Images are what remain to be seen.

Let’s begin by reading this statement to the letter: images remain, and they are seen. Their remaining is what lets them be seen, it is what constitutes and composes their visibility. Anything we see can be an image, not simply because we see it, but because it remains in sight. That is to say, images are images not because of the one who sees, but because of the way they remain available for seeing.

The first question to ask of any image is not “what does it show?” but rather “how does it remain?” If we ask “what does it show?” we are rather selfishly assuming that what is important about an image is the impression it makes upon us, the feelings it offers, or the resemblances it evokes. Even some of the most careful ways of seeing proceed no farther than these subjective impressions. By asking instead “how does it remain?” we put our own responses on hold until we have considered the image’s material existence—its status as sheer stuff, more or less worked over and built to last. By paying attention to “remaining,” then, we try to account for the way images are fabricated in order to face the pressures of time.

Every kind of image we can examine—such as a carved rock, a printed page, a developed film, or a packet of electrons coded for display—“remains” in a different way, relying on different apparatuses and lasting for different durations. In taking all of these variables into account, we see why images are “technological” in the broadest sense of the term: they exist and persist only through a given and inherited technial system, by virtue of the same technical processes that allow living groups of people to produce, reproduce and extend themselves. Images thus belong to the same general organization of matter upon which we all depend, and they participate in a same economies of durability and efficacy as everything else we make. Every time we see an image, we need to investigate not only the material circumstances in which it was first produced, but all the circumstances that allow it to remain available for viewing. (If we watch a Lumière film on the internet, our description of the process of “remaining” will be very complex indeed.) In following sections, we will explore the implications of this observation in greater detail.

So: images are out here, among us. Yet saying this is not enough. Let us reread the first proposition, now slightly revised: Images are what remains to be seen.

Now we can read this statement idiomatically: images are what “remains to be seen,” what has not yet been seen, what is not finished with seeing. Out of everything that might be seen, whether through the wild flights of human eyesight or the implacable registration of machines, images are what invites another look. Both aspects of “remains to be seen” are necessary in order to define what images are.

In other words: images are characterized by insistence as well as persistence. If an image does not wait for another look—even if that look never arrives—it was not an image after all. By definition, then, we do not know in advance exactly what will turn out to have been an image. Like the images themselves, we will have to wait and see.

When we speak of the “materiality” of images, we are not simply talking about their thingly objecthood, but also their capacity to survive, their qualities of incompletion and anticipation. These qualities are absolutely material. In learning to see images, we discover how they can teach us not only about the known world, but also about what we do not know and what we have not done. No matter how fast the images come—twenty-four or thirty frames a second, or just once, slowly gathered over a lifetime—it remains our task to look for whatever might be real, or true, or somehow worth saving about them, as long as they remain to be seen.

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This is the first excerpt from my work-in-progress, Remains to be Seen: Lessons in Thinking through Images. It is the opening section of Part One.

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