The word Image has such a wide scope that giving an account of all its possibilities would imply several treaties in different areas of knowledge. Nevertheless, it is possible to account for some of its critical meanings for human culture, as well as for some ideas implied in its approach.
The image has performed a central role in the relationship of Man with the world which surrounds him - with Nature, the Cosmos, the Universe, society -, depending on the context and on the habitat. Since the discovery of the Altamira and Lascaux caves, it is possible to observe the role of visual representation in the relationship of consciousness with the external world. Images appear as instruments of externalization/materialization in view of the need to mold and think experience. By creating visual representations, Man has invested in a visual and iconic – figurative or abstract - culture from which, equipped with visual codes, the elements of a culture share certain experiences and happenings and intervene within groups.
Thus, considering image in a broad sense, it involves forms of visual representation of different materials and devices which refer, however, to the need of creating objects (in bi or tri-dimensional space) whose meaning is shared within a certain group and to which this group assigns specific, symbolic qualities. At the center of the creation of images is Man - as agent of symbolic exchanges and as their receiver -, in the sense that today it is only possible to think a history and a theory of images which will bear in mind the triangular relation between medium, image creation and sight which projects a meaning thereon (the viewer). Attention to the place of the image in the history of human culture, and to the role (sometimes discredited) of the viewer, encouraged the emergence of areas like the anthropology of images or visual culture that call attention to images as things created and wished by Man in certain contexts, implying very different devices – from the stone on which one engraves to the digital image, created or reedited on the computer, pixel by pixel.
The creation of images was, since the origins of Man, at the center of the awareness of time and death and of his need to solve them at symbolic level. For this reason, the image was infused with qualities which allowed its frequent integration into the magical ritual – not only in pre-historic and primitive cultures, but also in the so-called Great Civilizations (Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome). Similarly, more modern times continue to resort to the magical power of images which can assume more secular forms that do not lack the potential of other types of more ancestral image. The term at its root, imago, referred to something very concrete, part of the daily life in Ancient Rome: imago was a death mask, created from the dead person’s face at the moment of his death. It remained as a kind of residue, an indicator of that person’s presence in life.
The relation between the creation of these visual representations and the establishment of the sacred as form of relation with the world, as well as of magic as technique of intervention thereon, determined substantially the meaning assigned to images and to the qualities of analogy and resemblance conferred to them.
The study of the place of the image in culture is central to the study of its history as it is clearly linked to changes in the evolution of Man and to the appearance of the Sapiens, as well as to the study of the configuration of different societies, according to their structure and complexity. Throughout history, the social and cultural role of the image in daily, public and private life, caused changes in the way how each culture and each society was able to respond to these images and decode them, implying different ideas of the individual as bearer of sight, and of his observational relation with the World.
However, that does not mean that the need of images is not often lived problematically. If, in the history of Philosophy, we find that conflict systematically amongst the Greeks, it had more direct, political and activist forms in certain contexts, such as in the well-known War between Iconoclasts and Iconphiles during the Byzantine period (eighth century), or in similar episodes during other periods (such as the Protestant iconoclasm in Holland in the sixteenth century, or the destruction of the huge, Bamiyan Buddha statues by the Taliban in 2001).
In the history of Western philosophy, the reflection on the value of images, since Plato - under different designations (shadow, icon, imago) - appears within the scope of a theorization on true knowledge, opposing rationalists to empiricists and being the object of multiple Theories of the Image. In Ancient Philosophy, discussion around the Image - taken by its qualities of imitation of the empiric and sensorial world, or of their reflection – aimed to depreciate knowledge of the empiric world, when compared to knowledge of abstract Ideas or Models. That metaphysical tradition remained until the beginning of modernity and even after it, convening, in different ways, an apocalyptical vision on the power of images. In the twentieth century, the command of technical media - like photography, film and television - also raised harsh, critical discourses. This paired with its huge expansion, originating demoniac powers in image consumption, in an attitude matching entirely this already millenary, Western tradition.
With the start of the era of technical image, from the nineteenth century, we enter the era of the viewer and of the show composed of images. We see the birth of an individual who views technical images, moved by a need of entertainment and distraction, being most of the time unaware of their subjective and inter-subjective aspects – the implicit ideology, the stated point of view or the technology supporting the different automatisms of the image (photography, film, video, digital image).
This individual, who seeks his identity in the flow of images, follows particular attention to the psychological mechanisms of his inner experience, as well as to the psychological and neuronal mechanisms which interact with the external world and with the images it conveys. Therefore, parallel to the advent of technologies of the image, the study of the mechanisms of perception, of the optical phenomena - integrating classical optics with the study of the neurophysiological and chemical mechanisms of sight – was developed. In this context, the study of retinal persistence, as well as of other visual phenomena, unveiled the subjective mechanisms of human perception, at the same time it made the latter the object of experimental science.
With the advent of photography and later of film, the perception of an observable reality captured solely by the camera – not by sight in its natural flow – introduced the idea of an optic unconscious, highlighting the medium’s abilities to reveal a world of happenings and objects, unattainable otherwise. At the same time, it also evidenced the inevitable lag of visual perception in relation to the world captured by the technical image whose scope was gradually broadened by other devices, such as film and television. In that ardent movement towards the images of “reality” - which doubled the possible perception, as well as that which was only possible through these media -, the transparency of the image imposed itself in a sometimes irrational way, triggering belief in its objective qualities and assimilating it mainly to a value of unconditional truth. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, certain critical approaches – coming essentially from structural semiotics, first; and later, from what was designated as post-modernism - developed analyses to oppose that perceived transparency, bringing to light the ideological mechanisms implicit in visual representations - whether in photography or in video - and evidencing the social and cultural creation of images. The awareness of the discrete mechanisms of the image aroused, throughout the twentieth century, interest in a visual literacy – an awareness of the false transparency conveyed by the media and of the false naturalness of their images which usually form the main ground for their ideological productivity.
However, the technical image, mainly since the invention of photography - with the daguerreotype and, in particular, with the calotype (which introduces the matrix of the negative multipliable into positive) -, also came to revolutionize the social distribution of image, establishing its reproducibility, while film introduced the reproducibility of the show in the projection room. With the arrival of the reproducibility of images, modern culture incorporated these into the market and merchandise logic.
The technical image, via new technologies, also ignites the field of the haptic and a full integration of the viewer and his body into the process of image manipulation. Within the scope of technologies which place the viewer in an interface process through the sense of touch, the viewer can control and remote control objects such as virtual animations or computational simulations created from digital images.
Following eighteenth century philosophical studies on imagination, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century, the phenomenological study of the latter as an inherent faculty to subjectivity and to thought, will take place - not only in a gnoseological sense but also in a psychological sense -, integrating the study of consciousness and of the dimensions that, within it, escape logical rationality. The imagination and the imaginary are central nucleus in twentieth century philosophy of the individual, witnessing the importance of the individual’s internal world in shaping his ability to seize the external world. The interest in this internal world - which, observed more closely, reveals unclear borders between the states of consciousness and unconsciousness - had become the object of a separate field of knowledge - distinct from Philosophy and on the border with psychiatric institutions -, originating a new human science: Psychology. Throughout the nineteenth century, Psychology devotes itself to the division of the individual’s mind and to the changes of personality, causing the emergence of hallucination and other types of psychic ambulation to be central nucleuses of reflection on the structure of consciousness. Already at the end of the nineteenth century, another type of mental images which reclaimed their external materialization – apparitions - allowed a wider understanding of the psyche, capable of integrating forms of perception and of thought, based on the collective belief, and not requiring empiric confirmation.
At the same time, the study of the role of dreams in the individual’s mental and emotional life – existing already at the end of the German eighteenth century - is resumed by Freud in a systematic and innovative way, becoming one of the pillars of this theory of the unconscious. The dream - sequence of mental images which invade the individual’s psyche during a certain phase of his sleep - would have, for Freud, the value of expressing the realization of unconscious wishes. By introducing the dream image as an element of expression of a libidinal economy of the individual, Freud establishes an individual divided into conscious and unconscious - where the latter has a determinant (and deterministic) influence in human action - and underlines the role of internal images in shaping action on the external world.
The technical image, in a meaning which values the mediation of representation through the technical medium (such as the photographic camera, the camera or the computer, replacing direct, hand contact by representation), apparently became more and more immaterial: the image on stone or on canvas is replaced today by the screen which does and undoes itself in seconds; the raw material of the block to sculpt on is replaced by complex, electronic systems that stress the distance between the creator of images and the manufacturer of its technical device. Thus, the technological development of images - centered on different types of automatisms which emphasize their dimension of phantasmagoria – is accompanied by the development of an individual increasingly centered on the indifferentiation between internal and external world, between life and technology. In this process of indifferentiation, the role of images in the daily life of the individual - taken alone or within his social, interactive milieu – is still a challenge to the study and understanding of images, moving areas of knowledge as convergent and diversified as Visual Culture, Anthropology of the Image, Visual Studies, History of Art or Psychology of the Image.