Focusing After the Fact
In 2012 we are to see the release of the first commercially available ‘light field camera’. The ‘Lytro’ camera reorders the idea of conventional photographic composition (compose, focus, shoot) by taking a photograph which can be focused ‘after the fact’. The technology behind it is explained on the Lytro website, and according to a recent article in the Observer newspaper, it emerges from the discoveries of light field researcher Ren Ng, a student at Stanford University whose work explored the possibilities of developing methods for capturing entire light fields in a single photographic shot.
Many have commented on the way in which film and photography historically came to affect the repertoires available for thinking visually about the world around us (I’m thinking in particular of Benjamin, Deleuze and Bergson). Photography has been seen as heralding the death of painting, as the technology par excellence of the machine age, and the basis for fundamentally new understandings of temporal and spatial imaginaries.
I wonder then, what this new development in photographic technique signals. One brief reflection: It seems perhaps more than co-inicidental that this camera emerges alongside a broader preoccupation with the possibilities of post-hoc analysis of data. There seem uncanny similarities between the idea of a photograph whose subject matter can be manipulated at will by different users of the image, and the promise of open data which seems to offer a newfound freedom to the public as interrogators of multitudes of semi-processed information. Both work with the notion that technologies offer the potential to bring objects which lie at the peripheries of vision into sharp relief. Implicit is the idea that the capacity to focus on new objects will somehow revolutionise our relationship to power, reversing the role of the passive observer by transforming them into active participants in world making processes.
On the Lytro website there is a gallery of images which as a user you can play around with, moving the focus from foreground to background and from one object to another. Yet there is something ultimately disappointing about the whole experience. I could be accused, of course, of technophobia and a basic scepticism of the new. However, I don’t think that this disappointment is the result of a purist position on the virtues of traditional photography. I think it is more likely a reflection on the ways in which total data on the one hand promises a rich world of depth and complexity for us to explore, but in the end only delivers a mode of navigating a uniform surface of data, numbers or pixels.