Photography from the Turin Shroud to the Turing Machine

This book introduces two conceptual models of photography: the Turin Shroud and the universal Turing machine. The Turin Shroud inspires a discussion on photography’s frequently acclaimed “ontological privilege”, which has conditioned an understanding of photography as a sui-generis breed of images wherein pictorial representation is coextensive with human vision. This is then contrasted with a discussion on the universal Turing machine, which integrates photography into a framework of media philosophy and algorithmic art. Here, photography becomes more than just the present-day sum of its depiction traditions, devices, and dissemination networks. Rather, it is archetypical of multiple systems of abstraction and classification, and various other symbolic processes of transformation.

“Photography, once miraculous, has become banal. From the icon captured on the Turin Shroud to the pseudo-random variables of a Turing machine, Toister traces a surprising narrative of struggle between the world and how we know it, ontology and epistemology, automatism and programmability. With cunning and grace, his book unstitches the warp and woof of trusted theories of photography to propose a new, troubling yet utopian account of images in human history and the human, or other-than-human, future.”

Sean Cubitt (University of Melbourne)

“In this original and insightful take on photo theory, Toister argues for an understanding of photography as algorithmic art, with a specific focus on its generative potential. By presenting a range of thoughtful examples from the 19th century onwards, and a careful contextualization of his theory into seminal debates, this book is informative, rich in detail, and a pleasure to read. It provides crucial tools to reassess the relationships between programs, cameras and humans, a task that is of increasing importance for all who deal with images and media.”

Asko Lehmuskallio (Tampere University)

Monograph (235 pages)

Published by Intellect / University of Chicago Press


‘Toister’s exposition of his position is quite remarkable. The author’s ability to explicate ideas means that the trajectory is clearly marked out […], the documentation is absolutely scrupulous, the examples given (including images) are entirely germane and the argument is skilfully presented.’

John Lechte, Philosophy of photography

‘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. […] 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.’

Thomas H. Conner, Technology and Culture

‘While the contribution of this book to the field of photography theory/philosophy is clear, it is its contribution to the adjacent discipline of design theory which should be noted. The classic example would be the book’s contribution to the now well discussed debate between art history and visual culture. The book’s main thesis, alluding to the transition from pre-photography (the analogue world) to photography (the digital, algorithmic and computational) is highly innovative and could contribute to design-oriented disciplines. While still an emerging discipline, design theory often relies heavily on adjacent disciplines, such as visual or material culture. Crucially, this book could illuminate an interesting approach to research from our field.[…] Those that will pick up this volume will enjoy a plethora of disciplines, ideas, and points for reflection.’

Jonathan Ventura, The Design Journal

‘Toister presents a theory of photography that goes beyond the analog image into the realm of media arts and computation. Well versed in the literature of photography, Toister provides a good inroad to the topic, one with a unique spin. Basing his recalibration on the paradigm shift concept articulated by Thomas Kuhn (1922–96) in 1962 and the writings of the Czech-born media philosopher Vilém Flusser (1920–91), Toister articulates a ‘photography-postphotography’ theory of the medium. Dismissing the traditional emphasis on the unique sensibility of the photographer as protagonist, Toister considers extant histories of photography, e.g., Beaumont Newhall’s, as a ‘carefully constructed work of fiction’ (p. 108). . . . Well documented and clearly argued, this book outlines a theoretical bridge between the image made of light and the image made of data, and presents a serious challenge to the rich and compelling history of the analog medium. . . . Recommended.’