Sean Cubitt – The Practice of Light: A Genealogy of Visual Technologies from Prints to Pixels


MIT Press, ISBN: 978-0262027656, English, 328 pages, 2014, USA

Sean Cubitt’s most recent book combines a high level of intellectual elaboration with detailed reference to source materials. It is unusual to find a book in the field of media theory capable of articulating so many key topics (the history of painting, the printing press, engraving, photography, film, television and digital media) with such depth and clarity. “The Practice of Light” does not separate concepts thematically as being exclusive to one particular media but rather identifies common scenarios, allowing for the drawing of broader conclusions. Time spent discussing the material culture associated with the diverse practices of visual media allows the author to propose a concrete genealogy of elements that have shaped the historical transformation of various media. Detailed attention to pigments, screens, optics, photo-sensitive chemicals, projection systems, celluloid and digital image micro controllers (amongst others) takes the reader on an expedition through the evolution of colour, line and surface, texture and layer, space and projection. Cubitt ascribes a fundamental value to black, talking not only about the different ways specific media have been able to produce black surfaces but also discussing the complex implications of the use of black as a symbolic entity, for example its presence in Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro or the use of black and white in Alexander Korda’s film about Rembrandt. When focussing on a particular topic of material culture it becomes necessary to gain an understanding of key concepts in visual media theory. This critical perspective is present throughout the book and attendant controversies are not avoided; for example, there is a healthy and relevant discussion concerning the indexical nature of photography, a question proposed decades ago by Roland Barthes regarding a portrait of his own mother. This work is a fresh reference point in the field of history and media theory. It is a generous and honest publication, even taking into account the limitations imposed by the author (the decision not to refer to light outside the context of how it is perceived through the retina, or to refrain from discussion of colonialism in the study of media history). The book is an examination of visual media historicity and the nature of vision in the light of technical change, one that takes into account the social appropriation of media, employing a colourful palette to describe the blackness of truth. Andres Burbano