Friday, December 4, 2015

Ephemera and Reach

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.


  1. Good thoughts. Perhaps the photos are a bit like the ice cream. They bring a few moments of connection and pleasure, then they are gone.

  2. Prints aren't necessary. The same might be said of photography itself. How many times have we heard or urged someone to put down the camera, or the phone (or worst of all, the iPad) and simply enjoy the place or moment without making non-stop photos. There is surely a mindset that considers an event more real or brag worthy when it is posted to social media. Sadly this even includes too many meals memorialized, even ephemerally, on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Every year somebody somewhere calculates the ever increasing number of photographs made in a year and I am quietly thankful that most of them evaporate into thin air. I am almost sure that the number of printed photographs must be a fraction of what it was 20 years ago.

    But...if you talk to me long enough, especially if your primary photographic pursuit is to photograph your family and family events, you will get my sermon about the need to print. Print your photographs whether on the home printer, at Costco or in a Blurb book or equivalent. You will be glad you did. Your kids will be glad you did. I think. I am still mulling over Sally Mann's suggestion that a photograph might actually destroy or supplant a memory.

    If photography is your avocation or even your profession then you can figure out the need to print or not.

    Tangentially, I have recently put together a website, not for self promotion or print sales or anything like that but to help me figure out some directions in my own photography. The photographs there are every bit as real as the prints hanging on a wall, organized in a book or sitting in a box---it's just different.

    1. Lots to think about here, thanks. I think I disagree with a couple of your points, which dues not, of course, mean that you are wrong.

      I think I am actually going to make a follow on post as a response. I need more words!

  3. Very astute. I think people who are constantly kvetching about drowning in a tsunami of worthless online photographs neglect the fact that they're still breathing. If they're sputtering and gagging it may be of their own juices.

  4. I can't produce anything in the way of "look at me and this!", which would be interesting to my family, friends, fans or whomever, because they are not interested in a visual slice of my life. I am just a generally dull person with a dull life.

    I am not writing this to complain, but just to give the context. Not everyone is "interesting". I would actually bet that in any given group only the top 10% is "interesting" and the rest just lucky that Facebook or Instagram did not implement a "I don't like" button. As a general rule, humans are only interested about celebrities, either nationwide or within their own group of friends. The other ones should better not post. Repost someone's else more interesting life, maybe.

    I suspect that the people who insist on prints actually realized that they can't play this Instagram or Facebook game, because they are not "interesting". As you once said: they are mainly overweight retired white dudes. Do they really thing someone wants to see pictures of their life? Of course not.

    But they still want to talk. So instead of talking to real beings, they put their messages on archival paper in the hope someone will find it eventually. At least, it looks like it should have some value, because the paper was expensive. It is a bit like a message in bottle tossed to the see. You don't have much choice when you have nobody to talk to.

    Their children will probably trash the whole pile of prints after their death, of course.

  5. At some point or another I've had every depressing thought stuffed into the above message.

    I keep taking pictures anyway. I even print some of them.