Visual observation techniques have changed substantially since the nineteenth century. In 1839, when the physician François Arago announced the invention of photography to the world, he referred to the daguerreotype as ‘a new instrument in the service of observation.’ This instrument would be suitable for a broad array of scientific disciplines, from astronomy to the philological study of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Over time, the camera was indeed used as a mechanical instrument in various arts and sciences.
Walter Benjamin’s view was that photography destroyed the aura of works of art. In his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1932), he predicted that the social impact of mechanisation (photography as a medium of reproduction) would prove much more important than photography as a form of art. Thus, ‘the photographic’ is also the precondition for the mass media and for digital image culture.
Today, art students are influenced more by Twitter, Instagram or GoPro than by the photographic tradition. Everyone is a photographer, and everyone is familiar with ‘the photographic.’ The practice of contemporary critical visual artists cannot, therefore, be dissociated from the many, diverse roles of photography in contemporary society or from the production, dissemination and consumption of camera images in mass media.