural conception of the photographer as male. Thus, the network of ideological relations between photography, technology, mastery and masculinity become aligned in the cultural positioning of photography as both practice and product.

The symbolic connection between mastery and technology is played out in the continual innovation and development of camera technologies designed to remove the subjective unreliability of the human element. If one extrapolates from the cultural model which perceives the photographer as primarily masculine, it is ironically this presence that the technological development is driving to remove. The subversive photographer, operating on the periphery of these cultural expectations is in a sense left free to play with, and against, the technology, exposing another way of photographing that evades the authoritarian, rule-based rigidity of her masculine counterpart. The error becomes not just a failure to get something right but a wilful desire to subvert the status quo, to upset the hegemony of photography culture which controls and limits how practice operates.

Reviewing the history of photography one might see evidence of the first feminist subversion of a masculine conception of photography in the work of Julia Margaret Cameron. Cameron took up photography enthusiastically when the medium was in its infancy and became a well-respected professional, moving photography away from simple practices of documentation toward staged and constructed scenarios which referenced a rich tradition of literature and painting.

A signifying feature of Cameron’s photographs is a deliberate softness of focus. Fully cognizant of the technical features of the camera, Cameron deliberately chose to pursue this effect in her images, subverting the ‘correct’ procedure for focussing in pursuit of her own artistic interpretation.

‘I believe…that my first successes in my out-of-focus pictures were a fluke. That is to say, that when focussing and coming to something which, to my eye, was very beautiful, I stopped there instead of screwing on the lens to the more definite focus which all other photographers insist upon.’ (Cameron [1890] 2014:77-78)

Cameron’s comment about her own photographs is telling. She refers to them as my ‘out of focus’ pictures, a criticism of her work which she had internalised after receiving wide ranging condemnation by the gatekeepers and self-appointed authorities of photographic standards for her ‘sloppy’ and incompetent practice (Weaver 1984:138). By pursuing her own vision, rather than the accepted and correct mode of usage, Cameron had defied the masculine orthodoxy of obeying the parameters of the technology, flouting the ‘rules’ by which ‘proper’ photographs could be judged.

The criticism of Cameron’s technological incompetence unsurprisingly centred on her gender as the main cause of a ‘natural’ and perhaps inevitable lack of understanding of complex technology. However, it is apparent from Cameron’s comments that her attitude to photography was more flexible and nuanced than her detractors might have imagined. In making her initial ‘error’ she identified something that made her pictures unique and from then on pursued it, with the knowledge that she was in creative control of the camera, not a slave to a set of programmed outcomes.

The amateur photographic market is similarly consumed with a photographic orthodoxy which identifies photographic practice with masculine norms of control, mastery and technical competence. Brief observation of the range of amateur photography magazines evidences a male photographer as the primary audience and a narrative which centres upon technical proficiency as the primary goal of the photographer. In these magazines there is a clear right or wrong, based on the rules of optics, physics and camera specifications. Photography becomes the activation of a set of formulae in order to create an accurate image of what is in front of the camera. The photographer submits to the camera, producing images which obey the program: both the set of operations within the camera itself and the cultural hegemony of images which it produces.

Cameron used her embodied knowledge to respond to what she saw through the lens rather than carry out a set of functions based on a rules and optics. Cameron’s approach exposes a different kind of engagement with the camera in which her negotiation with the technology created a new form of image-making which moved her photography beyond conventions.

This type of negotiation with the parameters of a technology is explored in Sherry Turkle’s much-cited investigation of the gendered differences to a computer programming task between girls and boys (Turkle 1984). Turkle observed that, in general, the girls tended to relate to the computer’s systems as a language to interact with rather than a set of formal rules. In contrast the boys took a more structured and linear approach to the task. From these observations Turkle evoked a distinction between ‘soft masters’ and ‘hard masters’: those who would either negotiate with the technology or impose their will on it. The notion of ‘soft mastery’ is not biological or gendered, but a cognitive preference for problem solving which involves a greater level of interaction with and confidence in the unfolding nature of the process in which variables are absorbed and used in the development of the work; ‘more like a conversation than a monologue’ (Turkle and Papert 1990: 136). Turkle observed that computer culture tends toward ‘hard mastery’ as a preferred orthodoxy and is resistant to recognise and facilitate aspects of ‘soft mastery’. It is not hard to see echoes of Flusser’s concept of the program in this tendency.

‘Soft mastery’; the capacity to bend the rules, to negotiate and relate, can be seen in how photographers approach the creation of deliberate errors. Contributors to In Pursuit of Error talk about ‘pushing and pulling photographic equipment’, ‘playing with the camera’ and how the ‘chance element is both fun and important’ [2] which evidence the desire to engage with the technology of photography in an experimental and open-ended way. They explore the camera as a tool that can offer its own contribution to the creative process: by extending and subverting its programmed functions they prompt the camera to new feats of vision. They use their embodied knowledge of the camera and its functions to place decisions and actions in the path of the photographic event in order to explore the extent of their photography.

Thus an embodied knowledge is relational and negotiates with technology in order to produce unexpected results. Turkle and Papert equate the cognitive approach of ‘soft mastery’ to Lévi-Strauss’s concept of the bricoleur, who engages with scientific enquiry from a position of cooperation: ‘bricoleurs have goals, but set out to realize them in the spirit of a collaborative venture with the machine’ (Turkle and Papert 1990: 136). The bricoleur’s practice of ‘tinkering’ echoes Flusser’s comment about the photographer’s capability to ‘outwit the camera’s rigidity’ (Flusser 2000: 80) which is evidenced by photographers’ pursuit of the deliberate error. To paraphrase Flusser one might argue that the rigidity being outwitted by these experiments is not just the camera’s, which we have already established is prey to the contradictions of its own vision, but the rigidity of photographic culture which insists on rules of practice and production.

Surprise, wonder and not-knowing

‘They know they are playing against the camera. Yet even they are not conscious of the consequence of their practice…’ (Flusser 2000: 81)

 

Photographers who are engaged in creating deliberate errors require a mind-set which is open to the collaborative possibilities of their interaction with the camera. The performative and time-based nature of the error requires a spirit of experimentation and ‘not knowing’ in the sense of not planning or designing a specific outcome (Fisher 2013). Not knowing can also occur when one is the recipient of an accidental error. In this case, the not-knowing occurs after the fact of the photograph, and perhaps entails a greater sense of surprise when viewing the image.

This quality of not-knowing adheres to both accidental and deliberate errors, the distinction between the two types of error forming around the photographer’s knowledge (or lack of knowledge) of the actions that brought the error into being. Attitudes and behaviours that would seem to run counter to the conventional modes of photographic practice therefore seem to be at play in the creation of the error. Not-knowing and lack of control occur during and after the creation of the image informing a result which is based on chance and random occurrence.

Fig. 6: ‘Hand held, the camera and images become quite unstable and unpredictable. The very action of taking the shot creates an uncontrollable movement. I click, click, click and take my chances. The whole thing becomes a little like a dance.’ Deborah Duffin

When asked to describe the actions that might have brought an error image into being, contributors to In Pursuit of Error are often perplexed. While they might describe some physical actions carried out beforehand, the instantaneous creation of the photographic image makes it impossible to fully articulate the processes that have brought it into being. Because the error occurs spontaneously it cannot be predicted or fully scripted. The error is emergent – it occurs at the moment of its making and is neither predicated on a set of criteria nor reducible to those criteria (Sawyer 2000: 152). Identifying this quality of emergence finally closes the distinction between the accidental and deliberate error, for they are both the products of an unknowable moment in the photographic event.

The spontaneity of the error means that interrogation of it can only happen after the event of its creation. Understanding the error requires interpretation because it is not immediately assimilable; we have to pore over the image contents and rebuild the (possible) circumstances of its creation in our mind. The actualization of the error image occurs in those moments of wondering, of its extension into the memory and imagination of the viewer/creator. In this process, the error draws away from the explicitness of content which is the hallmark of conventional photography and becomes an ellipsis or a question mark, an opening into the space of its creation which invites the viewer to enter and construct a response. The error is an in-between space, a gap between action and contemplation, which is open to wonder.

Luce Irigaray constructs wonder as a space which is ungoverned by linear time, an ‘in-stance’ rather than a fixed certainty, an in-between space which bridges two zones of perception, the time then and the time now (Irigaray 2004: 64). As we contemplate the results of our pursuit of error we enter a space which offers a glimpse of a photography pared down to its essential components: light, time, camera and human action. The error points us away from a subject, and toward the event of the photograph as a contingent action occurring in time and space.

The in-between space opened up by the error allows us to navigate the distinction between the event of photographing and the photographic object more clearly, to see them as two distinct elements which are contingent upon each other but which are not the same. The error becomes ‘The point of passage between two closed worlds, two definite universes, two space-times’ (Irigaray 2004: 64). The error forms a bridge to our understanding of photography as action and event, reminding us of the inherent unknowability of the relationship between situation, camera and photographer which occurs during the photographic act.

A point of departure

By opening up an in-between space between the act and the object, the error de-privileges the factual certainty of the photograph, and proposes an alternative conception of photography that runs counter to the established orthodoxy.

By undermining the certainty which attaches to our use of technology, the error opens us to the possibility of playing with and against the technology we use, subverting the rules and protocols in order to create something new. In the third dimension of the error, we can begin to question the photographic practices and images which we are surrounded with daily. We can ask what purpose and meaning photography has to us: what are we trying to do when we take a photograph?

The error image proposes that the seamless transmission between photographed subject and resulting image is not guaranteed, and that aspects of photography which we have come to assume are inherent to the medium—simplicity, accuracy, veracity—are in fact products of a technological development which is driven by the goal to remove the playful, embodied knowledge of the photographer from the event of photographing. Chance, contingency and error are part of the bricoleur’s strategy and the way in which the established order is subverted, and new knowledge is created. Errors are therefore points of departure toward new ways of thinking about our photographic image culture.

It is relevant, finally, to make the distinction between errors and failures. The concept of failure implies a breakdown, a stopping point. At the point of failure one stops and reconsiders, remakes or reverses. This is not the case with the photographic error. Failure is an absence of being, whereas the error, a mistake (a miss-take?) is a presence, which and suggests a wealth of possible interpretations.

The photographic error is therefore a point of possibility; of potential. It is not a failure but a sidestep, an interstice that allows something else about photography, the hidden and unremarked aspects of time, light, mechanics, computation and actions to be made visible. Our loss of control, our dashed expectations, show us a different way to relate to our tools; not as passive operators but as collaborators and experimenters. The error returns us to wonder.

‘Wonder would be the passion of the encounter between the most material and the most metaphysical, of their possible conception and fecundation one by the other. A third dimension. An intermediary. Neither the one nor the other.’ (Irigaray 2004: 70)

Notes

1. https://inpursuitoferror.co.uk/ The acronym IPE is used in the text to signify the project.

2. Comments made by, respectively: Luke Harby, Deborah Duffin and Claire Yspol with regard to their deliberate errors contributed to the project.


REFERENCES

Armstrong, Carol (2012),  ‘Automatism and Agency Intertwined: A Spectrum of Photographic Intentionality’, in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 38, No. 4, pp. 705-726.

Barthes, Roland (1993), Camera Lucida, London, Vintage.

Cameron, Julia Margaret [1890] ‘Annals of My Glass House’, first published in Photo Beacon (Chicago) 2 (1890), pp. 157-160. Reprinted in Andrew E. Hershberger (ed) (2014), Photographic Theory: An Historical Anthology, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 76-79.

Chong, Doryun (2012), Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant Garde, New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

Fisher, Elisabeth & Rebecca Fortnum (2013), On Not Knowing: How Artists Think, London: Black Dog Publishing.

Flusser, Vilem (2000), Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Translated by Antony Mathews. London: Reaktion.

Irigaray, Luce (2004), The Ethics of Sexual Difference, Continuum: London.

Phillips, Dawn M. (2009), ‘Photography and Causation: Responding to Scruton’s Scepticism’, in British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 49, No. 4, pp. 327–340.

Rubinstein, Daniel  &  Katrina Sluis (2013), The Digital Image in Photographic Culture: Algorithmic photography and the crisis of representation’,  in Martin Lister. (ed.) The Photographic Image in Digital Culture, 2nd Edition, London: Routledge, pp. 22-40.

Sawyer, Keith (2000), ‘Improvisation and the Creative Process: Dewey, Collingwood, and the Aesthetics of Spontaneity’, in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 58 (2), pp. 149-161.

Turkle, Sherry (1984), The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, London: Granada.

Turkle, Sherry & Seymour, Papert (1990), ‘Epistemological Pluralism: Styles and Voices within the Computer Culture’, in Signs, Vol. 16, No. 1, pp. 128-157.

Wajcman, Judy (2004), TechnoFeminism, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Weaver Mike (1984), Julia Margaret Cameron 1815-1879, Boston, MA: Little Brown Company.

Image References

Images and commentary included in this article were contributed to In Pursuit of Error by the following photographers and are reproduced here with thanks.

Fig 1: © Abi Miller, Accident image https://www.instagram.com/abigailmiller.fa

Fig 2: © Richard Shipp, Slide 229 www.richardshipp.co.uk

Fig 3: © Ivana Čavić, April 2015 https://www.instagram.com/anavi_civac

Fig 4: © Jukka-Pekka Jalovaara, Untitled https://sites.google.com/site/jalovaarajp/

Fig 5: © Var Sahakyan, Christmas bazar www.vartist.tv

Fig 6: © Deborah Duffin, Untitled http://www.deborahduffin.co.uk/gallery/gallery2/

Download article

Newsletter

Feeling inspired by MAI? Dedicated to intersectional gender politics in visual culture? Want to keep your feminist imagination on fire? MAI newsletter will help refresh your zeal for feminism with first-hand news on our new content. 

Subscribe below to stay up-to-date.

* We'll never share your email address with any third parties.


WHO SUPPORTS US

The team of MAI supporters and contributors is always expanding. We’re honoured to have a specialist collective of editors, whose enthusiasm & talent gave birth to MAI.

However, to turn our MAI dream into reality, we also relied on assistance from high-quality experts in web design, development and photography. Here we’d like to acknowledge their hard work and commitment to the feminist cause. Our feminist ‘thank you’ goes to:


Dots+Circles – a digital agency determined to make a difference, who’ve designed and built our MAI website. Their continuous support became a digital catalyst to our idealistic project.
Guy Martin – an award-winning and widely published British photographer who’s kindly agreed to share his images with our readers

Chandler Jernigan – a talented young American photographer whose portraits hugely enriched the visuals of MAI website
Matt Gillespie – a gifted professional British photographer who with no hesitation gave us permission to use some of his work
Julia Carbonell – an emerging Spanish photographer whose sharp outlook at contemporary women grasped our feminist attention
Ana Pedreira – a self-taught Portuguese photographer whose imagery from women protests beams with feminist aura
And other photographers whose images have been reproduced here: Cezanne Ali, Les Anderson, Mike Wilson, Annie Spratt, Cristian Newman, Peter Hershey