Links to articles and talks that I mentioned are provided at the end of this post. You might also like to check out these recent, fortuitously linked pieces that Suse Cairns and Seb Chan:
Suse Cairns: When seeing becomes social
Seb Chan: Constant short term nostalgia
With thanks to the people who gave me ideas, phrases and article suggestions over the past few months while I've been mulling this over, and the people who endured impromptu practice sessions over the past few days, especially at the Webstock after-party. And of course to Ben Cauchi and Aaron Lister for inviting me to talk in the first place, and giving me a chance to explore these ideas.
* * *
I’m taking my opening statement from Sarah Bakewell’s recent book on the 16th century inventor of the modern essay, the French writer Michel de Montaigne.
"The twenty-first century is full of people who are full of themselves. A half-hour’s trawl through the online ocean of blogs, tweets, tubes, spaces, faces, pages, and pods brings up thousands of individuals fascinated by themselves; they diarize, and chat, and upload photographs of everything they do. Uninhibitedly extrovert, they also look inward as never before. Even as bloggers and networkers delve into their private experience, they communicate with their fellow humans in a shared festival of self."
What I want to look at this afternoon is the way that - in this age of near ubiquitous connectivity, of computer-camera combinations that we carry around in our pockets, of liking and retweeting and pinning - we document and publish our lives online, specifically through photographs, and then ask if there are any lines we can draw between this digital practice and the determinedly analogue work of Ben Cauchi.
But maybe we should start with why I’m here.
I am not an expert in photography. I am, at best, an amateur and an autodidact; my knowledge is erratic, narrowly-focused, based on memory and feeling rather than theory. Most of this knowledge has been built up through my time working with the National Library of New Zealand’s photographic collections.
This began in 2002, when I was at university and got a gig working as Michael Stevenson’s researcher for his This is the Trekka project for the Venice Biennale.
Michael lives in Berlin, and he would email me lists of things he wanted - any material on New Zealand’s preparations for nuclear fallout in the event of Russia and America bombing each other, for example, or photographs of butter production from the 1950s, or a portrait of Bill Sutch, or images of the Dave Brubeck Quartet from their 1960 visit to New Zealand.
At this time, I mainly used the Library’s amazing photo file-drawers on the ground floor of the old building. These treasure troves of access-copies were arranged by subject: Roseneath, fashion, sheep farming; there were supplementary flip-folders where the picture librarians had collated photocopies on various prosaic and fanciful topics; my favourite, unrelated to my research contract, was on corrugated iron.
Between doing this research gig and 2006, when I went to work at the Library, first in the comms team but quickly shimmying my way over into the web team, the first tentative millennial projects to get the Library’s pictorial collections online picked up speed. The first real breakthrough though was the Manuscripts + Pictorial site; meant to host the digitised papers of Sir Donald McLean, my friend who was leading the project also rather subversively dumped in the entirety of the digitised pictorial collections as well. Suddenly, we had a beautiful and approachable alternative to the janky old Timeframes site (including the very basic ability to provide permalinks), and a small group of us set about setting the Library’s photographic collections free.
We joined the Commons on Flickr, a special initiative by the photo-sharing behemoth to get collecting institutions to share their photography collections with the world’s most passionate photography community, under ‘No known copyright’ licences.
We argued fiercely to enable people to add their knowledge and information to collection items. We started, in 2009, what I think must be one of the longest running Twitter projects from any cultural institution in the world, tbreaktweets, where twice a day a tidbit from the collections - almost always a photograph - is sent out to several thousand followers.
We created more interfaces and better search tools and more toys; first Matapihi, then Digital New Zealand, then the overhauled National Library site itself. We added set-making to Digital New Zealand so that people could make collections of their favourite items from collecting institutions all over the world.
During this time, I must have spent the equivalent of weeks, if not months, of aggregated time sifting through the pictorial collections, moving from subject to subject, photographer to photographer, chasing similarities, following hunches, filling my visual memory. Now, you can throw me almost any line, improv style, and I will come up with an image to bounce back at you. It is a pointless talent, but it is mine, and it makes me happy.
The several hundred thousand images I am familiar with are, of course, just a drop in the photographic ocean.
It is estimated that 85 billion physical photos were taken in the year 2000. That’s 2,500 photos per second.
|Erik Kessels, 'Photography in Abundance', 2011|
But what underlies this seemingly primal need to capture and share our likenesses and our impressions of the world?
* * *
Imagine a man standing in front of a film crew in a brand-new, empty factory. He turns to the camera.
"We are still a long way," he says, "from the camera that would be, oh, like the telephone: something that you use all day long ... a camera which you would use not on the occasion of parties only, or of trips only, or when your grandchildren came to see you, but a camera that you would use as often as your pencil or your eyeglasses."
This camera will be "something that was always with you," he says; and it would be frictionless. Point, shoot, see. It would be as simple and as natural as - and here he reaches into his coat - as taking a wallet out of your pocket, holding it up, and pressing a button.
That man was Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid and the inventor of the instant camera, making a promo film in 1970. He was laying out an idea he’d been working on for quarter of a century.
In the late 1940s, cameras still only went with you on special occasions. You took your photos and sent your film to a processing plant, and received your prints in a week. In November 1948, the Land Camera was released by Polaroid. It developed its own film inside the camera in about a minute, the back of the camera popping open and letting you peel the negative away and expose the print. The first batch of cameras, expected to meet demand for weeks, sold out in hours. By the 1970s, amateur photographers were shooting over a billion photos a year.
Polaroid didn’t just invent a new technology. They introduced us to a new style of casual documentary photography. In 1974 Land wrote
"A new kind of relationship between people in groups is brought into being...when the members of a group are photographing and being photographed and sharing the photographs. It turns out that buried within us...there is latent interest in each other; there is tenderness, curiosity, excitement, affection, companionability and humour.... We have a yen for and a primordial competence for a quiet good-humoured delight in each other."
I find these statements immensely touching. Land’s faith in the goodness of people, rather than his sense that our selfish pleasure in ourselves is an endlessly exploitable commodity.
We live, of course, in the future Land described. We carry computers in our pockets that let us take photos wherever and whenever: we are photographing and being photographed and sharing the photographs, effortlessly.
And we do not share the photos in the privacy of our own homes, or through photo albums passed hand to hand. Instead, we float them out onto the internet: embedded on our blogs, appended to our tweets, published to our Facebook galleries, uploaded to our Instagram or CameraPlus accounts.
Every day, we are consciously crafting and embellishing our self image, our personas, through the images we make and share. And this is what I find fascinating about the age of digital photography and the internet. We’ve come to see every moment of our lives as something we can capture, record, pin down, pass on. The perfect Instagrammed photo of your lunch, the perfectly crafted tweet about your commute to work, your perfect Facebook update on your two year-old’s birthday cake.
James Bridle gave a talk in 2011 called ‘Waving at the machines’. It was about a visual meme or movement known as The New Aesthetic - the emergence of the physical world of a digital aesthetic. Bitty, blocky, pixelated, low-res - the way these objects, buildings, cars look could not have emerged had our eyes not become accustomed to looking at the world through machines. In his talk, Bridle also discussed how digital photography has changed our perception of events, and of time itself. Once, there was distance between the image-making process and the image-viewing process. No longer. As he said:
"This is instant now. There’s this kind of instant review. You can take a photo and see back instantly. It instantly makes that moment that just passed a thing that happened, a thing in the past, a memory. If our bodies are machines for negotiating space, our minds are machines for navigating time, and digital photography and technology in general is aimed squarely at our idea of time and our place in it. And there’s no stronger view of that than photos and the ways in which they’re presented back to us and change our perceptions of ourselves in time."
In his talk, Bridle touched on a topic of much discussion and derision online: the instant filter effects available through various phone apps and social media sites, but exemplified by Instagram.
Instagram is a social photography app. It lets you take photos, apply filters to them, then share them in various ways. Distinctively, it confines photos to a square format, reminiscent of Polaroids, rather than the rectangular format native to digital cameras. The dozen or so filters available through Instagram tend to add a nostalgic haze, a beaten-in vintage effect, to these digital snapshots. You can add pinkish or goldish overtones, turn your photo into sepia, make the colours super-saturated and add a scratchy border, all with a few dabs of your finger. Suddenly, a deserted bus stop is the saddest place in the world, a sunset is the harbinger of the apocalypse, your bare feet with their painted toenails standing on the lawn look better than bare feet have ever looked.
By April 2012 - the time Facebook entered negotiations to purchase Instagram - 30 million accounts had been created on the service. “Slap a filter on it” has become a cry of derision. With remarkable concision, one author I read while preparing this talk said “Instagram looks like shit and people take photos of shitty stuff with it”.
The ease of the filter - the way that with a grasp of the basic fundamentals of composition and the pressing of a few buttons you can produce works that rival, in visual effect, trained photographers - seems to induce a special form of irateness. One of my favourite essays on this topic is by the author Teju Cole. Writing about the cheapness of this post-processing, the too-easy addition of unctuous colour and beautiful light, he says; "The result is briefly beguiling to the senses but ultimately annoying to the soul, like fake breasts or MSG-rich food." He continues:
"All bad photos are alike, but each good photograph is good in its own way. The bad photos have found their apotheosis on social media, where everybody is a photographer and where we have to suffer through each other’s “photography” the way our forebears endured terrible recitations of poetry after dinner. Behind this dispiriting stream of empty images is what Russians call poshlost: fake emotion, unearned nostalgia. According to Nabokov, poshlost “is not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive.” He knows us too well."
Digital photography, as Bridle pointed out, eliminated any elapse of time between image taking and image viewing. It is truly instant. And this instantaneousness has thrust us into an era not only of instant broadcasting (Look at me NOW) but also instant archiving.
Exactly as we fix our attention on the present moment, we are recording it and assigning it to the past. Social media - and the social sharing of photographs, especially these tricked-out insta-retro images - now makes us see the present as a potential documented past. We move through the world like butterfly catchers of experiences and events, plucking them from the air and pinning them down, admiring them in flight only insofar as we’re trying to get the light right.
Some commentators argue that the rise of the faux-vintage photo points to an attempt to harness the power of the past - the emotional punch of nostalgia - to make our photos, and by extension, the moments of our lives they record - more important, more substantial, more real.
You could get all Fredric Jameson and talk about ‘nostalgia for the present’ - in our inability or refusal to grasp the realities of contemporary life, we cast backwards in order to find a time, a society, an aesthetic that provides more comfort. Jameson - an American literary critic and Marxist political theorist - described the “nostalgia mode” in 1967 as “a terrible indictment of consumer capitalism itself—or, at the very least, an alarming and pathological symptom of a society that has become incapable of dealing with time and history”.
Actually, if we’re going to get philosophical, let’s bring in Walter Benjamin. This use of state-of-the-art technology to mimic old world technology makes lie of - or perhaps makes truth of - what Benjamin wrote in his highly influential 1936 essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction":
"Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership."
These filters apply instant age, instant gravitas to your photos. This quality of “timeyness” isn’t just related to their 1970s Polaroid aesthetic - as pointed out by many writers, most Instagram users wouldn’t have any existing emotional connection to those actual physical objects. Something about them, as Teju Cole observed, just hits us hard in our nostalgia-prone solar plexus.
Mad Men actually says all this much better than I can.
The pleasantly painful pull of this gentle mourning is culturally widespread. Our English use of the word nostalgia has evolved from its use 300 years ago to describe a physical condition of extreme, even lethal, homesickness to a psychological descriptor of longing, not only for place, but for a time past that can only be returned to in memory.
The Japanese term Mono no aware, literally "the pathos of things" but also translatable as "an empathy toward things," or "a sensitivity to ephemera," was coined at about the same time. The phrase describes the awareness of the transience of things, and a sort of wistfulness about their passing - an emotion that endless digital images could both seek to forestall but also to bring forth to be pensively enjoyed.
There’s a German word too, of course, that’s apt here. Sehnsucht translates, kind of, as ‘addictive yearning’. It is a profound sense that there is a way things should be, an awareness that things as they stand are incomplete or missing, and a kind of longing for the desired state. The point of the emotion is not thing itself, but the feeling of the longing. Psychologists have mapped Sehnsucht's six core characteristics: (1) utopian conceptions of ideal development (2) sense of incompleteness and imperfection of life (3) conjoint time focus on the past, present, and future (4) ambivalent (bittersweet) emotions (5) reflection and evaluation of one's life; and (6) symbolic richness.
There’s a similarly hard to translate word in Portuguese - saudade. Once described as ‘the love that remains after someone is gone’, it describes a longing for an absent person or thing, combined with the knowledge that the object of longing will never return. It encompasses the recollections of the happy emotions associated with the missing object, and the sense that something that should be present in the given moment is gone. Saudade can be projected forward; one can have saudade of a person they are with at the moment, feeling a sense of loss towards the future.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. Here’s the thoughts of one of the smartest men I’ve ever met in real life. Aaron Straup Cope is now at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, but he used to be an engineer at Flickr. He says that if they did anything wrong at Flickr - a site renowned for its strength of community - it was let people think their photos weren’t "good enough" to upload.
"... all it took to get all those people excited about the art and the craft of photography again – in ways of seeing the world as something more than a mirror – were those stupid filters.
"Those stupid filters are really important because they re-opened a space in which people could manoeuvre. These are new things not least because I'm guessing that a sizable chunk of Instagram's user base was born after the 1970s and so there is no nostalgia to be asserted. The past is just a medium.
"Sometimes the past is not a rejection of the present but a good and useful screen through which to look for patterns, to look for things we'd never have been able to see in the past."
I think these photos are important. I think they are important not for what they depict, necessarily, but what they say about the culture that took them. If we don’t capture the mundane and inane alongside the important, we lose the texture, the grain of people’s everyday lives.
I have had some vigorous conversations with colleagues in the web and cultural world about collecting and preserving and re-presenting the world’s digital photos. A couple of years ago, the Library of Congress announced that they were going to take in Twitter’s archive. They have no idea, as far as I’m aware, of how to make such a data collection comprehensible - how these billions of loosely connected thought-blips could be arranged and sorted and searched and presented. But when it comes to collecting the digital world, I think it’s better to collect and then figure it out than to fear the complexity and risk losing out.
I also think our institutions generally do a poor job of collecting the present moment. It is hard to tell what will be important in 50 years’ time, and grabbing the present requires energy and fleetness of foot. It is easier to hunt the slow-moving past than the blink-of-an-eye present.
When I have these conversations with colleagues, they often ask 'Why do we need five thousand photos of people's flat whites?'. And my response it that it's not the individual photos that are important; it's the fact that there are thousands of them that is important. This might be the difference between historic and historical.
So here’s my wish. I want to be able to tweet my photos to the National Library, and have them automatically passed through to the digital collections. We can have a little code phrase, if you like - we can sign up in advance and agree to a nice open Creative Commons license too. And who cares if what I’ve shot is my coffee or a carcrash, a sunset or a street fight. If I bother to send it to you, you can assume I’ve decided it says something of some importance. Just make it easy for me to help you build a picture of tomorrow’s past.
* * *
Enough philosophising. Let’s look at some stuff and things, online and in the real world, and sometimes confusingly in-between. This in-between space (described by Robin Sloan as the 'flip-flop') is a space I find particularly rich and interesting.
Matt Richardson’s ‘Descriptive Camera’ is a digital camera that instead of outputting a photograph, gives you a textual description of whatever you pointed the camera at.
Richardson came up with the idea after being underwhelmed by the metadata that digital cameras generate - date, time, camera model, sometimes geospatial coordinates. He wanted to see a world where the camera told you what the content of the photo was. This technology isn’t available or even feasible right now, so Richardson came up with an inspired hack.
When you take a photo with the Descriptive Camera, it is sent to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk - an online piece-work site, where people can send tiny tasks, like describing a photo, to a distributed workforce. So a Mechanical Turk looks at the photo, writes the text, which is sent back to the camera, where it is then printed on thermal paper like an EFTPOS receipt - a polaroid for words.
With Polaroid Cacher, the whole physical/digital flip-flop gets turned inside out. It’s a collaboration between by Adria Navarro and DI Shin, two grad students in interactive design at NYU. The conceit is the belief that our everyday online activity is as important as our physical world activities, and should be preserved in the same way. Preserved, and also made memorable - pulled out of the digital graveyard of outdated services and forgotten conversation.
Tapping into the powerful association of instant photography with people, memory and nostalgia, Navarro and Shin decided to design the camera as a fictional Polaroid product. It’s a two-part object. The first interface is a browser plug-in that lets you take “photos” of webpages - effectively, a screenshot tool that acts like a camera viewfinder. The image is sent wirelessly to the repurposed camera , which “develops” and prints it out, framed like a traditional instant photo.
Last year I came up with this idea for an online service. You’d create your slidedeck in Keynote or Powerpoint, and then you’d upload it to this website. Overnight, your digital slides would be turned into physical slide transparencies, and posted to you in a carousel. And then, hipsterifically, you would rock up to your talk, demand your physical projector, and stand up the front, lulling the audience with that nostalgic ker-chunk kerchunk and soporific whirr. Projecteo is kind of like that.
My Daguerreotype Boyfriend
This is the project I wish I had thought of. My Daguerreotype Boyfriend is really simple. It’s crowdsourced historical photos of hot men - with a little information, if it’s available. New Zealanders have featured at least twice - once the mugshot of Daniel Toohill, and once with - rather gorgeously - Alexander Turnbull himself, originator of the National Library’s historical collections.
Young Me, Now Me
Young Me, Now Me is an exercise in memory and nostalgia by artist and performer Ze Frank. Here, people recreate photos from earlier in their life and send them in. There are lots of single portraits - people in their 20s, 40s, 60s recreating photos from their teens, childhood, infancy. And touchingly, there are portraits of family groups - brothers, cousins, fathers and sons.
|Young Me, Now Me|
Like Young Me Now Me, Dear Photograph is an exercise in memory, nostalgia and recreating. People take an analogue photograph back to the place it was taken, then hold it up against the original setting so that past and present blend into a single image. As with Young Me Now Me, the images are all contributed by people from all over the world.
Wellingtonian Virginia Gow’s Tuhonohono project is another take on the historical/contemporary mash-up. Each day as she goes about her life she takes photos with her phone - at the end of every day, she matches a selected photograph with an image dug up from the National Library’s historical collections. Some are one for one matches, others are poetic interpretations.
Switcheroo doesn’t quite fit in, but I’m banging it up here because it’s kind of delightful. Switcheroo is a project by artist Hanna Pesut. Couples - it’s almost entirely couples - stand next to each other and take a photo. They then swop outfits, and take another photo. Then they send it in to Pesut.
* * *
So, has the internet killed photography? And what does it mean, to look at Ben Cauchi’s determinedly analogue photographs in light of the digital photography explosion? I never meant that title seriously, and the longer I’ve thought about this, the more I wonder whether the tsunami-like nature of digital and social photography has any relevance to Ben’s work.
What I think it does do is accentuate one of the major critical risks to Ben’s work, which is to fetishise the process.
Ben himself is very aware that this aspect of his work - a highly seductive physical process that is skilful, laborious, alchemical - is both the hook that brings people in and a potential sinkhole. An extended version of an interview Guy Somerset did with him for the Listener had 80 questions: over a quarter were about his process, equipment, cameras, chemicals. In the interview they do discuss this trap - where the process becomes the end, the point of discussion and focus and interpretation, rather than a means to an end. Here’s a good example of what I mean by that (at this point I played the Breaking Bad-esque opening minute of this clip, but do watch the whole thing).
The actual subjects Ian Rutler chooses - waterfalls, hot mess girls with mussed hair and thin singlets - are extremely Instagrammy. This kind of similarity is leading some photographers to take a quite defensive position; to themselves fetishise process and training as a way of separating themselves out.
In one of the articles I read, a professionally trained photographer went with a nay-saying journalist to an Instagrammer meet-up in London, centred on an exhibition of printed Instagram images. And the photographer said this:
"Looking at all the images together like this, you notice a huge repetition. And it's not as if the repeated images are even particularly interesting, they're things you see every day – a London phone box, or a burger – only everything's in black and white, bar the red of the phone box or the logo on the plane wing, or whatever. What you do start to see is examples of the basic principles of photography.
"It's as if acquiring the app is like taking the first couple of months of my GCSE photography course. Users start learning to use the Rule of Thirds and depth of field and that kind of thing, which is why everything looks like a college project. For example, we were told to take pictures of tube walkways in college because they're full of straight lines, which are pleasing to the eye, and you see thousands of photos of tube escalators and platforms on Instagram all the time.
"What I don't think most users understand is that, to create a good image of something millions of people see every day, you have to go the extra mile and approach it from a different angle, rather than just standing in front of it, buying a new £2.99 filter and snapping away."
First off, it was a lightbulb moment for me to think that Instagram has encouraged millions of people to master the basic vernacular of photography; to self-educate themselves in why certain set-ups are harmonious or jarring or alluring, to explore how the affect of an image can be manipulated through colour and tone, to teach themselves how to light a cup of coffee or pose a person.
But secondly, I disagreed with his conclusion. I would argue that these photographers - amateur, vernacular, social, call them what you will - are engaging with the world in a more observant and intense manner than they used to. Just like teenagers today write more than ever before, our contemporary camera-brain is learning to see the world differently, and our visual databases are expanding.
A friend observed to me, when I was talking to him about this all, that it feels to him that the older photography gets, the younger it feels. We have the cameras Edwin Land talked about, the cameras we use as often as we uses pencils - arguably far more often - but also we have the curious, affectionate, humorous network he spoke of.
Photography has entered a new childhood, and I think things are only going to get more interesting as it keeps growing down.
It’s Polaroid’s World - We Just Live in It
The Wall Street Journal, 9 November 2012
I still don't get Instagram
Vice, January 2013
Dappled Things: Pinkhassov on Instagram
The New Inquiry, 23 September 2012
Pinterest, Tumblr and the Trouble with ‘Curation’
New York Times, 20 July 2012
Babbage Science and Technology blog
The Economist, 19 May 2011
How many photos have ever been taken?*
1000 memories, 15 September 2011
Waving at the Machines
James Bridle’s keynote at Webdirections South 2011
Stories from the New Aesthetic
Aaron Straup Cope, notes from a panel discussion at the New Museum, New York, October 2012
The Faux-Vintage Photo
The Society Pages, 14 May 2011
Ben Cauchi interview - The long version
NZ Listener, 2 November 2012