Reflections on recent events in and around the shifting digital photography storage debate
From its inception photography has concerned itself with the nature of flux and change. Consider Eadweard Muybridge's motion studies for example. In a world increasingly concerned with speed and the efficiency of mechanical reproduction, Muybridge set out to stop the passage of time so the viewer might see what the naked eye couldn't any longer register. Muybridge was also a pioneer in another sense. His technical advances were almost avant garde, that is in the sense that his innovative use of slower shutter speeds allowed the viewer access to an unseen world. His equipment however was bulky, cumbersome and beyond the use of almost everyone except a few specialists in the field.¹
However as the medium grew and became more popularist, another sense of transition and flux emerged, one that Muybridge attempted to render obsolete. With cheaper, more portable cameras a different sense of the world in motion appeared. People's gestures, faces, habits and homes all were made visible, not just to themselves in private but to another flux, to history. Sometimes blurred, sometimes darkened, often anonymous these faint imprints of everyday lives and events didn't need to create a still life in its traditional sense but to just render the world as being there.
Now flash forward to today's digital climate, where millions of images are daily pushing and jostling for space, where every event is taken from often thousands of viewpoints, the image no longer a ghost of the world, but the world virtually obsolete without its rendering. A world where, for relatively little outlay, anyone can capture almost anything in all its aspects, from the macro to huge swathes of landscape without having to be technically any more than sufficent.
Where then does the validity for photography as a unique medium lay today? I think part of the answer must be in the uses of photography as a whole. For example, photography can capture sporting events, a bullet as it leaves a gun, major as well as minor events, but more importantly, since it can capture everything simultanously it must be this ubiquity that now lays at the forefront of critical awareness.
To assume that photography in all its myriad guises simply speaks for itself if presented from end to end isn't democratic as it sounds. To display all images side by side without any clear criteria or critique is at best, negligent and naive. For example, if somebody cares to post a million photographs this will invaribly drown out the person who cares to post just one². Muybridge didn't endlessly repeat his experiments in time and motion, like a precursor to Warhol, but created what he considered the best examples to contemplate a unique moment in time. Muybridge often destroyed plates that he considered unpleasing or more importantly unrepresentative. Being editorial should be the first cue for any photographer. Anyone who believes a million images made by themselves will be all of equal value must be simply seeking quantity over quality. This isn't democratising the digital image but an attempt to drown out mediocrity through mass consumption .
This brings us to a salient point about contemporary digitised photography. Who is its custodian, where and by who is it best stored and displayed?. Undoubtedly time will erase and forget a vast portion of what we see and do each day, but unlike those early snapshots, where the physical object is often all that remains to state their existence, today, these images often lay without print. So their manifestation in a digital format is of the upmost significance. Today's digitalised, democratised familiarity with the photograph in general could potentially be its guardian or its prison guard.
Perhaps giving space to an image or a set of images has again become an absolute necessity for photography. I do not mean that there should be less or more images but that images shouldn't be rolled out like the world itself but held with curatorial distance, where once again the magic might appear out of the emptiness.
¹ For the best account of Muybridge's innovations see: Rebecca Solnit, Motion Studies: Time, Space & Eadweard Muybridge (Bloomsbury, 2004).
² i'm thinking here particularly of Thomas Hawk, but the author reserves the right to critical opinion and no personal critique is intended see thomashawk.com/