- Softimage: Towards a New Theory of the Digital Image by Ingrid Hoelzl, Rémi Marie
by Ingrid Hoelzl and Rémi Marie. Intellect and Chicago University Press, Bristol and Chicago, U.S.A., 2015. 154pp., illus. Paper. ISBN:: 978-1-783-20503-5.
It is not easy to produce a new theory of the image as it functions today, but this book does pretty well in this regard. I don’t mean of course that it proposes a completely new theory, which would imply a more philosophical approach, for instance à la Vilém Flusser, but it does propose a complete new theory, covering all major aspects of the image after the digital turn.
The first thing that impresses is the quasi-absence of debates on what has been for many years a key issue in the study of the digital image: the question of indexicality and how age-old ideas and practices of realism and mimesis have been overthrown by the digital. Authors Ingrid Hoelzl and Rémi Marie rightly state that this should no longer be the primary concern of image theory, which has moved beyond this discussion. Other aspects come thus to the fore, such as the erosion of the difference between the fixed and the moving image (a topic on which Hoelzl had already widely published, for instance as the guest editor of a special issue of History of Photography in 2011). In the digiverse, all moving images can become fixed and manipulated as such, whereas all fixed images can be animated for conversion into moving images. This example may suggest that the ambition of this book is to deconstruct a number of existing dichotomies, but actually its spirit is rather one of expansion. The shift from image to softimage (a portmanteau word that brings together software and image and has strong connotations of the fundamental openness and changeability of the liquid) aims in the very first place to analyze the networked character of the digitized visual. The softimage is not the image in-between the fixed and the moving, it is both at the same time. Similar observations apply to the relationships between image and code or computer program, image and user, image and screen, image and database, or image and urban environment. In that sense, the digitized image recovers in a much more fundamental way the mimetic and realist dimension that its problematic indexicality may have jeopardized when it emerged. We can no longer be sure that what we see corresponds with what has been (to quote Roland Barthes’s famous definition of the photographic image), but it cannot be denied that what we see is what we see and that the patient and careful analysis of this view offers the best possible understanding of the environment that we make and by which we are being made at the same time.
A major problem of all studies of the digital image (and all images have become digital today) is the treatment of technical aspects. Not all readers are familiar with the newest [End Page 468] developments and inventions, and for a book with didactic purposes such as this one, an excessive degree of technicality might have discouraged the general reader. Hoelzl and Marie have succeeded quite well in finding a good balance between theory, technical background information and critical analysis of well-chosen examples. Softimage does not attempt to cover too many types of works and practices, and the book has wisely chosen to build each of its chapters around one key example. By doing so, the authors elegantly combine technical information (for instance on JPEG and video technology as well Google Street View and other types of database images) and critical reading of specific works (both artistic and nonartistic ones, for this as well is a feature that becomes more and more blurred in the digital environment). The chapters can also be read in a more independent way (most of them are revised versions of previously published articles) and usefully completed or confronted with other examples in the classroom. Each chapter relies also on a very rich bibliography, which links the...