The Practice of Light: A Genealogy of Visual Technologies from Prints to Pixels (Leonardo Book Series)

The Practice of Light: A Genealogy of Visual Technologies from Prints to Pixels (Leonardo Book Series)

Sean Cubitt

Language: English

Pages: 368

ISBN: 0262027658

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

Light is the condition of all vision, and the visual media are our most important explorations of this condition. The history of visual technologies reveals a centuries-long project aimed at controlling light. In this book, Sean Cubitt traces a genealogy of the dominant visual media of the twenty-first century -- digital video, film, and photography -- through a history of materials and practices that begins with the inventions of intaglio printing and oil painting. Attending to the specificities of inks and pigments, cathode ray tubes, color film, lenses, screens, and chips, Cubitt argues that we have moved from a hierarchical visual culture focused on semantic values to a more democratic but value-free numerical commodity.

Cubitt begins with the invisibility of black, then builds from line to surface to volume and space. He describes Rembrandt's attempts to achieve pure black by tricking the viewer and the rise of geometry as a governing principle in visual technology, seen in Dürer, Hogarth, and Disney, among others. He finds the origins of central features of digital imaging in nineteenth-century printmaking; examines the clash between the physics and psychology of color; explores the representation of space in shadows, layers, and projection; discusses modes of temporal order in still photography, cinema, television, and digital video; and considers the implications of a political aesthetics of visual technology.


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nineteenth-century physiognomic eugenicists, Lavater’s technique loses the penumbra, the actual shear of shadow cast on an unsmooth surface, along with the complex illuminated shades of actual light. In Lavater’s apparatus, the more perfect the projection, the greater the loss of context and its reduction to noise. This presumption of flatness and privileging of the plane should be distinguished from the Wayang Kulit shadow puppetry of Malaysia and Indonesia. In their stillness, abstraction, and

drew mathematically, never so much as deviated into grace, which he must sometimes have done in copying the life, if he had not been fetter’d with his own impracticable rules of proportion” (Hogarth 1997/1753, 5). In place of Dürer’s geometry, Hogarth proposes in his opening argument that all solid forms should be conceived of as lines and, drawing on Locke’s metaphor of thinking as a hunt, compares seeing with pursuit. “Intricacy in form, therefore, I shall define to be that peculiarity in the

Geistesgeschichte, the tradition in historiography that sees a civilizational coherence (Geist, spirit) shaping all the activities of a historical epoch. But the lure of creating order out of the archive of events is too strong, even for heroic antecedents such as Benjamin’s Arcades Project (Benjamin 1999a) or Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, whose attempt Agamben describes as “an ‘iconology of the interval,’ a study of the Zwischenraum [space in between] in which the incessant symbolic work of

shading is its efficiency. Interpolating an average is swift and uses less computing power than trying to trace every point on a surface. The drawback, however, is that if a highlight occurs elsewhere than at a vertex, it may be missed out of the average and either lost or terminated abruptly, giving a tessellated effect. One solution is to design objects with simple geometric surfaces, as is the case in many early computer games, and to restrict the number of light sources involved. The results

abstraction of attached shadows from Leonardo to Phong shading follows the same historical path as the algorithmic calculation of haze. The question remains whether what we gain from these techniques is the ability to project an inner sensibility, as Gombrich says, onto a virtual world, painted or generated, or whether as Alton suggests we gain the freedom of the imagination to explore infinite space with the mind’s eye. If the former, then there is the risk, rejected by Sternberg, adopted by

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