Friday, January 3, 2014

A Bad Article, But..

This article by Craig Mod in The New Yorker is, maybe, worth your time. Skim it, but read the last couple paragraphs more closely.

Basically the article says "I am very cool, I live in Japan, and I have had a lot of cool cameras and I shot film, and stuff." which is pretty typical of the shorter pieces in this magazine. They're all auto-hagiography disguised as articles about something or other, and this one certainly is no exception.

What makes this one interesting to me is the bit at the end, where he makes a couple of points, jumbled together.

The first is that digital photographs, especially those made with smart devices that are not necessarily just cameras, potentially have a lot of metadata attached to them. This makes a new object, it's analogous to "picture + title" but instead it's "picture + extra data" where the extra data might be as odd as radiation levels, or as mundane as map co-ordinates.

This is an interesting idea. (I admit that I am dubious, but...) He suggests that a mundane picture taken near the site of a nuclear accident (in Japan, natch, Craig Mod is so interesting!), will be, when annotated with the ambient radiation levels, somehow elevated to something more. This is, I think, wrong. The interesting information is the radiation level, and attaching that to a shitty photograph just makes that information less accessible. It is possible that his example is just bad. He's fallen in to the Wired Magazine trap of "if it has data somewhere in it, it must be ever so cool."

There may be special cases. I can imagine that a portfolio tied to map co-ordinates which connect a sequence of pictures to a sequence of locations might create something bigger than just the portfolio, for example.

Regardless, it is certainly not true that hanging a bunch of data on just any old picture is going to make it better, any more than a really cool title will. Occasionally, hanging appropriate and interesting data on a picture, or group of pictures, could elevate that picture, or group of pictures to something bigger.

Anyways, that is the bit that's potentially interesting, and perhaps worth your time. Perhaps worth a bit of a think. It's something new that is enabled by the digital era. In what follows here, I'm just going to burn the rest of Mod's piece to the ground, there's not a lot of interesting commentary after this!

The second point Mod makes is, roughly, the same point everyone else who's paying attention has been making for the last few years: that photographs are for sharing, that connectivity is the essence of how we use pictures these days. Or, more precisely, of one important way that we use pictures these days. He cites Sontag, apparently just to give us the impression that of course he's read Sontag la de da, but the usage makes it clear that if he did read Sontag he didn't understand anything.

Sontag makes the point that things which are not photographed are lessened in our collective mind. We understand the world, to some degree, through photographs of it, and therefore what is not photographed is not as forward in our consciousness. This is perfectly correct. Mod then leaps to the conclusion that now it is not the photography of the thing that makes it important, it is the connectivity, the sharing of the pictures of it.

Again, we see the sloppy Wired Magazine thinking: it's the network, it's the data, it's the connectivity, the future is so darn cool because the thing itself doesn't matter, it's the connectivity, the network, the data, the access that matters.

He's missed some things. It was always the sharing and connectivity that created the effect. An undeveloped roll of film never did anything to enhance the social importance of a thing. Furthermore, the increased connectivity and sharing is on the whole lessening the importance of things, in Sontag's sense.

Her point was that the world was divided in to things photographed, and things not photographed, and that this division had certain effects. This division no longer exists, all things are photographed. It is all photographed, it is all shared.

It was always the case that a thing un-photographed and un-shared (in the 1970s sense) was lessened in importance, this has not changed. The change is that everything is photographed and shared, so, in the way that Sontag meant, nothing is more important than anything else. Being photographed is no longer differentiates the uninteresting from the interesting, the trivial from the important.

Of course, trivial and important things still exist. Interesting and uninteresting things still exist. The change is that photography no longer has much role is revealing or dictating these differences.

This is important, and Mod completely missed it, because he wanted to make some labored analogy about editing photos on an iPhone and developing prints in wet chemistry.

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