The “progress” unveiled by Photography (with Henri Van Lier)

Reading time: 21 minutes

Translation by AB – August 4, 2021

Thus, photography is one of three or four places, with sound, lighting, the computer, the automobile, the plane, where the true initiatory nature of the technique manifests itself in the contemporary world. In this sense, it is not only technical, but techno-logical.

Henri Van Lier – Philosophie de la photographie


How to account, even briefly, of the nature of technical progress? It is not enough to take an inventory of innovations to make this progress intelligible. Everyone guesses, however, a coherence at work, a system and a logic at the origin of all kinds of transformations of which we are, depending on the circumstances, the victims, the worshipers or more generally the observers. Can we better see the “face” of this logic of progress and paint it in broad strokes?

Everyone can see that “digital” underpins most of the technical progress, whether in avionics, automobiles, medicine or agriculture… But this “digital” system that is moving forward has become so complex, diffuse and pervasive that it eludes any synthesis. Faced with this kind of obstacle, the reflex is to look for analogies. The analogy remains of course suspicious as an epistemic process, everything being able to look like everything according to the chosen angle and transitively leading to the absurd. But it remains an excellent generator of hypotheses. Also, facing our obstacle, we consider an analogy between the Digital system and photography considered from the following angle: the Digital is informational, a photograph is an information, and parallels can thus be made. Pushing a little further, we even think that the Digital is essentially analogous to “Photography” (with a capital “P”) considered as a system. It is this analogy between systems that we sketch here:

Digital ~ Photography

The word “photography” (with a small “p”) will be reserved to name the photographic image itself (the “photo”) and, by extension, the activity of “making photos”.

Black boxes

Many poetic, sociological and philosophical reflections have accompanied the rise of photography. We have chosen here a somewhat heterodox reading, that of the “Philosophie de la photographie” by the Belgian philosopher Henri Van Lier1 (1921-2009), a work available on the site dedicated to his “Anthropogeny2 (in French). However, there are many other works of reference such as “Camera Lucida” [ “La chambre claire” ] by Roland Barthes, “On Photography” by Susan Sontag or “Photography and Society” by Gisèle Freund… But these works do not deal, or only slightly, with Photography as a techno-logical system, and rather endeavor to unravel the mysteries of the photo, as if it had its own existence: what it represents, its effects, its meanings…

Henri Van Lier leads us into the mysteries of the system that explains the very existence of the photo, and it is this technical exploration that allows us to engage in the analogy. By the way, reflections on the subject of the digital world very often avoid this kind of exploration, perhaps because it requires a technical effort from which many philosophers or sociologists may believe themselves dispensed. After all, the objects of their thoughts are there before their eyes and are already producing their effects (smartphone addiction and its consequences can be studied without knowing the history of this technical object nor, above all, without trying to know the logic that presided over its appearance, etc.). But they miss the essential relationship between, say, the “technical temptation” for an object (e.g., how Steve Jobs developed his vision…) and the effects of this object (psychological, social, ecological…) when it spreads.

Thus, the philosopher who examines a technical result starts from this result as if it were a real given and “ontologizes” it, as we say now. Precisely, we read about the work of Roland Barthes3:

The stake of “Camera Lucida” appears: it is a question of stating the conditions of a possible return to ontology. It is a question of re-founding an economy of the sign outside the paths of the Power: hence the promotion of the private photography, the assumption of the anonymous amateur. The metaphorical periphrasis – “Camera Lucida” instead of photography – ousts the pathos or the mystery of the obscure, of the too famous dark room (“Camera Obscura”).

The photography is considered here as a conquest of the “paths of the Power” that it would be a question of restoring to the “anonymous amateur”. The intention is limpid but this incantation ignores the necessarily opaque character of the technique, in particular of the Photographic technique. This “too famous dark room” has no possibility of becoming clear to anyone and the philosopher will therefore have to face it, “à la Gilbert Simondon” (Gilbert Simondon, philosopher of information?).

For our Digital ~ Photography investigation, the concept of dark room (camera obscura) must be subsumed under the larger concept of “black box” (capsula obscura, if you will). But even this concept of “black box” remains improper if by it is meant only an object which produces outputs (e.g., photographic images) from inputs (light scenes). One of the characteristics of the digital system is indeed to be composed of real or virtual artefacts interacting at a distance and in a network. We should therefore speak strictly of a “black process”. Nevertheless, we keep here the term “black box” which has the advantage of coming already equipped with connotations that everyone can understand.

Black is black

Henri Van Lier himself deploys learned comments, enriched with many examples, on photography and its meanings, but he considers Photography in its entirety and within the framework of a larger system of thought. Thus, he can claim4:

Photography is […] the most vivid experience of what the physicist calls a black box, one of which we can clearly see the input and the output, but without ever really knowing what happens between the two. The function of reality and of the cosmos is to hide the black boxes, to make us believe that everything is reducible to signs, referents, objects and events, and therefore to elucidable links of causality.

Van Lier exposes here a scientific type of black box that brings us to the verge of the scientific questioning par excellence: what is going on inside? The physicist “thinks” that a transformation f is taking place which “acts” in such a way that:

Input → f → Output

His job is to understand and translate f into a mathematical language. But a technical black box is something else: f is not a mystery to be solved but obviously a ploy or a stratagem. For reasons that we will not go into here, this scheme must always be “hidden by design” and therefore take place under the cover of a black box (see Tristan Harris and the Swamp of Digital Ethics). Then, the technological system can be equated to the “cosmos” mentioned by Henri Van Lier, whose words become: The function of reality and of the technological system is to hide the black boxes, to make us believe that everything is reducible to signs, referents, objects and events, and therefore to elucidable links of causality. We all see, for example, Mundus Numericus as a “cosmos” miraculously open to causal elucidations, a kind of cosmos lucida, whereas it is first and foremost made up of black boxes under the shelter of which opaque algorithmic ploys take place.

Photography is a perfect illustration of this technological system which produces an acceptable “reality”5 (outputs) and, above all, apparently elucidable without knowing anything about its technical processes.

Worldwide process

[…] A photographer does not depend on his cameras and film in the same way that Beethoven depended on his piano makers, who were only a few and lived not too far from him. The photographic user human depends on a photographic technician human who includes thousands of individuals spread all over the world, who are themselves dependent on a gigantic worldwide process, the Photography6.

Henri Van Lier

Technical progress leads to the multiplication and worldwide extension of black boxes. We cannot fail to notice the place they have taken in our daily life, binding interfaces between us and the “real”, but also our ignorance about them: these black boxes take the place of a functional, contingent environment, which is not intended to be understood (“that’s the way it is” …). Thus, we have become like the photographers in a “worldwide process”.

The important corollary is that we do not perceive the essence of the “power games”, which impose themselves on us without a fight, a principle that some have referred to as “technocracy”. Indeed, in this huge industrial process, the most powerful are the designers of ploys and therefore the most opaque: engineers, physicists, chemists, numericians … and the companies that employ them. Isn’t it paradoxical? The “technician” seems, on the contrary, to be subordinate to the “user” who always wants more benefits (to go fast, to have at hand…) and less drawbacks (to wait, to do it himself/herself…). In short, the technique seems to respond our desires.

But no one wanted to take pictures before it became possible. Thus, the state of affairs is mainly reversed: it is our desires that respond to the technique. At the time of his book on photography, in 1983, Henri Van Lier had not yet been able to take the measure of the digital hubris leading to Homo Amazonus (the desiring human), but he already observed that “the setting up of a worldwide homo photographicus also produces an inverse subordination, where the technique driven by its own logic modifies the perceptive and mental habits of the human being”. In other words, the effect of reality of the output of a technical black box produces new real (a function of the art also), something else to which one must adapt, as a photographer to photographic works of which he does not suspect the origin.


We already see this “dis-illusionment” which is the beginning of any serious thought of the technique. The technical predates the semiotic (as the black box predates photography), and if the technical is princeps it is because Homo possesses a technical body, of which Henri Van Lier gives a learned description in the first chapter of his general anthropology entitled “the technical and semiotic body7:

All these transversalizing extensions and framing articulations of the limbs required lockable joints. Homo’s evolution selected bone wedges in his ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, elbows, wrists. By what the hominian body became articulatory, that is to say manifesting its articulations, and thus inclined to articulate its environment, which was disposed to be technical and semiotic. The Greek root *ar, which thematizes adjustment and adaptation, gave arthron for the body’s articulations, but also derivatives covering almost the whole anthropogenic field: the plow, the ploughing, the seasoning, the apparatus, the dowelling, the close succession, the number, the counting, the arithmetic, the exactness, the pleasantness, the virtue, the precision, the excellence in ar-istos.

The technique deploys homothetically what we feel by this ar-ticulated technical body. The “semiotic” comes only afterwards. Thus, to begin to figure out the “face” of progress, the first exercise consists in ridding the technical objects and their outputs of the meanings that we have placed in them. We must return to the ar-ticulations embedded in the black boxes and see how, as the first character of progress, they allow us to transform more and more real into more and more reality. Let us observe by analogy a photograph for what it is, not for what it provokes or means. We will then see there the vestige of the body.

Van Lier reminds us that”8:

Palpation, prepared in the apes through circulation on thin branches, then refined through delousing, thus became, at the same time as structural and textural, an allusive, elusive tact, pervasive by dint of being insistent, apt as much for caressing as for estimating and building techniques.

The Photographic black box achieves in the same way a kind of “light palpation” that the technical eye had always considered and which now increases it.


The Photographic black box encloses the process by which a real light scene is transformed (f) into a realistic image always available for a “there-under-our-eyes”.

Photography black box

Numerous ar-ticulatory stratagems follow one another (light convergence on a fixed plane, data entry / capture, storage, reproduction, broadcast) but we, consumer-photographers, only consider the final image, counterpart of a light instant, as if nothing had worked between the two. However, the processing always leaves some traces (blurs, trails, frames, pixels, colorizations…), triggering these impressions and feelings which sometimes inspire poetry or philosophy.

The role of the photographer is to be present at the right time and the right place, a role that is minute but essential. The “choice” of the point of space-time from which the light scene is captured is thus part of the operation; as such, the photographer is logically part of the black box. The image is only the foam of this gigantic worldwide Photographic process and of its power games.

The Digital system is made of black boxes which work in an similar way since, there too, the real is seized by sensors-photographers, then stored, reproduced, broadcast… and transformed by algorithmic systems into new realities which are displayed on our screens. There also, the processing leaves traces which trigger impressions and feelings which sometimes inspire philosophy.

Power games

We have drawn a black box containing an antique roll of photographic film. Digital technology is now very dominant but not so long ago, film technology underpinned the whole industry and its business model: huge margins were therefore made on film sales and so “Kodak’s core competency was being a vertically integrated chemical manufacturer9 (which the photographer did not care about!). Therefore, any innovation accepted at Kodak had to be aimed at selling more chemicals in the final form of photographic film. The “creative destruction” that Kodak experienced can basically be explained by technology alone. The economist Joseph Schumpeter famously attributed this creative destruction to “five types of innovation”10 but the innovations can all be seen not as causes but rather as effects, sometimes long term, of a fundamental technique that requires them to spread through the technological system.

Thus, this photographic image which seems to have smoothly improved over time (definition, color…) is only the scum of a ruthless natural selection of socio-economic devices intended to “please” the technical system and of which Kodak was a victim… This hiatus, sheltered in black boxes, between the final use of technologies and their economic, ecological, social and political impacts, has never been as wide open as it is today, and no one will do without a use (of “taking pictures”) under the pretext that it depends on black boxes that pollute, destroy jobs and social links, or are at the origin of unbelievable inequalities. The “power” is conquered without a blow, because hidden in the black processes.

First glimpse on technical “progress”

The Photographic progress thus sketched allows to consider in a similar way the logics that animate the Digital and the technical progress in general. Then, the progress becomes observable along two “modalities”: 1) the expansion of the domain of black boxes and 2) the acceleration of the transformation of real into reality, a phenomenon of speed already illustrated by Homo Amazonus. These two modalities feed each other.

About the first, the kick-off is given by the ancient camera obscura equipped with a simple hole (the “pinhole”) which allows the capture of a real light scene in relief on a two-dimensional surface. The photographers that we are forget it, but this optical “ploy” known since the antiquity is quite remarkable. In 1514, Leonardo da Vinci explains that “By letting the images of the illuminated objects penetrate through a small hole in a very dark room you will then intercept these images on a white sheet placed in this room […] but they will be smaller and reversed11. On this “sheet”, it is then possible to draw by hand, as on a tracing paper, the projected contours. The ar-ticulated body of the “photographer” thus carries out itself this 2D palpation/seizure of the light scene, a mode of palpation which was until then the prerogative of the only mathematician geometer (Body and Language Games).

The first expansion of the field of the camera obscura will consist in “automating” this capture by making the sheet photosensitive (and thus self-sensitive). We owe mainly to the French engineer Nicéphore Niepce the stabilization of a repeatable capture process and thus accessible to the draft of an economy of Photography. The photosensitive sheet is manually extracted from the camera after exposure and the photographer’s ar-ticulated body still performs a certain work which consists in a technical palpation (physical and chemical), not directly of the real light scene, but of an intermediate object which will produce this photographic image sometimes “shrouded in mystery”. This process is still used by many lovers of a minimal technique of which we have not found a better and more sensitive description than the one proposed by the French photographer Bernard Leclerc on his site”12:

A simple box with a pinhole whose narrow outline caresses the undulating light as it sneaks into the box. An image is born from this caress, unique and singular, that a photosensitive support placed at the bottom of the box allows to pick up. Rebellious to dressage, this image is a natural look at a hidden reality, imperceptible in HD.

Flowers draped in light

Flowers draped in light

Already, the human being begins to recede in front of technology, even if the body remains involved, both as a photographer to feel the scene to be captured and as an “ar-tisan” who performs many gestures, displacements, manipulations… worthy of a farmer or a gold digger. But the process imposes itself, “rebels against the dressage”, and all the signs of the technique are already manifest, like this dark corner.

Progress: three signs of expansion

Faced with the expansion of the black boxes, the human body (including the brain) folds up. We no longer draw on the sheet: a chemical process takes care of it. We no longer extract the plates one by one; we no longer take the pictures ourselves; we no longer go to the laboratory; etc. Eventually, the photographer himself tends to disappear: the space-time of the shooting, where the body engages and feels, is reduced to a fleeting click (although the selfie still seems to ar-ticulate a little more than a thumb…).

One witnesses in the same time the expansion of these technical traces which “rebel to the dressage”. As Henri Van Lier said, “the perceptive and mental habits of the human being” are modified. Accustomed as we are, we go so far as to look for these traces without which a pinhole is not a pinhole, a photo is not a photo, a Polaroid is not a Polaroid… They become necessary to this reality that we wish to shape. They are no longer rebellious accidents but desired transformations i.e., additives. No photo comes out of a smartphone without heavy algorithmic processing. Then, in life, we have to look like these images doped with technical additives (consider for example this phenomenon called “Snapchat dysmorphia”).

Finally, the “gap” between real and reality expands. This phenomenon also leads to a change of mental habits. The transformations (f) and their “violence” taking place under the shelter of worldwide black boxes, the relation between the photographic image and the light scene, between reality and the truth of real, becomes uncertain (see the photographs of the election of Donald Trump in Fake news – legislate or educate?). Even more, the technical logic tends to transform the technical reality into a new real. New “post-photographic” black boxes then appear to, for example, animate personal photographs13 or old images, as in the astonishing project “The Old New York” by Alexey Zakharov14.

Progress: three signs of acceleration

The second modality of progress is the acceleration of the recycling of reality into new reality, which is easily observed: the time between input and output tends to become zero. As we have already suggested (in French: Dimensions politiques de la blockchain), the technological system is held up by its own unpredictable movement towards efficiency (let us be clearer here: otherwise, it collapses). This is why time must disappear. In Niepce’s time, it took a few days between the shooting and the contemplation of the photograph. The Polaroid technique made a foray into the realm of the minute. It now only takes a few seconds. Waiting has become unbearable. We owe this remarkable outcome only to techno-logic.

Second, increase in speed leads to increase in volumes. A fast process is more easily repeatable, so volumes increase. Niepce was thus able to initiate an economy of scale sufficient to start a market for photography. In 2021, it is estimated that 1,440 billion photos have been taken worldwide. But how many of them are actually different? kept? looked at? How many of them are only used to compensate for our deficient memory, our memory of a price? a phone number? a parking spot?… 90% of these photos are taken from a smartphone, confirming its role as the main digital polluter. When they will be mostly triggered by thought, or by AI, or by objects … it is certainly the whole Digital system that will have switched to these new processes of dis-ar-ticulated inputs. This movement has begun. We were in 2008 but already15:

Of all the digital data created, less than half can be attributed to user activity […] The rest is a digital shadow, consisting of surveillance images, Internet search histories, or financial transaction lists.

This expanding “digital shadow” is a mark of the extension of black boxes that end up encompassing humans and then, from the “inside”, replacing them with automatic processes. It is foolproof.

Finally, the increase in volumes logically leads to an outbreak in the need for “curation” i.e., classification, sorting, research, presentation… We had already observed this movement in the field of artistic outputs from technological black boxes (Artificial Intelligence-Art in its infancy). The hyperfast technological system produces much more than the human being is able to consume. In our case, it is impossible to contemplate all the photos that are theoretically intended for us, that would interest us or that we simply took. To these overabundant outputs must thus be superimposed means of classification and selection. It will therefore be necessary to have “metadata” (places, dates, characters, tags…) and selection algorithms. Here is an example among others16:

Thanks to the pleasures of machine learning, Google Photos is smart and can automatically classify photos according to the people who appear on them, the places but also the objects present on the photos. It is thus very easy to find all the photos of your dog or the pictures of your child during all the stages of his life, from his birth to his first BMX achievements. Even better, a search field makes it easy to find an event, such as a snowstorm in Toronto. Amazing.

What is amazing is the implacable logic of technical progress, of which Photography allows us to glimpse this additional character: the technical output always comes equipped with a shadow of metadata that freezes the curation strategies and mainly allows automated interpretation contexts.

Ten little aphorisms

Are we better convinced of the Digital ~ Photography analogy? Do we see better the “face” of the progress animated by this “techno-logic”, as Henri Van Lier said? To be seen, because our development is only an outline which can at most be summarized in some aphorisms.

  1. A technical artifact transforms real (input) into reality (output).
  2. A technical artifact can only function as a black box (or black process).
  3. A technical black box hides violent and powerful power games.
  4. The technical progress consists in the expansion of the domain of the black boxes and in the increase of their transformation speed.
  5. Through progress, the ar-ticulated human body folds.
  6. Through progress, technical traces become additives.
  7. Through progress, the gap between real and reality increases and the output becomes new reality.
  8. Through progress, the time between input and output tends to become zero and the wait unbearable.
  9. Through progress, outputs proliferate and the “technical shadow” spreads.
  10. Through progress, curation becomes a critical activity.

As many assumptions to be developed…

Three subsidiary questions

We propose to continue this meditation on the Digital ~ Photography analogy by specifying again that by “Digital” we mean the entire digitized technological system, including avionics, the automobile, medicine, agriculture… and, of course, the digital.

  • About the technical traces

Everyone has noticed it without always paying much attention: when taking a photo, like the lyrebird, the smartphone imitates the sound of the shutter (a sound that can be disabled).

Is this the mark of a “state of progress” unseen in the history of technology?

  • About stratagems/ploys

Here is another pinhole photo made by Bernard Leclerc:



How are our view and that of the photographer, master of the stratagem, different?

Hint: we don’t know that the photographer uses a pinhole camera 4×5 inches, focal length 93mm, F/234, diameter of the hole 0,37mm (“I give up the photo paper for the 4×5 inches film plane. This has several advantages, we can choose the sensitivity of the film and therefore the exposure time and on the other hand play on the development to possibly modify the contrast or the density of the image”). Here is this pinhole:


  • About real and reality

Let’s remember this famous sentence of the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard: “Photography is truth. The cinema is truth twenty-four times per second”.


Is there only an artist who can utter such a catechism?

1. Wikipédia (in French) – Henri Van Lier
2. Henri Van Lier in Les Cahiers de la Photographie / – 1983 – Philosophie de la photographie
3. Stéphane Chaudier / HAL, – January 4, 2018 – Barthes : la photographie ou l’ontologie précaire
4. La photographie est […] l’expérience la plus vive de ce que le physicien appelle une boite noire, celle dont on voit bien l’entrée (input) et la sortie (output), mais sans jamais trop savoir ce qui se passe entre les deux. La fonction de la réalité et du cosmos c’est de dissimuler les boîtes noires, de faire croire que tout est réductible à des signes, des référents, objets et événements, et donc à des liens élucidables de causalité”.
5. We understand “reality” here in the constructivist sense of experience relative to the one who perceives it.
6. “[…] un photographe ne dépend pas de ses appareils et de ses pellicules de la même façon que Beethoven de ses facteurs de piano, qui étaient seulement quelques-uns et vivaient pas trop loin de chez lui. L’homme utilisateur photographique dépend d’un homme technicien photographique qui comprend des milliers d’individus répartis de par le monde, lesquels sont eux-mêmes dépendants d’un gigantesque processus planétaire, la Photographie”.
7. Toutes ces extensions transversalisantes et articulations cadrantes des membres exigeaient des articulations blocables. L’évolution d’Homo a sélectionné les calages osseux dans ses chevilles, ses genoux, ses hanches, ses épaules, ses coudes, ses poignets. Par quoi le corps hominien est devenu articulatoire, c’est-à-dire manifestant ses articulations, et donc enclin à articuler son environnement, lequel se disposa à être technique et sémiotique. La racine grecque *ar, qui thématise l’ajustement et l’adaptation, a donné arthron pour les articulations du corps, mais aussi des dérivés couvrant presque tout le champ anthropogénique : la charrue, le labour, l’assaisonnement, l’agrès, le chevillage, la succession proche, le nombre, le compte, l’arithmétique, l’exactitude, la plaisance, la vertu, la précision, l’excellence dans ar-istos”.
8. La palpation, préparée chez les Singes à travers la circulation sur des branches minces, puis raffinée à travers l’épouillage, devint ainsi, en même temps que structurelle et texturelle, un tact allusif, élusif, pervasif à force d’être insistant, apte autant à la caresse qu’à l’estimation et à la construction techniques”.
9. Wharton University – February 1st, 2012 – What’s Wrong with This Picture: Kodak’s 30-year Slide into Bankruptcy
10. Wikipédia (in French) – Destruction créatrice
11. Wikipédia (in French) – Chambre noire
12. Sténopés – Le Sténopé ou la photographie sans objectif – “Une simple boîte percée d’un trou d’épingle dont le contour étroit caresse la lumière ondulante quand elle se faufile pour pénétrer dans la boîte. Une image naît de cette caresse, unique et singulière, qu’un support photosensible placé au fond de la boîte permet de cueillir. Rebelle au dressage, cette image est un regard naturel sur une réalité cachée, imperceptible en HD”.
13. Andrew Liszewski / Gizmodo – February 26, 2021 – ‘Deep Nostalgia’ Can Turn Old Photos of Your Relatives Into Moving Videos
14. Rocketstock – How Alexey Zakharov Brought Vintage Photos to Life in 3D
15. Laurent Checola / Le Monde – March 19, 2008 – Le boom des données numériques produites dans le monde en 2007
16. Frandoid – May 29, 2015 – Google Photos, la nouvelle application qui révolutionne la photo

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