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  • Photography from the Turin Shroud to the Turing Machine by Yanai Toister
  • Thomas H. Conner (bio)
Photography from the Turin Shroud to the Turing Machine By Yanai Toister. Bristol and Chicago: Intellect, 2020. Pp. 233.

Vilém Flusser may be spinning in his grave—with glee. After a decade or more of the Brazilian Czech-born philosopher's pioneering communication philosophies trickling into English translation and securing increased traction within media studies and digital theory, Yanai Toister's Photography from the Turin Shroud to the Turing Machine skillfully explicates Flusser's ideas about imagery. Toister nudges them further toward the forefront of contemporary thought about visual culture and, specifically, what photography has come to be and mean in the digital era.

This book is less a history of a technology than a thorough and purposeful round-up of theories about it—a house cleaning, of sorts, in preparation for the arrival of what Toister recognizes as "a new paradigm for photography" (p. 81). More than just a whip-smart lit review, however, Toister pivots midway through to bind the trajectories of more recent theorists (Kittler, Manovich, and mainly Flusser) into a single toolkit for current and future discourse about the medium. Toister's accomplishment in this compact argument is a steady, patient finesse in debunking old wisdom about photography's elemental nature and reframing it not just as a complex technical system but as an inherently computational one. Like a photo app, Toister's reasoning performs a certain sharpening, cropping, and color-correction of existing perspectives on photography, touching them up for upload into a digital world.

Per the title, Toister bookends his argument with two conceptual metaphors for photography: the Turin Shroud, a material surface suggested to contain a mimetic representation of Jesus Christ's face, and the Turing Machine, a hypothetical mechanism imagined by computer scientist Alan Turing. The pairing is richer than its nifty wordplay. The former is dealt with lightly, providing a mere parallel to initial ideas of photography as the illuminated inscription of surfaces and resulting "ontological privilege." The text slowly (too slowly?) builds up to the Turing Machine metaphor as an extension of Flusser's category of the "technical image," which he defined as any image produced by a programmed apparatus rather than by hand. The syllabus-ready third chapter, "Another Philosophy of Photography," expertly distills, interprets, and advances Flusser's philosophy, which attempted to redirect thinking about photography away from a camera obscura model in order to wrestle with ways the photo has been loosened from its material supports and mutated into what Flusser ultimately referred to (even from his preinternet perspective) as a "digital apparition." "How then should we talk about photography today?" (p. 79) Toister asks, [End Page 912] his italics stressing the importance of bringing this historical conversation up to date. It's also indicative of an urgency throughout his text, itself reflective of Flusser's rascally Socratic essays describing the emergence of photography (and all technical imagery since, such as film, television, video, holograms, etc.) as nothing less than an epistemic rupture, a transformative new mode of human communication subsuming and overwriting the text-based hegemony of rational enlightenment. Indeed, if this is the case, Toister is positing that we should be talking about photography less as Talbot's "pencil of nature" and more as a programmed, deterministic apparatus for which its users are not auteurs as much as functionaries.

Toister's book is very much about this kind of talk—his argument rests on a bedrock of discourse analysis, sometimes down to the granular level of "the nouns and verbs associated with it" (p. 14)—and his second metaphor offers a new way of conversing about "photography-post-photography" (p. 136). The algorithmic comparison is complicated, though it's theoretically significant that after situating contemporary philosophies of photography around Flusser's "immaterial culture," Toister then relies on an imaginary medium to point away from the Turin Shroud concept of photography (with its clear connection between image and imaged) toward the idea of photos as an ungraspable "algorithmic art" (ch. 5). His conclusion rests on an emergence within an emergence: that within the evolution of photography has...


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