Why We Photograph

London-based artist Jesse Darling.

For reasons good, and some of little consequence, and a few terrible, indeed shattering, I’ve been to more cities in the last year than most people visit in a decade: from my home town of Saint John, New Brunswick, to Budapest. From Montreal to Krakow. And now here I sit in Berlin. Nothing unifies these trips, these adventures and their opposite, except the simple (and abundantly evident) fact that no matter where I am I feel compelled to take photographs, photographs of everything from palatial hotels (Budapest) to misshapen wild rose bushes (New Brunswick). I point, I click, I hardly ever think why.

For the purists among you, allow me to clear up the necessaries – by “photograph” I mean a digitally-generated image, taken with a Kodak EasyShare C713 (in pink!) that is so out-dated that the Kodak company, whatever is left of it, no longer bothers to make the software that feeds the images into a computer available for download, at any price. I am, yes, frequently mocked for “still having a camera” by my smartphone friends. So, no, I am not talking about images taken with a phone, images that can be instantly uploaded to social media; nor, conversely, am I talking about images transferred by the flash of light onto chemically-treated paper. There is a pause built into the time between when I take a photograph and when I share that photograph, as the images must first be uploaded into my computer and then sorted, copied, often turned from horizontal to vertical, and then presented, fed to the internet. I’m describing all this banal detail to make it clear that I am practising neither traditional “art photography” (works on paper) nor instant “social photography,” works understood to be made by, and arguably because of, the omnipresence of smartphones. Call me Mr. In-Between.

For the theory purists, let’s just get Susan Sontag out of the way right now. In her much-referenced, classic 1977 essay “On Photography,” Sontag famously wrote that, “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and, therefore, like power.” The danger therein, she added, is that “Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.” (I have always read that sentence as containing a strong hint of menace; it’s the “anyone” that bites. Sontag was hardly an egalitarian). Of course she was bang on, and remains so, even though the mechanisms of photography have radically changed. In 1977, one still needed a dark broom closet and no end of carcinogenic chemicals to produce photographs, or the drugstore drop-off equivalent. If anything has changed in the grand scheme of Sontag’s assessment of photography, it’s, well, the grand (now epic) scheme of photographic production.

So, I take pictures. I take pictures with an “old” camera, one that demands a brief delay. I take pictures while keenly aware that I am participating in the atomization of the world around me, and, worse yet, fussing and selecting and curating my contribution to said particle smashing. I take sloppy pictures, often unfocused and under-lit, with the acutest, blade-sharp theories of representation and presentation and replication bubbling along in the back of my head. The question, then, is why?

Because I want to live forever. And so do you.

Photography no longer performs the journalistic function of capturing a version of the real world, of assembling and/or re-assembling reality for dispersal and consumption. We are past that, because, good or bad, our immediate realities are more vital to us than any image-document generated outside of our personal sphere. We could label this narcissism and take a high-minded stand against the roiling river of self-presentation (with all the necessary and inherent provisos regarding how the “self,” especially as manifested in digital imagery, is as fake as a stolidly posed Tintype) – but that’s the easy way out. The billions of images produced and disseminated every 24 hours, if purely the result of rampant narcissism, would have to be read as the detritus of a wholly collapsed, psychotic world culture.

Things are not so bad as all that. Nevertheless everybody is afraid of disappearing (and perhaps particularly those people who cannot walk away from a mirror). But photography is now its own master. As a medium and a practice, it contains systems of representation and presentation that are so vast they subsume the individuals who partake in its manifestations. And because I want to live forever (and so do you), we agree to photography’s new social contract: increase the volume of imagery to planet-swallowing numbers, and you’ll at least get your pinpoint of image real-estate. Exist forever if not largely, or even prettily. Better to be a bit, a nanodot among fellows, than not at all.

Late Capitalism, busily married and merrily baby-making with the Information Age, does many very different things to every sort of person. So let’s not talk about universals. We can agree, however, that Late Capitalism is very good at creating cognitive dissonances. One of the most powerful disconnects it fuels is that we’re now part of an information “stream” – however, no two people can ever step (or slip) on the same wet rocks. We are closer than ever and yet far less able to bridge the gaps between us. So we take pictures because pictures allow us to prove to ourselves, and, importantly, to others, that we are alive and contributing and making, making, making. Photographs (re)create the illusion of community. Photography’s commemorative function has been swallowed by its updating function; an alerting to the world of the hyper-now present and its already replaced charms.

The production of photography, which is now so entwined with the medium’s sharing as to be indistinguishable from it, is a kind of life-long project of showing off, a slow bragging, a gentle act of bravado. I am here, it says. We/I say, every day, and I/we went There and did That. Transient and flimsy in nature, social photography needs constant replenishment. We’re accustomed to this new application of photography performing as a social index; we even take photographs of our meals. However, social photography only becomes comprehensible as a whole, a collectively generated “work,” when viewed, paradoxically, as an assemblage or survey or random assortment that is so vast it cannot be comprehended as a single, or ever-to-be-finished, entity.

In her breezy and apt analysis of how to read Sontag’s rabbinical declarations on photography today, Maria Popova, of brainpickings.org, succinctly notes that “as we fill our social media timelines with images, as if to prove that our biological timelines – our very lives – are filled with notable moments, which also remind us that they are all inevitably fleeting towards the end point of that timeline: mortality itself. And so the photographic image becomes an affirmation of our very existence, one whose power is invariably addictive …”

I resist the word “addictive,” however, and would replace it with a converse, such as “needy.” The affirmations that come with photo-documenting one’s life only ever require more of the same in order to feel real, whole, permanent. We post photographs, and then post more photographs, not because we’ve become too attached to, too dependent on, the click-click of social-media love, but because the body of work we’re consciously or unconsciously creating is forever incomplete and, thus, dependent on us. The vast art project of self-documentation has no end, and if there is an addiction in this situation, it is one experienced by the project itself, not its makers.

All discussions of photography ultimately turn melancholy (thanks again, Sontag). But now we can surely be done with the reading of photography as “memento mori,” because photographs, as they’re overwhelming manufactured today, are more influenced by their interior mechanics and mechanisms, their hand-held cleverness, their raw and brutally instant abilities, all absorbed as a collective idea (by us, but more importantly by photography as a world in itself), than by our prevailing impulses, our mewling needs, at the moment of capture.

To put it simply, the fact that you can, in an instant, take hundreds of photographs, means the action of taking a photograph is now the driving force behind the photograph-taking impulse, not the resulting image(s). Only the whole matters, not the parts. The selecting of one photograph from one thousand, a proposition once burdened by all manner of economic and class hurdles (i.e. the cost of film development, acquisition of proper camera technique) – is today a moment’s work, a breath.

There is no pause, no reflective action now, but the opposite – an interiorized Panopticon where everybody’s a guard and everybody’s a prisoner. Photography is enjoying its “singularity” moment, a term speculative fiction writers use to describe the inevitable era when machines and information systems begin to exist for their own purposes.

The project of amassing photographs is now the defining project of photography.

1 Comment

  • Andrew Berardini says:

    Photography is memory, at least for me. A million visions, easily lost in a smear of time. When the darkest shadows creep into the long afternoons, I can glance at a picture and know that it was not always so, that despair is not a permanent condition, that there have been other places, even of joy, and there will be others still. To be seen is sometimes an act of sinister surveillance, but to be witnessed in this transient world, even if only by oneself in an unshared snapshot, helps just a little to keep one from disappearing into meaningless.

    I don’t wish to live forever, just to feel alive now, solid and present, seeing and being seen for as long as mortality allows.

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