Tuesday, January 15, 2013

This is going on your Permanent Record

I am reading Susan Sontag's collection of essays On Photography. In fact, I am at least partially re-reading it, since I know I've seen some of this stuff before. I just can't remember when or where. Anyways, I will probably write up a little review of this book in a bit (only 40 years after publication) but not today. The capsule review which will suit for now is that it's a very sloppy little book full of very bad thinking and very good ideas.

At the moment, two ideas stand out to me. The first is that photographs make all things photographed equal and equivalent. This idea happens to be wrong, but it's an interesting idea and it's not completely wrong. The second idea is that Photography (with a capital P) creates a parallel reality based on our own but different. It is an edited version of reality, captured in a set of instants. This idea is pretty much correct, and even more literally correct today than it was when Sontag wrote about it.

Consider the way we document our lives in photographs. When Sontag was writing, a family might take a few dozen to a few hundred photographs each year, of themselves and their lives. These photographs existed as small prints, compact physical objects, which were embalmed in shoeboxes or photo albums. These albums and shoeboxes provided, and still provide, a Permanent Record of sorts. These things can be riffled through in a few minutes, perhaps an afternoon. A true fanatic might have accumulated enough material to present a couple of days of work to flip through. This Permanent Record was of course limited, incomplete. Large gaps exist, where the camera was broken, there was no film, dad was sick, or a shoebox was lost in a move. While Sontag is wrong in that not all things photographed are made equal per se, there is an equalizing effect in placing the last photograph ever taken of Grandma in a shoebox with a handful of out of focus pictures of long-forgotten toys.
This collection of prints is a parallel reality, it is a version of the story of the family or the people. It is false as much as it is true. It is fragments which, less and less, evoke complete memories.

Let us consider this photographic record as a line of footprints in the sand. Permanent, but easily erased by the caprices of nature, by the hand of man, by accident, malice, or folly.

Compare this situation with what we are doing today, digitally. We take photographs at a much faster pace, generally, than we did when we used film. We no longer need to change film rolls, we can shoot 200 exposures of our child's birthday party with a mere 200 button presses. We no longer require development and printing, we get instant feedback. So the rate at which images are produced has, of course, shot up. These images are much more durable, in theory, than prints, being digital 1s and 0s stored in the cloud. A JPEG could, in theory, endure forever, unchanged and perfect. On the one hand, our photographs are more permanent than ever. On the other hand, two factors conspire to make them effectively more ephemeral than ever.

First, the way we share photographs is largely chronological. In order to satisfy the desire for novelty, sharing services show our most recent images first. This keeps our friends clicking on our stream, which keeps the ad revenue up, which powers the whole machine. Second, the sheer mass of images we produce makes riffling through anything like the complete record utterly unmanageable, no matter how the images are presented.

Together, this means that photographs made today and yesterday are handy and convenient. Photographs from last week are maybe a click away. Photographs from six months back, those perfectly preserved JPEGs, eternally embalmed on disk drives in the cloud, might as well be on Mars.

Instead of a patchy, incomplete, and slowly fading record of our entire lives, we now have a much more detailed photographic reality that stretches into the past like a very short comet's tail. A few days, a few weeks of history easily, perfectly accessible in crystalline clarity. Pictures of our lattes, our hamburgers, our children, Grandma's birthday. They're all there, practically accessible for a few days or weeks after the event and then, practically, gone forever.

The footprints in the sand have become the wake of a boat, stretching back a ways, shrinking and vanishing until, quite soon, no visible trace is left. The analogy is selected quite carefully. What has happened is not truly a change in kind, it is a change only in degree. The pace has picked up, photographic time moves much much faster, the torrent of images gushes rather than trickles.

Sand dunes, photographed over years and then sped up, behave exactly like waves in a fluid, because they are. The wake of a boat, footprints in the sand, they vanish in the same way and for the same reasons, but at different time scales. The effect is that we've seen a change in degree but not in kind that is so great that it behaves almost like a change in kind.

Sontag foresaw this, I think. She died in 2004, when the current trends were probably becoming quite clear if one were paying attention. Possibly she was too busy dying to pay attention. In any case, even in the 1970s there were hints. The production of trivial images was proceeding at a high rate, and it was clearly not going to slow down. Sontag did think of the photograph, in those days, as synonymous with the print and it it truly the transition to purely electronic media that has enabled the staggering pace and corresponding increase in time-scale we've seen today.

I think Sontag knew that something was coming. She would surely be unsurprised by the world of flickr, instagram, facebook. I think she would have been saddened.

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