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Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Shadow World II

This is a follow on to this prior remark.

To Susan Sontag, writing in the 1970s, the print was the photograph. Photographs did not exist in any interesting way apart from the print. Moving pictures had a couple of other varieties, but photographs were prints. This is, obviously, no longer the case. While we may be printing more photographs than ever, as a percentage of the images we actually see the print is negligible. Even printed photographs in magazines have the ephemeral nature that the online ones do, in the sense that they are with us only for a short time before fading in to memory.

To Sontag, a photograph froze a moment in amber and converted it to a Past Moment instantly. The moment would then recede slowly in time, changing in our minds as it went, but always frozen there in the print. The print would deteriorate, the image itself might change a little, and our idea of the image would certainly change. An old photograph is interesting largely because it is old, because it is a moment from long long ago, preserved for our amusement and education. The subject becomes less and less important. This strikes me as an essentially accurate characterization of the situation in the 1970s. It might not be all-encompassing, but it covers a lot of the territory that was in play at the time. The fascination with old prints and negatives remains with us today, if anything amplified by the everything-is-digital world we live in now. These physical artifacts appear, correctly, not merely old but of another era. A negative with an interesting provenance (whether true or not) is now virtually a fetish object, and the subject doesn't matter a fig.

As I have suggested earlier, things are now different. A change in scale to vastly more photographs produced at a vastly higher pace has occurred, a change in scale so vast as to manifest very much like a change in kind. Photographs are now rarely printed, and are almost never within our scope for very long. There is no time for a photograph, a snapshot of the birthday party or the wedding or the vacation, to get old enough to be interesting as an image from a past time. They slide back along the timeline at a rate of one hour per hour, until in a couple of weeks they are too many clicks away to ever look at again.

In the 1970s, Sontag expressed the belief (and perhaps concern) that we were increasingly existing through the medium of photographs. An event which was not photographed did not happen, in a sense. Our memories of a birthday party, an inauguration, a moon landing, or a vacation were all influenced profoundly by the photographs of those events, whether we were present or not. We lived partially, but in a meaningful way, in a reality made up of photographs, a reality which stretched into the past until there were no photographs.

We live in a real world of real things and real events, but ever-increasingly spend time with the shadow world of photographs of things and events that have taken place recently. The shadow world contains images of things we experienced in the real world, and of things we did not, but all or almost all from within the last couple of weeks. This shadow world takes up an increasing amount of space in our mental model of our life. We spend less time attending birthday parties, and we attend far more of them by proxy through photographs shared by our friends.

How often do we experience a vague memory of having attending some event that we did not? How much of our memory of the wedding we did attend is mediated by the photographs we remember from it? Are these effects increasing in frequency and depth in this world of facebook, endless snapshots, and small tile-shaped mobile phones? Is this good or bad?

I don't know, but it worries me a bit. We seem to be living a much broader life, and a life whose broadness is largely by proxy. It seems reasonable that increased breadth is paid for by decreased depth. It seems reasonable that decreased depth, somehow, and whatever that even means, is undesireable.

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