Monday, February 11, 2013

Single-Use Photographs

This is another way to divide the world of photographs up, and I think it's an increasingly important one:

How many times does, generally, does a viewer look at the photograph?

Magazine pictures and news pictures have always been pretty much single-use photographs. Increasingly, we take pictures with the intention of showing them to someone, or of documenting a curiosity for your friends. "Hey, check this out" and we hand the iPhone over, or we share the image out on Mumblebook. The intent here is that the viewer will look at the image once, and never again. The idea of taking a photograph of a thing, because someone we know likes things of that sort, and for the express purpose of showing that someone that thing, is quite modern. It makes very little sense in a pre-digital, pre-networked world. Even in pseudo-art circles, people submit pictures for critique, and here again the intent it to look at the picture once.

As of this writing, we are starting to see new services being offered which make explicit the one-view-only model, presumably for more spicy pictures, but which can be used for anything. Such services are spurred by the perception that some photographs are single-use. The existence of these services feeds back and reinforce into our collective consciousness the idea of single-use photographs.

Several things are in play here, at least these:

  • There are too many photographs being made to look at any of them more than once.
  • Much of the content in photographs time-sensitive, in the sense that it's not interesting next week.
  • Increasingly, people are aware of privacy issues with racy photographs. They want to share naked selfies, but not too widely.

This may represent a true change-in-kind. Digital photography, free imaging, is changing our notion of what photography is. That zeigeist is increasingly dominated by the idea of the single-use image. Images may be single-use for a audience of one or or an audience of our friends, or for whomever comes along. Images may be single-use by intent or by accident. The photograph as something we come back to, to remind ourselves of grandma or to re-savor the artistry of, seem to be fading from our consciousness.

It is perhaps not unexpected that the masses, once a thing is made available to them freely and broadly, should re-imagine it for their own purposes. We art wonks, and wannabee art wonks, are left behind struggling to understand what hoi polloi are up to. We try to fit the photography of the masses into our own view of photography, with rapidly decreasing success. This is not to suggest that art, or Art, photography is dying. Only that it fits now into a world that increasingly views photographs as single-use objects.

Certainly this changing world might declare Art photographs finally irrelevant and dead. Alternatively, the lot of Art photographs may be improved in this new world. Such pictures might enjoy increased novelty as a photograph one might, almost incomprehensibly, want to look at more than once.

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