Uneventful: The Rise of Photography
Consider the United States where everything is transformed into images. Only images exist and are produced and consumed.
—Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography
One of the surprises that comes with getting old, I mean older and wiser, is having lived much of my life during what is now “history.” When I was young I read about it and studied it, but hadn’t lived it. It was abstract. Now it is more than just a memory. Some events have affected my life today. Growing up, Pearl Harbor was “book history.” September 11th was very real.
Recently, I had cause to reflect on this as I listened to three photographers, Elaine Mayes, Steve Fitch, and Robbert Flick, talk about their work, all done in the 1970s and 1980s. I was shocked to realize that was 30 to 40 years ago. It seemed like just yesterday. I reflected on time past and passed. What were contemporary photographs and ideas are now locked in their own time. And, like any other history, how we look at and interpret them is based on the present.
So, what is our present? As I listened to these photographers talk, the conversation drifted to this notion of time. Mayes spoke about her early 1971 series of images, all taken during a cross-country trip, and then again about a later group, taken decades later on a similar journey. Her early work contained very few billboards (because the Interstate highway system was relatively new and uncluttered). Yet, in her later work often focused on those billboards. It was an interesting mark in time, one outside the frames of her images.
Sitting in a dark room, listening to people talk about their work and ideas has always been a wonderful petri dish for me. Words and images beget ideas, sometimes related to the subject of their remarks, and sometimes totally different. So, as I listened to them speak about the changes in photography over these years it suddenly occurred to me: the nature of picture taking and picture looking has changed, that is, how photographs are incorporated in our lives. And I quickly traversed the trajectory of this change in my mind.
In the mid 19th century, at the advent of photography, the photograph was the event. No one had ever seen “reality” captured. Certainly, no one had ever been able to hold that reality in his or her hands. And people were awed by this technological marvel. But the event was in the hands of experts, those whose lives focused on scientific inquiry and invention as part of the greater Industrial Revolution. In 1888 when George Eastman perfected roll film and the first Kodak camera, the photographic event changed hands. All of a sudden, photography was available to all, well, at least the picture taking. And, as such, the photographic event changed from marvel to documentation of family and special occasions. Photography became event-driven. There were still the technicians who worked with large format cameras as well as the Pictorialists, like Alfred Steiglitz, who were interested in elevating the medium to a “high art” like painting. But the revolution was taking place with Kodak owners who spread the use of photography to millions of people.
In the 1930s, with the invention of the 35mm camera, both artists and amateurs continued on their separate tangents. Artists had a new tool that made picture making easier and faster (as in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “Decisive Moment”) while proto-geek families who bought this new camera moved up to better quality images.
But the real revolution, that is, the unseating of the photograph as a document of an event, came with the advent of smartphone cameras. This shift could not have taken place without the parallel developments of the Internet and digital cameras.
Up until this time, the photographic print had been the culmination of the photographic experience. Both artists, who strived for quality images and gallery and museum exhibitions of their vision, and for everyday people who collected these as documents and remembrances of friends, family, and events. But with the intersection of the digital and the Net, this changed. Yes, artists and others still get their images printed, but, suddenly, everyone was carrying around a camera. Decisive moments were happening 24/7. And the “Cloud,” that ubiquitous term for repositories of digital bytes, began its ascendency. Exhibitions are often exclusively online and photo albums are less likely to be sitting on coffee tables. For many, especially the young, Instagram is the new photo album. Sharing, as Steve Fitch stated in his remarks, is replacing exhibiting. As the hierarchical flow of information (from the content providers to the content consumers) has started to give way to a more level flow, content consumers are now also content providers.
But what do we think of these new photographs? Has sharing replaced traditional reasons to take a picture? Not quite yet. I asked my oldest daughter to explain why she and others take “selfies” (self-portraits shared on sites like Instagram and so ubiquitous Oxford Dictionaries just named “selfie” the 2013 Word of the Year). She often takes them for self-validation, that is, if she’s feeling bad about her looks (and what teenager doesn’t?), taking a nice picture of herself makes her feel better. She also told me she takes them to document how she looks at this time in her life when, she said, “I will never look better.” (Oh, sweetheart, you will only look better with age!) But she also went on to explain why others do so: “the number of ‘Likes’ each photo gets is a form of self-validation. Not for me, but for others. If a photo doesn’t get enough ‘Likes’ the photographer deletes it.”
My older daughter is the analytical one. My younger daughter wasn’t quite sure why she took so many selfies. (I love to catch her in the act. And she’s not one bit embarrassed by my voyeurism. It’s simply a natural way of living to her.) So, both my daughters are using photography in a traditional sense (documenting a time in their lives and for validation) but these really are non-events. They don’t take many photos at birthday parties or family gatherings. They simply take photos of themselves anywhere and everywhere. In fact, location (another traditional photographic value) is really unimportant. Sharing is a natural part of this contemporary process, one that was not available to us on such a grand scale when we were young. And, in fact, the process, with the help of technology, validates the narcissistic parts of normal teenhood. So, it’s easy to see why sharing has gained traction.
Teens are taking this one step further. Rather than accept time-honored cap and gown poses for their high school senior portraits, many are opting to have their own senior pictures taken in ways that better reflect themselves. Tradition is less important than personal choice. This isn’t surprising, given the online tools, like Instagram, that allow them to craft their personae.
In the evolution of photography there is an additional force in play. Washington Post art critic, Phillip Kennicott, recently wrote about the fading shock of contemporary war photographs of dead children. It’s not that we’re no longer affected by these images, but their power has diminished, even though, as Kennicott states, our politicians continue to invoke them to sway our opinion. In President Obama’s quest to convince us to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons he asked us to see for ourselves the effects of Bashar al-Assad’s chemical attacks by looking at videos linked from the White House website. But it’s not working. Even though these images are seen, we have not been swayed.
We have arrived at a double crisis: a dissolution of agreement about what is civilized behavior and a dissolution of faith in the meaning of images — a crisis of politics and a crisis of representation. Given how closely photography and video have been linked to defining those international norms, this is a frightening moment.
Kennicott reminds me of Susan Sontag’s concern about the “ecology of images,” that is, how we process them. In her book On Photography Sontag warns us: “We consume images at an ever faster rate and as Balzac suspected cameras used up layers of the body, images consume reality. Cameras are the antidote and the disease, a means of appropriating reality and a means of making it obsolete.”
The sheer number of images thrown our way overwhelms us. And we either have no time to to contemplate their meanings or we simply ignore their messages. In addition, our repositories for both cultural and personal photographs are massive and are growing fast. In 2012 Facebook users added 7 petabytes of images each month. That’s 7,516,192,768 megabytes every four weeks. Three hundred million are uploaded to Facebook each day from Instagram. And since its inception, Instagram has added five billion photos to the Cloud. We can’t see these piles of photos or Life Magazines filled with them on our desks like we used to. So we’ve lost an important and tactile connection to the images we are constantly making. They are a part of our lives, but they are becoming transparent. We may look and “Like” (or not), but we move on quickly with hardly a notice. The medium is suffering because of its own success. George Eastman wanted to put a camera in everyone’s hand and his dream has come true. But to what end?
I worry most about our most meaningful images, the ones meant to sway and affect us. What becomes of them? And, how will our culture be changed by their diminished importance? Our society is built on narratives—stories at all levels, from the governance of our country to personal histories. Will these visuals be relegated to the history books for the young to simply view as something old and gone: irrelevant now and irrelevant in the future? What, if anything, will replace them? When my children get to be my age, what will they think of the photographs of their own lived history?
Yet, underneath that sense of history lived, I’ve come to realize that even the most prosaic of photographs take on new meaning when they are locked in time. Brownie snapshots of the early 20th century, once contemporary mementos of childhood birthday parties and anniversaries, are now historical. They are reflections of a time no longer here. And, as such, their meaning and value has changed. What historical and cultural significance will these billion+ Instagram images have in the decades to come? As we shift from recording events to non-events, will these uneventful photographs acquire new contexts with time? Will they be as uneventful then as they are now? What will my children think of the very photographs they made of themselves, the ones made to be shared?
I don’t know. But if I’m very lucky, I’ll ask them in 30 years.
Jeff Gates is a photographer, writer,and a new media producer at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. He is also the founder of Artists for a Better Image, an organization that studies stereotypes of artists in contemporary culture and the man behind the Chamomile Tea Party, a one-person art collective that comments on the present state of American political discourse through a series of remixed posters from early and mid 20th century propaganda posters.