Images Travel as Transformats

Curator's Note

In Clément Cogitore’s video titled Travel(ing) (2005), the delivery and making of the image overlap and almost coincide: we see a truck lending its back (its tailgate) to the night-time projection of daytime images of the road that was traveled the day before, so that the flickering footage of this minimal road movie without characters nor plot is transported along the highways on which it was shot.

Travel(ing) could be an allegory of what images tend to become today. Indeed, it stages, in the simplest and most straightforward way, what I have described elsewhere as the road networks of visibility, in other words: the infrastructure that makes the circulation of images possible, that supports the iconomy of their exchanges.[1] Travel(ing) seems to gesture towards a transportational and transformational concept of the image (what I call a transformat), bound as it is to travel and unravel in order to be the very image that it is; or better: that it becomes.[2]

The sketchy notes that follow constitute a preliminary attempt to acknowledge the prehistory of such a concept.

Images, we like to think, have recently become mobile, transitory. It is often said that their digitization (i.e., their translation into code) and their dissemination via social media have changed or shifted their destination from exhibition to circulation. Indeed, images today are immediately sent, posted, exchanged, shared. In other words, the routing of images is more or less simultaneous with their very coming into being: it is synchronous with their making, as evidenced by the sharing icons that appear on our screens as soon as a snapshot has been taken. As soon as an image is captured, it is addressed or addressable. It doesn’t linger, not even a little, to exist or persist here before it is transported there. It is instantly prone to be sent (you actually have to be careful not to send it). Its transportability, one could say, does not occur post factum, but is part of its very texture or consistency.


Freighting Images

Felix Nadar may well have been the first to weave the lexicon of freight or cargo into the description of the making of images: in When I Was a Photographer, recalling his first attempts at aerial photography in his aerostat, he explains how, up in the air, he shot “positives on glass,” which he sent “directly from [his] basket to the headquarters, by means of a very simple form of delivery: a small box which would slide down to the ground through the length of a rope.” The “delivery” of images (factage is the word Nadar uses in French) follows almost immediately their manufacturing.[3]

But it is in Aby Warburg’s writings that we find for the first time the idea of a general circulation of images, organized into a transportation network for which a new glossary of terms is needed. Warburg thus describes the “migration of images” (Bilderwanderung), and sometimes even maps the “migratory roads” (Wanderstrassen), the itineraries for the exchange of images. Warburg uses economic terms when, in his 1929 introduction to his Mnemosyne Atlas, he describes how images are transported: “If the formation of style is [. . .] understood as the problem of the exchange [Austausch] of [. . .] expressive values [Ausdruckswerte], then we are faced with the imperative of examining the dynamics of this process in relation to the technique of its means of transportation [die Technik seiner Verkehrsmittel].”[4] The transportability of images is here clearly connected to their exchangeability, according to an iconomic paradigm that pervades Warburg’s text when he talks, a few pages before, about “the mint [Prägewerk] that coins [münzt] the expressive forms” (279). These iconomic overtones that can be heard intermittently in Warburg’s writings are amplified in his unpublished notes from 1927, titled Allgemeine Ideen, where he envisions a “savings bank for energetic expressive values” (Sparbank für energetische Ausdruckswerte) and mentions the fluctuating “market value” (Kurswert) of gestural expressions that have crystallized in images through time.[5]



This latent iconomic lexicon that suffuses Warburg’s thinking (it sometimes surfaces explicitly, as we have just seen) leads him to offer a concept whose astonishing novelty would have to be translated in English by a portmanteau as striking as the original German word: Bilderfahrzeug literally means “iconovehicle,” which Warburg sometimes even characterizes as “automobile.” In his introduction to his Mnemosyne Atlas, he writes: “Due not only to its mobility but also its technique, which fitted the multiple reproduction of its image, the Flemish tapestry is the first, albeit colossal, automobile vehicle for images [der erste noch kolossalische Typus des automobile Bilderfahrzeugs], which, freed from the wall, served as a forerunner of the printed illustrated page (in other words, the copper engraving and the woodcut) that for the first time made the exchange of expressive values [den Austausch der Ausdruckswerte] between North and South into a vital part of the process of circulation that shaped the formation of European style.”[6]

With his iconovehicular concept, Warburg opened up a whole new field, a field for which he imagined an unheard-of lexicon, with phrases that seek to capture the way images travel on their road networks: as Steffen Haug has shown by deciphering and reading closely some unpublished documents from the archive, Warburg, in the manuscript version of his 1906 article about “Working Peasants on Burgundian Tapestries,” refers to tapestry as an “image omnibus” (Bilder Omnibus), as a “private omnibus for princes” (Privat Omnibus für Fürsten). Iconovehicles and iconobusses are specific forms of what Warburg describes, in the proofs for an unpublished article from 1904, as “the global traffic [Weltverkehr] of images.”[7]

Developing a transportational and transformational concept of the image for today would be impossible without Warburg’s pioneering work. But a video like Travel(ing) asks us to take one more step towards rethinking the image as transformat: an image is a time differential, a speed differential between the image that it is and the image that it becomes. It runs after itself, it lags behind itself.[8] In sum: it is on the road towards itself.


[1]. On the notion of “iconomy” and the road networks of visibility, see Peter Szendy, The Supermarket of the Visible: Toward a General Economy of Images, trans. Jan Plug (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019), 4-8.

[2]. On the image as “transformat,” see Peter Szendy, Pour une écologie des images (Paris: Minuit, 2021), 20; For an Ecology of Images, trans. Marco Roth (New York: Verso, forthcoming).

[3]. Félix Nadar, When I Was a Photographer, trans. Eduardo Cadava and Liana Theodoratou (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2015), 59. See Pour une écologie des images, 78.

[4]. Aby Warburg, “The Absorption of the Expressive Values of the Past,” trans. Matthew Rampley, Art in Translation 1, no. 2 (2009), 281 (translation modified).

[5]. Quoted by Christopher D. Johnson, Memory, Metaphor, and Aby Warburg’s Atlas of Images (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012), 21 and 149; and by Maud Hagelstein, Origine et survivances des symboles. Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 2014), 65.

[6] Aby Warburg, “The Absorption of the Expressive Values of the Past,” 282 (translation modified).

[7]. Steffen Haug, “‘Bilderfahrzeug’ and ‘Bilder Omnibus’—A Manuscript By Aby Warburg from 1906,”

[8]. See Pour une écologie des images, 24.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.