Photos Everywhere

26Jun13

A review of the book “Ubiquitous Photography” by Martin Hand.

I have a notebook somewhere with an old advertisement for camera phones. The ad shows a woman in sexy lingerie, sending a picture to her partner to ask for his (her?) opinion. It must have been 2001, camera phones were new and the telephone providers undertook a charming effort to explain their utility to the general audience. The message came across though: digital photography has changed who makes pictures, the reasons for making pictures, the way in which we use and share pictures and with it, it changed the cultural meaning and significance of photography and photos. Martin Hand tries to describe and explain these changes in his book “Ubiquitous Photography”.

Digitization is just one of the many changes that happened to the technology of photography since its invention at the end of the nineteenth century. The first photographs resembled realistic portrait paintings. Photography was hard for everyone: subjects had to sit still for many hours, photographers had to control light and setting precisely and printing photos was a specialist job. So photos were precious objects. Later, agency shifted from the photographer to the technology. Increased light sensitivity made action photography possible. The Kodak camera made photography accessible to everyone, resulting in the family album and tourist photography. Photos became affordable objects for everyone. For long, printing photos was still a professional service, but the Polaroid camera changed this, too. Photo printing became immediate and the ‘snapshot’, a new photography emerged. Digitization, in many ways just the next small improvement, was a turning point – in particular when the camera phones came about. Digital photography combined the immediacy of the Polaroid with flexibility of presentation. We can share photos online and we can print them on any surface – including birthday cakes, clothing and shower curtains. This started an enormous diversification of (personal and professional) photography practices.

This diversification, in turn, makes it increasingly hard to build theories about photography which do justice to its diversity. Martin Hand’s tries to contribute to the problem by carefully tracing both the continuities and the changes in academic thinking about photography, once ‘digital’ arose. Hand: “Photography has now many co-existent lives each of which is part of a different trend and may have a different trajectory in the future, but all have significant connections with earlier photographies.” (P185). He uses personal photography – so the pictures you and I make – as a focus point and he writes about professional photography only in passing. Still there are many threads to trace and the book offers a complex quilt of ideas about photography and the ways in which we are weaving photos into the fabrics of our lives. Throughout, Hand recognizes some bigger trends or themes, such as: photography is shifting from capture to performance, from permanence to ephemerality and its role is shifting from celebrating the family to living publicly. Let me discuss these shifts in turn.

Once upon a time, photos used to be a proof of the objective reality. Photos didn’t lie: they captured reality as it appeared in front of the camera. While this is more or less true from a technical perspective, in the practice of photography it has always been a myth. For example: photographers choose which part of reality they capture and this framing has a big impact on what the photo has to say. Also, on early photos we see people posing for the camera in carefully created photosets – how ‘real‘ was this? Even photo manipulation is a much older craft than many people know. But it is this myth of photos as a depiction of reality which makes up its role as a performance medium today. Billboard advertisements are an example. They are clearly photo compositions, but they seem to say “this dream we are portraying here could be the objective reality if you buy our product”. This is performance using the myth of capture. The family album is another example: it isn’t used so much to remember important events in life, it is much more about storytelling to celebrate family values and to shape the ‘ideal’ family. The family album doesn’t capture the way your family is, it shows how you like it to be and how you want portray it to others. This family performance can turn photography into the director of your experience. During my last holiday in Ecuador there were frequent-volcano-photography-bus-stops, to take pictures of volcanos and of course to take pictures of ourselves taking those pictures. So I wondered: was the holiday about the experience of seeing a volcano or about collecting photos to show our friends the ‘reality’ of our holiday. Photos are little objective snapshot of our live, which play a major role in the make believe plays we play with each other. Photography may always have been about performance. But it seems fair to say that older photography still celebrated the myth of capture, while today’s photography uses it merely as a background for other things. Today the focus is on performance, simply because we take many more pictures, which we share in many more ways with many more audiences, often in digitally manipulated form.

Related to the idea of capture is the idea of the photo as a fixation of a moment in life. Before digital, we took pictures of those moments in life which we wanted to ‘save forever’; as such we fixed them, chemically on a piece of paper. They weren’t literally fixed: just like now, photos did migrate from one place to the other. They moved from hanging in a frame on the wall to a family album or a shoebox beneath the bed, but they were ‘about’ fixation nevertheless. Even the shoebox pictures had a role in remembering and sharing stories about the precious moments in life. This practice of photography still exists, but new practices arose too. Today, photos have become ephemeral objects. Rather than physical evidence from the past, many 21st century photos are about the ‘here and now ’- and just that. We send each other photos of our food, the dirty dishes, writings on a whiteboard, or the delay sign for a train, as an integral part of chatting with friends. In other words photos have become a form of speech. Today, we use photos to say: “Look, this is what I am looking at right now”, and we do this a lot, much like the camera phone ad, I begun with, predicted. This practice is a next step after the snapshot. Nowadays we are capturing and sharing stuff that isn’t worth a dollar for a print to us; goodbye to the photo as a record of the ‘precious things in life’. According to Hand, college students express a concern about the unexpected permanence of digital photos (p155). The technology of photography still has a fixation character: photos may be permanent in the sense that their bits and bytes will dwell forever on some hard disc or cloud computer and they may one day be found by future data archeologist. Still: in the everyday practice of photography the ephemeral, fleeting and the mundane have become dominant forms.

Next, we must ask to what extend the personal photo is still about the family. In his book, Martin Hand pays attention to the impact that the way in which we share photos has on the photo’s which we take (and the other way around). More and more, we share our photos on social media: Instagram, Facebook and Flickr, rather than through the family album. This changes the scope of personal photography. Hand: “The emergent problem of ‘how to live publicly’ in a post-privacy world is not only about the management of digital self-presentation but also recognizes the collective nature of public life (p183)”. Our photos find bigger and different audiences, with the disadvantage of losing control. Who has access to your photos and in what contexts these are presented? This is a much more difficult question today, than it was years ago. Personal photography experienced a shifting agency of sense making from the personal to the collective and a loss of control of who chooses to look at your photos and with which expectations. Hand shows this vividly with an account of how college students react to person tagging (which controls whose ‘timeline’ changes) on Facebook, compared to topic tagging on Flickr, which has less effects on audience control. As soon as we post a picture online we trade connectivity for ownership and the future of personal photography may well depend on the situations in which this turns out to be favorable and the situations in which this turns out be a Faustian deal. The result will not only affect the pictures we share, finally it will influence the pictures we take.

This last point may be Hands most important one. There is a bidirectional relationship between the technology of photography and its cultural use, which he calls ‘reconfiguration’. The reason for taking a picture is mostly to share it. How we share the picture, with whom and to what extend we feel in control of this process may be important to the pictures we choose to take (or not). Changes to the technology and, in particular, to the cost of making pictures affects the pictures we take and they shape our reasons for sharing and the audiences of the pictures. Digitization has made the relationship between the technology for taking and sharing photo more complex, dynamic and exciting. When we try to make sense of these changes we need to see that the photo is no longer an image on a physical piece of paper. Rather, we see a networked object that can collect meaning and an audience more or less independently. This can be for better or worse to the original authors. Instead of fixed objects, capturing the ideal family, photos are now shapeshifting objects for performing a diverse set of scenarios in today’s ephemerality; publicly.

Reading more.
Lev Manovich is a strong advocate of the idea of a new media object as a networked object, a view shared by Dhiraj Murthy, when he writes about Twitter.

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