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Monday, December 16, 2013

Old Photos

Every few months it seems that someone digs up the same set of color photographs from Russia from, I don't know, a long time ago. Some chappie ran around with a view camera taking color separations 100-odd years ago. A couple of years ago some other chappie dug these things up, scanned them, and put together some pretty decent digital color pictures based on them. Every few months, they show up on someone's blog, or on some crummy clickbait "photography news" site like petapixel, and then get a lot of links, clicks, and views.

There is also the venerable shorpy.com which is really quite decent. Yet some other chappie digs up old pictures, acquires very good scans of them, and manages a well curated collection of these 100 year old, plus or minus, pictures. Shorpy gets a fair bit of traffic and interest.

There are periodic news items about people finding a collection of glass plates. Frequently these are somewhat sketchy: Unearthed Ansel Adams Negatives Discovered! Man Finds Fully Developed Glass Plates Still In The Camera (what?), and so on. Again, flickers of interest, views, clicks.

Apparently there's a bit of a thing on facebook these days, too.

So what? Well, Susan Sontag, writing in the 1970s, was at some pains to think through the fact that photographs are physical artifacts. There are slices of frozen time, turned into a flat physical object which we can hold, and touch, and which is itself more or less permanent. This permanence and physicality had huge effects on our relationship with these things.

Right about the time Sontag died, this all changed. Digital photographs are, while in theory permanent, in reality completely ephemeral. The "most recent first" viewing model of the internet, and our constant thirst for novelty, means that, absent substantial effort, photographs are buried under other photographs and lost to us very quickly. And yet we have this fascination with the physical artifacts, as well.

And yet, our fascination with those artifacts takes the form of rendering them digital, and throwing them into the maw of the great most-recent-first internet where they march down the time stream into oblivion in a matter of weeks.

I don't know what it all means, but I find it extremely odd that we have an ephemeral fascination with the permanent. Our relationship with pictures as they exist today is the exact opposite of the relationship discussed by Sontag, and we hold this modern relation with a digital phantom version of the same pictures Sontag was talking about. It probably doesn't mean anything, really.

It's very strange to me, though.

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