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Wednesday, September 21, 2022

A Note on Photographs and Modernity

In my previous castles-in-the-air notes I made some vague claims about how photographs render modernity tolerable to us as human animals. After due consideration I feel it necessary to note that this is in some sense obvious.

Why is moving to a new city tolerable? Well, for many reasons, but one of them is often that at least we'll have the photos of our life in the city we're leaving. We have the photos of many things from the past, and these photos are a piece of why it's tolerable to us to leave the past behind, to move linearly into the future.

At the same time, this is not universal. There are even in America, that most modern of places, many people who do not, can not, will not, proceed into the future in the same ways that I do. Many, many people are rooted to their place, their family, their home. They remain in the cyclic, and resent the march of progress. Their grandfather worked in the mine, and their father worked in the mine, and they worked in the mine until the mine shut down. The fact that working in the mine was incomprehensibly awful in no way changes the fact that the mine getting shut down is also incomprehensibly terrible. The cycle, terrible as it was, has been broken.

I don't know if there's anything about photography specifically there.

Some time ago I read a piece that broke down people into the "somewheres" and the "anywheres." I am an anywhere, I can move, I can find a new place, anywhere. The scion of the Appalachian coal mining clan is a "somewhere" who fits only in one place, and for whatever reason cannot leave it. He votes for Trump, I vote for Biden.

Do photographs define the difference between us? Surely not. But just as surely, I live a "modern" existence, in that strict sense of linearity, or progress into a future that is different from the past. He lives a "pre-modern" life, one in which the future is expected to be, more or less, a repeat of the past.

More accurately one might say that I see a future that differs from the past as normal and generally good. Our "somewhere" sees a future that differs as a failure, as a broken system, and generally speaking bad. Both of us live with a future that is different from the past, but our attitudes differ. This is arguably the conservative versus liberal divide, phrased in personal terms.

I'd be interested to see if there were any studies about the role photography plays in the everyday lives of people of various political stripes.


  1. "America, that most modern of places"... Now there's a statement that could do with closer examination. Unless, of course, by "modern" you are referring to the 20th century, in which case, yes, very modern.

    As to your actual point, I'm sure there must be such studies (you should probably trawl the databases of academic theses). Personally, I'm increasingly sceptical about any claims made about the properties of photography, or the roles it plays / has played. It's just a very useful and democratic medium of record and, for a tiny minority, of expression. And with the advent of the phone "camera" and digital storage, it may also just have exploded into something entirely new and different, leaving behind a historical residue to be picked over, like the early days of printing.


    1. I thought I might get in trouble for "modern."

      What I mean by the word, here, is the somewhat idiosyncratic "modern as in modernism," the sense of history and life as an inexorable, linear, forward progression. I think that in this sense, it's not unfair to characterize the USA as at least among the "most modern" because, let's face it, we have almost no sense of history at all. It's forward-only here!

      But absolutely, a very confusing usage and fairly stupidly written!

    2. An attitude often referred to here as "The Whig view of history", though many Marxists like the idea that "the only way is up!" too. Tony Blair's campaign tune in '97 was "Things Can Only Get Better"... Yeah, right.


  2. "studies about the role photography plays in the everyday lives of people of various political stripes"
    META certainly has it, or could find it.

    1. Proprietary I expect. I'm with Mike on the "claims made about the properties of photography."

  3. One theory of modernism is that it arose from the rebuilding of Paris, 1850 and on. People got accustomed to familiar places disappearing. At the same time photography was developing, also a French invention. Dear ol' Atget dragged his big camera around believing that images of the disappearing stuff had value, or at least the few sous he got for them. Other than that, I don't think there's any connection.