Networked images

by craigepplin

Earlier this week I remembered having once read this very good essay by Barry Schwabsky, which was published a while back in Triple Canopy. His point of departure is the observation that art photography over the past decades has tended to take on large dimensions. He mentions probably the most recognizable exemplars of this tendency—Jeff Wall and Andreas Gursky, both of whom are masters of the large-format tableau. Their prominence notwithstanding, however, and also despite the convenience of this format for art’s commercial interests, Schwabsky finds this tendency out of step with the dominant direction in photography today.

Summed up in terms I think Schwabsky wouldn’t disagree with, that tendency is toward increased amateurism, increased artistry outside the realm of art proper, and, most importantly, increased accumulation of images. Never before, probably, have so many of us non-artists taken so many photos so well. Of course, we lean on fancy technology to do so, but that’s not a caveat—it’s precisely the point.

These many images, these often-pretty-good images, and also the ones that aren’t good at all—they are accumulated with or without their visualization. Or at least, when they do become visual to someone, the scene of viewing will tend to be ephemeral. Schwabsky notes that very few photographs are printed today. This is true, but the stronger point he brings up is that the destiny of most photographs is simply “to have been seen.” That is, their existence matters, but they are not objects to contemplate at length.

Didn’t Barthes write that the message of any photograph was, this was here (or something along those lines)? The situation I’m describing takes this testimony to the next level—not this (this photographed thing) was here, but rather there was a photograph here.

Innovations in photographic technology have made this scenario possible—the massive amount of photographic accumulation today is simply not possible in a film-only photographic universe. But this isn’t only a story about digital cameras. It’s also about the way our cameras, most of them, are networked to interfaces meant for storing and sharing the pictures they take.

These interfaces are not all the same. Some of them—Facebook and Instagram, for example—foster a constant, often laborious construction of the self. They are identity-forming technologies. But others can make us anonymous—Schwabsky mentions the (now-defunct) app Color, which once allowed “users to see all images captured by strangers within 150 feet.” Despite Color’s demise, anonymity is still part of much photographic culture. Anyone who has scrolled through a Flickr search or gone down the rabbit hole of Airbnb’s “Discover” feature knows about the pleasure of browsing photos with no real interest in the photographer.

This scenario has antecedents from the analogue world. Schwabsky mentions Vivian Maier, and his comment on her boxes of undeveloped rolls of film—that the “posthumous printing and exhibition of these images is arguably a distortion of her work, which was only ever the archive itself”—is correct, as I see it. I don’t know if this distortion is a good thing or not, but I do think that the archival element of her work is more important than the nature of the images themselves. Or maybe they matter together. What that means for how to display her work is for other, more qualified people to say. This is a digression anyway.

The point is that once we decide that the archive matters more than, or at least as much as, the images housed in it, we’ve come to a very different concept of photography than that associated with the tableaux introduced at the outset.

We’ve come, that is, to the idea that photography is more an apparatus for seeing than a technology of production. The camera always has been a vision-transforming tool, but in years past it seems that the crucial aspect of the photographic event was the production of the object—the photograph—itself. Today, for many people, this is less the case.

To understand this difference, it might make sense to look at the other side of the camera lens, particularly the sorts of behaviors that the camera has trained us to enact. Sitting still, for example. Especially in the early days, when exposures were very long, the camera taught its subjects to sit very still. But anyone who claims to have a “good side” has also internalized an effect of the camera. The much derided duck face and sparrow mouth are both implausible phenomena without photography. These are all behaviors that exist to achieve a certain effect in the image, but they have effects on our gestural life beyond the photographic event.

And I think that analogous repercussions might be lying in wait as we wade further into the sea of image accumulation. Cameras might be teaching us to see differently, but not just because they train us to think in terms of composition or a succession of still images. That is, what we’re learning from cameras today likely doesn’t owe to anything inherent to the photographic medium itself. Rather, I think that networked cameras and the ephemeral or disposable images we generate with them teach us more about the network we inhabit than they do about our visual environment. They teach us to think of ourselves and our world as things that don’t necessarily last—more a chain of many networked reproductions, less a series of subjects to be represented.