Monday, March 24, 2014


Susan Sontag was very in to the idea of a photograph as a thing. It was a thing, back in the day. There was a physical piece of paper that had a picture on it. Sometimes it was a little rectangle of colored, translucent, material. It was an object, something you could see and touch and taste. I mentioned this in the previous remarks.

Digital imaging changed that. Almost no pictures are things in their own right now. They're an abstract pattern of 1s and 0s, replicated across the multiple disk drives of some cloud thing somewhere, generally. We render those on screens of one sort or another, a computer monitor, a tablet, a phone, sometimes even a digital picture frame.

There's still a thing, but you can't touch it any more, or taste it, and what it actually is is somewhat obscure and technical.

Worse, we generally render these things on a screen that we've become used to treating as a window. We look at many things on that screen. We don't think about the screen, we think of what we're looking at. In the case of a photograph, we're as likely to think of the thing photographed as anything else. The object or objects shown in the photograph are something real, something we could touch or taste. The photograph itself? It's an abstraction. The screen? Invisible and out of our thoughts.

Photographs have become transparent, as well as weightless and frictionless. When we take a picture, we're not taking a photograph any more, we're simply showing our friends, our family, something, this thing, this object or scene we have chosen to photograph. The act of photography is now, far more often than not, essentially equivalent to pointing a thing out to a friend we're walking with. It's the same thing as showing your friend the object in your hands "hey, check this out", it's the same thing as telling your friend to turn on the TV and flip to channel whatever, because you won't believe it.

I just tested with instagram. It takes 7 taps, and whatever I want to do for typing in a description. With a one word description, it took me 20 seconds, including launching the app, to share a picture of my Nikon FE2, which object happens to be sitting in front of me as I type. Instagram is notable in that I can (and did) select a little "effect", which makes us perhaps a little more conscious of the photograph-as-object. This is slightly more difficult than holding out my hand to show a friend an object, but only slightly. Compared to using film, it's indistinguishable from hold-out-my-hand. Check out my Nikon FE2.

There was always an element of this transparency, with a photograph. The essence of photojournalism is the illusion of transparency, that this is what is real, and you're seeing it. The transparency was never so dominant as now. We have to fight, now, to make pictures that are not just windows onto something else. When we think we've won that fight, then we have to fight to get past the "rule of thirds, we didn't you use fill flash, the highlights are blown out" technical irrelevancies.

I'm not saying you have to print, although a print is way to add weight and to force the issue of a photograph as a thing. I do suggest, though, that if you appreciate the photograph as a thing in and of itself, you've got a fight on your hands.

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