Domestic Photography and Digital Culture


Slater, Don. ‘Domestic Photography and Digital Culture’ The Photographic Image in Digital Culture ed. by Martin Lister (London: Routledge, 1995) 129-146


The photographic image in the everyday of digital culture takes its shape and force within [the] mélange of domesticity, consumerism and leisure.


In sum, what is important in the development of domestic photography is not so much the digitisation of the photographic process, but rather the potential flows and convergences of images in the home as they are structured by digital domestic commodities.


This is a very popular fear-image: leisure commodities in the home far from being tools for engaging with everyday domestic life, structure it out of meaningful existence. Electronics, in this view, produce solipsism rather than sociality. Perhaps the future family will only exist in its snapshots, which are themselves integrated into the digital flow which destroyed it.


A framework for considering photography in digital culture might then involve looking not at a specific technological transformation of photography at all, but at the circulation of images within a domestic life structured around these forces of commodification and privatisation: what emerges more and more clearly are the convergences of media and communications technologies in the home and on holiday, but in the form of consumer leisure and entertainment.


Editing the family album is both an operation on memory and therefore upon personal and familial identity and their intense mutual dependency; as well as a construction of future memories in the photographic practice of the present. We construct ourselves for and through images.

[See Spence for more, and on what is edited out of the album]


[…] photography is being changed less by any internal technical or commercial tranformation of the way in which it is carried out, than by its relation to the dominant practices of the image in domestic life, practices which are evidently being technically transformed.


In brief, what is at stake in digital culture is the fate of self-representation through images.

It is possible however that neither the practice nor the metaphor of the family album is any longer central to identity formation, and that this might be due to the intensification of consumer culture and privatised leisure.

First, the ‘family album’ invokes a privileged relation to time, a sense that identity is structured through continuity and memory.

The images themselves have the status of icon: images with aura and halo, irreplaceable and materially bearing the past for us and for a family which transcends the individual.

As an interesting piece of market research unearthed in 1982, 39 per cent of respondants rated their family photos as the possessions they treasure most and would least like to lose […] These figures ring true intuitively and correspond to the feeling of existential loss we might feel when a treasured photo is lost or destroyed.

[describes research findings that these photographs are barely looked at and few are organised into anything like an album]

Thus the family album – in a concrete or metaphorical sense – is hypervalued yet plays little part in everyday life.


Taking pictures is a taken for granted part of leisure activities; but looking at them is marginal. We need to know they are there (and in a persistently existential sense) but they are not part of the everyday practices which involve images.

[comments of the success of consumer product PhotoCD which is marketed as a method of preserving and archiving rather than an activity for using photos or doing anything with them like organising in narrative albums]

[Slater suggests] there is an alternative metaphor which might capture the active relation of domestic images to contemporary everyday life: ‘the pinboard’, or even, ‘the wall’.

Instead of glueing photos into albums (arranged narratively in books; or as icons on the shrine of the mantelpeice) and therefore into a history, we rather pin and blu-tac them haphazardly onto surfaces and therefore into the moment, into the display and self-presentation of the present.

First, then, rather than a narrative or shrine, the pinboard evokes a haphazard, ephemeral and shifting collage which is produced by and within the activities of the present. […] Second, in this practical context, the photograph takes its place within a flow of other images – photographic and non-photographic, public and private.

The ‘photographic wall’ metaphor suggests a number of developments, none of which is new to digital culture but all of which are intensified within contemporary everyday life:

First, the images that have a live place in everyday life are those which are bound up with forms of practice rather than memory or commemoration, which are part of the instantaneous time of the consumerist present rather than a historical time marked by the family album.
[photographs have become] ways of acting out and embodying a relationship in the present.
Digital communications offer more ways of being there through images.

Second, one could argue that it is very much in keeping with the logic of consumerism that self-presentation rather than self-representation should play the largest role in identity formation.
[style/product choices – ] where identity is produced through a presentation of self in the moment, rather than in a reflective representation of it as (an imaginary) continuity over time.


Leisure, then, has come to mean the structuring of time through commodities. Taking photographs is itself structured […] and is considered an intrinsic part of other leisure event-structures: holidays, time-off, special occasions. It fits well into the commodification of leisure generally and is part of their commodification: we are encouraged to photograph our lives in such a way as to frame them as leisure events. Using photographs, however, does not fit the bill of leisure event, of a consumer practice or experience.


While snapshot photography seems shunted aside by this programming of imagery into leisure events, amateur photography probably fits in rather neatly. Hobbyist photography has always been intensively consumerist, being predominately focused on technical choices, skills and equipment.

Amateur photography has tended to reduce all concern with the content and purpose of of images to a minimum, the better to focus on formal technical qualities.


[Slater critiques 1970’s hope for ‘critical photographic practice in everyday life’. Three hopes described are 1. Domestic photography as empowered autobiography, 2. People would critique the dominant representations of themselves, 3. Self-produced representation could counter dominant media.]

The potential of empowerment has been forced upon us but has not been taken up within photography. Domestic photographs are the antiques of the postmodern world.

[Slater describes the snapshot as] both too serious (as realism, as trace of the past) and not serious atall (as a means of exploring the present, it has no truth claim).


[Slater concludes by questioning] whether the hopes that photography’s erstwhile potential to empower, demystify and politicise everyday life are likely to be furthered by the introduction of digital culture in the form of intensified leisure consumption. 


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