Aura and Trace: The Hauntology of the Rephotographic Image

A practice-led PhD in photography and visual communication culture


This research utilises and deconstructs the contemporary practice of rephotography, investigating what it can tell us about the changing ontology of the photographic artefact, in a purportedly post-medium and post-digital culture.

The work uses scanned archival images, some of which have been badly damaged over time, alongside bespoke photography of the lost urban landscapes they depict, to create new digital media artworks which explore the representation of absence and passage of time itself. These processes and their outcomes raise important questions about memory and mediation, digital representations of the past, and most crucially for this research, they interrogate theory regarding the ontology of photography in the archive - specifically the Derridean notion that the photograph is intrinsically spectral, and that the archive is always under some form of erasure.

For Derrida all media was best understood as a form of technological ghost, continually re-haunting itself as media forms and practices change, but traces of the past return in new forms. This spectrality was always present but was seemingly accelerated by the digital turn, even as older analogue images 'felt' more auratic and haunting. In order to understand the photographic object in these new contexts, a 'hauntology', rather than an ontology, should be employed, to understand what underlies these spectral media fragments - their absence/presence, their materiality/immateriality - how they are used in modern visual culture and their potential meaning as a form of haunting.

The practice research used two photographic archives of the same city, from the same period (c.1900), and compared them through various deconstructions of the rephotographic form, examining closely the role played by their artefactual materiality, content and context (within both analogue and digital realms), looking for signifiers of hauntological quality. The focus of these observations became the auratic role of the decaying medium in revealing the authenticity, age, absence and spectrality of the trace. This then shifted to a wider consideration of how these 'analogue' surface features can become fetishized and simulated within various hauntological practices - at a time of ongoing analogue revival and returning notions of medium in the arts.

Like a ghost, this photographic apparition will continue to surprise us with its presence, long after its original manifestation is supposed to have departed from the scene… Photography has been haunted by the spectre of such a death, throughout its long life, just as it has always been inhabited by the very thing, digitization, which is supposed to deal its fatal blow. In other words, what is at stake in the current debate is not only photography’s possible future, but also the nature of its past and present

Batchen, G. 1994. Phantasm: Digital Imaging and the Death of Photography. Aperture. 46(136).

Geoffrey Batchen wrote this on photography at the dawn of its wholesale digitisation. It seems photography is still haunted by these concerns, by its past and its inevitabe demise at some unknown point in the future. But as photography is the very medium of haunting, of returning and of preserving - this should come as no surprise. Photography will continue to haunt itself, as it continues to haunt and distort our view of both the past and present.