One of the standard lazy blog posts one writes about photography concerns the alleged necessity of the print. I am pretty sure I've written these things myself. The conceit is that photography is about shooting a bunch of pictures which are then edited and sifted and curated down to a much smaller set of the best ones which are then rendered in some physical form or other. The ultimate goal is always the physical object embodying the iconic image, ideally in some sort of maximally archival form.
This spins off variations like discussions of the shoeboxes of prints from the 1970s, and vows to print more myself, and concern about how we're going to lose all this digital shit when we die.
And that is all true, within its little world. And that is a world I inhabit.
But it is not the whole of the world. It is not even a very big piece of the world. I think a strong argument can be made that it is not even a significant blip in the big wide real world.
I saw a phenomenon today in an ice cream shop. A group of young women were having some ice cream together, and messing about on their phones. Each of them was on instagram (or in some app that looks very very much like instagram), surfing pictures of... I don't even know what of. Periodically, frequently, one girl or another would turn her phone around and show it to another girl, or to several. Heads would huddle over a phone, smiling, nodding, remarking. They were sifting instagram streams for things they found interesting, and sharing those in real time, in the real world, with one another.
Instagram photos are ephemera. Any picture on instagram is instantly buried under a pile of new photos. But during its brief moment of life, it has reach, at least in potential. It can be viewed simultaneously by 2 or 3 or 1,000,000 people, something a print really cannot do. A print can be viewed, really, by one person at a time. A photo on instagram can be shown around with a wave of my phone, a dozen people can wave their phone around a dozen tables and 50 people can smile at the picture, all in the same moment.
These things are only lightly edited, generally.
As an aside, about 5 of the 10 most liked instagram photos this year are basically blurry selfies of Taylor Swift grinning the a doofus with her cat. The other five are carefully crafted "casual photos" of various Kardashians Kows. This says something about our culture, probably that it is dying, but god help me I quite like Taylor Swift.
So anyways, there's this whole gigantic world of photography with is really "look at this!" or "look at me!" or "look at me and this!" which are really intended as ephemera, as a way to communicate with your family, friends, fans, whomever, to share in this quite literal way some little visual slice of your life. The idea that we should preserve these things is absurd, and let me emphasize this: not because they are worthless, bad, snapshots, stupid. They are exactly what they are intended to be, the embody that role completely, and are often nearly perfect. But they thing that they are is simply not conceived to be preserved. They become meaningless junk in a matter of months, days, hours. They exist in a context which is itself ephemeral.
But within their mayfly lifespan, they have potential reach. They can go horizontally through a surprising amount of the world, in surprising ways, communicating, sharing, giving joy to girls in ice cream shops.
And that too is photography.