Photography used to be a very ‘hands on’ physical process. The large format cameras that, for example, Ansel Adams, carted around the great American landscape and the chemical manufacture of a final image, it was very evident what was being produced. The photographer would end up with ‘a photograph’ that others may be invited to view. There are hundreds of photographs in my parents’ loft, documenting the holidays and key events of family life. Ironically it was Kodak that first produced the digital camera, which would ultimately lead to the company’s demise. The onscreen existence of the digital image and the ease at which it can be reproduced and distributed makes it very difficult to put a value on the original. If Vincent Van Gogh painted 100 exact copies of the Sunflowers would each one be worth the same? Would his initial painting be worth less because of the 99 other exact representations of the same scene. Bull (2009, p. 27) refers to this as ‘dematerialisation of the image’, that we increasingly live in a virtual world of copies – similacra – for which the real original has been lost.
We live in what Manovich calls ‘the society of the screen’ (Manovich 2001: 94). Previously a photograph taken at a party maight not be seen by everyone in the photograph when it is developed, whereas today photographs uploaded to web 2.0 sites such as Facebook, can be tagged and shared amongst entire groups of people . The ability to look at images on mobile, handheld devices often returns the image to a social object to be passed around and discussed (Manovich 2001: 114). Hundreds of thousands of photographs are stored in the attics of houses, never to be viewed again with such interest and meaning. iPads and other hand held devices have enabled photographs to be shared and enjoyed, easily accessible on social networking sites.
Bull (2009) refers to this digital image as ‘transient photography’. It is able to be manipulated, transmitted and at risk of being erased. It is the kind of photography most people now make, use and view most of the time.
Rather than fixed, physical objects such as negatives, prints and frames, transient photography centres on virtual, changeable elements such as digital files that are produced, reproduced, transmitted digitally and not printed, but viewed on screens. It could also be argued that digital files enable the image to last longer than the life of printer ink. Printed photographs will one day fade away. Maybe in the future people will be campaigning for the protection and survival of the Internet since so much of our lives exist within it.
Photography is a continually evolving media that has enabled great advances in science, technology, exploration and communication. Despite this success, there is a longing sense of guilt within the photographic community that photography has betrayed it’s roots, and that just as the photographer is usually absent for his/her photographs, photography itself is in danger of being absent from its own history.
Bull, S. (2009) Photography. Oxford: Routledge
Manovich (2001) The Language of New Media. Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology