The Digital Image in Photographic Culture

Daniel Rubinstein and Katrina Sluis (2013) base their two conceptions of the image on how photography is represented in two films: Titanic and Memento

In the penultimate scene in Titanic, the photographs that appear beside Rose on her death-bed illustrate significant moments from her life, ordered chrologically after surviving the sinking of the Titanic. If a person's life could be retold in sentences, then the photographs would be the full stops, exclamation marks and question marks. They represent significant, memorable events which can be viewed and compared with each other, chronologically. 

Meanwhile, Memento includes a series of polaroids, to help Leonard, an amnesia sufferer, identify his wife's killer. The photographs give Leonard 'points of access that allow movement from one temporality to another' Rubinstein and Sluis, 2013: 23). Instead of one chronological route through the photographs, there is a multiplicity of storylines.

Photo albums enable us to organise and catalogue photographic memories. If they are stored in a physical album, then they will usually be in chronological order. This enables the viewer to move forwards and backwards through time. Meanwhile, photographs which are stored digital are able to be accessed in a multimodal fashion. This can include clicking on links for different categories or typing in keywords to retrieve images with a corresponding tag. Furthermore, 'Timehop', on Facebook, pushes images taken in previous years. Distant memories are brought to the forefront of a person's thoughts.   

Rubinstein and Sluis (2013) refer to photography as a 'two-faced Janus', because it points in two directions. Firstly, one side faces the 'real world' people, places and events, transforming them into a two dimensional object. Meanwhile, the other side faces the repetition and reproduction of those photographs.  

 

The Digital Condition of Photography

In his essay, 'The Digital Condition of Photography: Cameras, computers and display', David Bate (2013, 78) sets himself apart from the critics and supporters of 'digital culture', by stating another position that:

enquires into and considers the specific 'digital' condition of the photographic image in relation to the social identity of 'photography' as a system for the inscription of visual images.

On reflection, I can see how different generations could attribute a different 'social identity' to photography. I can still remember receiving an envelope containing my photographic prints, after waiting an hour for them to be developed. The strip of negatives, included in the packet, was a reminder of the darkroom process that had been necessary to make the exposures. There was always a sense of excitement to look at photographs, which had been taken so long ago, that it was a surprise to see what they were. There was also a sense of despair when some of the prints included quality control stickers because they were blurred, underexposed or overexposed. I wonder how many moments have been consigned to the bin, unseen again. 

Today's digital generation have never known anything different. After taking a photo, they can instantly review, save or delete it. They have an abundance of opportunities to capture the right image, which has the potential to be shared across the world. Today's digital society is drowning in a sea of images, which are being produced as quickly as water flowing from a tap. Bate (2013) recognises how the permeation of images across society blurs the distinguishing features of photographic practices.

Exercise 4.4: The selfie revisited: testimony or trophy?

In 2013, the Oxford English Dictionary attributed ‘selfie’ with ‘word of the year’. Everyone and anyone seemed to be taking selfies. Celebrities with other celebrities, and celebrities with their adoring fans. Taylor Swift commented that:

I haven’t been asked for an autograph since the invention of the iPhone with a front-facing camera. The only momento ‘kids these days’ want is a selfie.” 

During 2015, 24 billion selfies were uploaded. The latest smart phones now have a second, front facing camera, which enables the user to photograph themself at arms length, ensuring they’re in the frame. It would appear as though this was a recent phenomenon, which  has transformed our image making culture. However, the practice of taking self-portraits can be traced back throughout the history of photography. 

Even when photography was in its infancy, photographers were taking photographs of themselves. If the definition of a selfie is a self-portrait, then it is widely believed that the first selfie was created by amateur chemist and photography enthusiast Robert Cornelius’ (below), which he took in 1839. 

Self-portrait, by Robert Cornelius

Self-portrait, by Robert Cornelius

However, others insist that a selfie is a photograph taken using a digital device and posting it online. Therefore the first known modern selfie was taken and posted online by an Australian student, called Hopey, in September 2002 (below). It shows the injuries that he sustained from tripping over during a 21st birthday party.  

The first modern selfie, by Hopey.

The first modern selfie, by Hopey.

Before the addition of a front-facing camera on digital devices, people had to make do with photographing themselves in bedroom and bathroom mirrors. They would go to great lengths to capture themselves looking their best. 

On Instagram there are over 328,000,000 images tagged with #selfie. So why has taking selfies become so popular?  

Previously, if you wanted your photograph taken in front of a famous landmark, you might have politely asked a stranger if they could use your camera. However, due to the amount of private and personal information stored on expensive smart phones, it is understandable as to why people would want to take the photograph themselves. Furthermore, the increase in popularity of social networking sites such as Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook has provided digital natives with a platform to post images of themselves. 

Despite its popularity, not everyone is a fan of the selfie. The urge for people to photograph themselves and publish the results of their social media is considered to be narcissistic by some. The aim of many posters is to accumulate as many ‘likes’ for their selfie as possible. However, Schwarz (2010: 180) warns that: ‘extracting value from your body is a risky game. A high stakes example of this would be on dating apps, such as Tinder, whereby a single swipe determines how desirable a selfie is.

Conversely, the selfie could be viewed as an acceptable form of self-expression. After all artists, such as Picasso and Van Gogh often painted their own self-portrait, so why should it be any different for a photographer?  

Reference

Schwarz, Ori (2010) ‘On Friendship, Boobs and the Logic of the Catalogue: Online Self-Portraits as a Means for the Exchange of Capital’, Convergence 16( 2): 163–283

 

Disposable photos

Researchers at Pennsylvania State University have made some interesting discoveries about how teenagers use Instagram. Jang et al (2016) investigated the differences between how teenagers and adults use Instagram.

Having grown up with social networking, it would be presumed that teenagers would post far more photographs than the adults. However one of Jang st al’s findings was that, whilst these digital natives like and comment more on others’ images, they actually post less photographs. It isn’t cool to have lots of images clogging up your feed. As well as that, any images that receive few likes are removed. The vast majority of images on teenager’s Instagram accounts are the ones that they hold dearly. These images are statements about looks, emotions and possessions.  

If an image has not been well-received, then it is deleted. Generally speaking, teenagers do not hoard images. They serve a purpose, as a means of communication, and then they are disposed of when they are no longer needed.  

Subsequently, this behaviour has the potential to affect the evolution of photography in two ways. Firstly, if less photographs are being saved, what will happen to this generation’s historical archive? Also, how will photography develop as a meaningful method of communication? After all, emojis and memes are a very common in digital culture.

 

Reference

Jang J. et al. (2016) Teens Engage More with Fewer Photos: Temporal and Comparative Analysis on Behaviors in InstagramAssociation for Computing Machinery: Halifax 

http://pike.psu.edu/publications/ht16.pdf 

 

Archive Noises

In his chapter, Archive Noises, Joan Fontcuberta (2014) attempts to define the role and purpose of photography in modern society. Since its existence was announced at the Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Fine Arts, by scientist and politician, François Arago on the 19th August 1839, Fontcuberta (2014) defines modern photographic practice as a discourse between documentation and experimentation, and between memory and forgetting. In other words, the photograph enables us to capture details which the human eye might miss, and serve as a prompt to recall visual data, which would otherwise be forgotten.  

Read More