Snapshots

03Jan12

Batchen, Geoffrey. ‘Snapshots’, Photographies, 1:2, 121 – 142, 2008.

[…] it could be said that snapshots are to the history of photography as photography is to the history of art; each represents a significant threat to the stability of its host discipline.

[Batchen describes three vernacular photographs]

It’s been said that Americans alone take about 550 snapshots per second, a statistic that, however it has been concocted, suggests that the taking of such photographs might best be regarded as a neurosis rather than a pleasure.

What should a history about the snapshot look like, be like, sound like?

But perhaps we should turn this problem around and look at it from the other side: the snapshot, precisely because this is the most numerous and popular of photographic forms, represents an interpretive problem absolutely central to any ambitious scholarship devoted to the history of photography.

Oblivious to the artistic prejudices that still guide much of that scholarship, family photographs challenge us to find another way of talking about photography, a way that can somehow account for the determined banality of these, and indeed most other, photographic pictures.

But to find that “other way” we are first going to have to displace, or at least complicate, existing models of writing about the history of photography.

[Batchen discusses written histories of photography]

These accounts established a coherently linear narrative occupied by a canon of photographic artists and master works drawn almost exclusively from Europe and the United States.

“A History” soon became “The History” and this has meant that a modernist art historical discourse, with its narrow emphasis on avant-garde practice and aesthetics remained the dominant way of talking about photography’s history throughout the twentieth century, whether this “talk” took the form of books or exhibitions.

Moreover, most photographs are actually about conformity, not innovation or subversion. So they don’t readily fit the usual art historical narratives.

If you examine cartes-de-visite portraits or snapshots or wedding pictures, to name just a few of photography’s many neglected genres, you’ll discover that each example captures a unique pose, even if that pose obediently repeats a million other, very similar poses. They are all the same, but they are all also just slightly different from each other. If we’re going to consider all of photography in its history, we will need to develop a way to deal with this visual and political economy of “same but different.”

A normative history that privileges avant-garde practice, even those practices that at some point contested the establishment of their own time, is still a normative history.

What I’m suggesting here is that we need an avant-garde approach to history, not another obedient history of the avant-garde.

To reiterate: the problem I have with our existing, standard histories of photography is not just a matter of content (of what’s included or excluded from that history). My concern is with the mode of historical discourse itself, and with the conceptual infrastructure on which this history is built.

How do you write a history for something that escapes easy definition, has no discernable boundaries, and operates on the principle of reflection (how, for example, do you separate a photograph from what it’s of or from the unfolding context of its reception)? How do you invent a voice (or voices) for this history that can speak to photography’s emotional effects as well as its physical and formal characteristics and economic and political ramifications? How can you speak of and from a local position and yet encompass photography’s global reach and its multiple expressions of cultural difference?

These questions collectively constitute the problem that now faces us; the need for a systemic transformation of the way the history of photography is represented such that this history can, for the first time, engage with photography in all of its many aspects and manifestations.

[Batchen discusses recent writers and scholars on photography]

This [Batchen’s] history necessarily features practices involving collective hands and/or now-unknown makers (many of them women), thereby displacing the biographical and phallocentric bias of most current photographic histories.

But principal among Visual Culture’s dangers, apparently, is its affinity with “anthropological discourse” and therefore with an analytical relativism that erases cultural and temporal specificities. [According to Hal Foster]

[Discussion of Hal Foster’s arguments about a ‘posthistorical reduction’]

Anthropology has traditionally looked at such activity as something that has utilitarian value. Images are created for some purpose. Images do things. They are social objects, not simply aesthetic ones. They are meaningful only when seen in relationship to a wider social network of beliefs and practices, economies and exchanges. As a consequence, I would argue that this view has so far enhanced, rather than reduced, an emphasis on the specificity of social context, and a sensitivity to the complications, ethical and otherwise, of writing in the face of difference.

Although Foster worries about the prevalence of the “disembodied image” within Visual Culture, scholars trained as anthropologists who consistently write about photography, such as Elizabeth Edwards and Christopher Pinney, have in fact insisted on a close attention to the materiality of their objects of study.

It is hard to deny that the “ethnographic turn” in Visual Culture encourages a skeptical attitude to the notion that there is “a sexuality” or “an unconscious” that somehow transcends the specificity of its historical circumstances. If there are many photographies, then, it follows, there can also potentially be many sexualities and even, perhaps, more than one unconscious.

The editors of October rightly feel that art history itself is at risk here and for some reason want to defend it, thus reinforcing their own continuing alliance with ruling-class values and interests.

But it’s precisely because I feel that history does indeed matter, and that an art history of photography is now so inadequate to the task at hand, that I gravitate to the still-open range of possibilities signified by Visual Culture.

For me, then, Visual Culture promises, not an alternative to our current ways of understanding the history of photography, but an eruption within that history which threatens to totally transform its existing parameters.

[Batchen asks how the snapshot can be incorporated into the histories of photography]

[…] the advent of digital technologies means that this kind of photography [snapshots] has now taken on an extra memorial role, “not of the subjects it depicts, but of its own operation as a system of representation”.

This suffuses snapshots with the aesthetic appeal of a seductive melancholy, whatever their actual age or the particularities of their subject matter. Certainly it’s hard now to see these rectangles of gelatin silver or vivid color, with their white edges and glossy sheen, except through a distorting haze of modernist nostalgia.

Urging women to become the family’s historian, Kodak aggressively associated the snapshot with memory and loss, and with specifically middle-class values and sentiments, and insisted that photography be regarded as an essential part of everyday life. This is certainly an important story to tell. But surely it’s not the only one.

[On a recent surge in the publication of books of snapshots]

Are these publications a tribute to the snapshot, or to the sharp eye of their collector/curator? Are they exercises in photo-history, or just in art appreciation and pseudo-morphism? What do these publications actually tell us about the snapshot as a cultural or social phenomenon or even as a personal experience? Answer: very little.

What they do tell us quite a lot about is the continuing influence of a certain kind of art history on the study of photography. More particularly, they imply that the making of value judgments – in Foster’s view an activity that separates art history from Visual Culture – is an appropriate way to go about making sense of snapshots.

[Batchen discusses Other Pictures and Photo-Trouve]

A representative history of the visual culture of photography has to acknowledge and account for boredom and ubiquity, the medium’s most abiding visual qualities.

Any study of the snapshot worthy of the name must surely address itself to the dynamics of this contradiction (boring picture for me, moving picture for you) by way of a theory of photographic reception. This means looking more closely at the relationship of the snapshot to a network of expectations and obligations extending far outside the picture itself. In short, it will mean having to consider the snapshot photograph as both a complex social device and a personal talisman, rather than simply as a static art object.

[On the vernacular photographs reproduced in the essay] We don’t know these people, and probably never will. But we can still imagine the scenario that has led to these moments, for this is an experience we have all shared.

As a collective activity of picture-making, snapshots show the struggles of particular individuals to conform to the social expectations, and visual tropes, of their sex and class; as I’ve already suggested, everyone simultaneously wants to look like themselves and like everyone else – to be the same but (ever so slightly) different. Before all else, snapshots are odes to conformist individualism.

Snapshots thereby work to reconcile personal and mass identity. But this social imperative still doesn’t entirely explain why we find our own snapshots to be so moving, given their otherwise low-brow aesthetic qualities.

Maybe we have to ask whether the relative lack of imagination shown in these sorts of photographs in fact shifts the burden of imaginative thought from the artist and subject, where historians usually seek it, to the viewer, who is invited by such pictures to see much more than meets the eye.

Certainly, when I examine a snapshot of a loved one, I see how they once looked, but I also project how I feel about that person onto the picture. The snapshot conjures how they were then and how I am now, in the same all-encompassing look.

[The materiality of the photo] It’s a reminder that snapshots could potentially be reproduced in large numbers but in reality they are often unique images. Such deformities are also a reminder that these pictures were once regularly touched by their original owners.

Snapshots are touchable objects but they are also often prompts for speech. The subjects of these snapshots were once named aloud, talked over, joked about, libeled and ridiculed, reinterpreted and contested in oral exchange. Snapshots were rarely contemplated in respectful silence and nor should they be now. But what is a snapshot when it has been rendered mute?

What else do found snapshots have to tell us, beyond the sad fact of their own death as meaningful personal artifacts?

Well, they might also be regarded as a collective declaration of faith in the midst of an increasingly skeptical, secular world. Like every photograph, the snapshot is an indexical trace of the presence of its subject, a trace that both confirms the reality of existence and remembers it, potentially surviving as a fragile talisman of that existence even after its subject has passed on.

It is the need to provide witness to this existence – to declare “I was here!” in visual terms – that surely drives us to keep on photographing, rather than the intrinsic qualities of the picture that results.

We have to have them (to know we have them), but we don’t necessarily have to see them. The irony is that we take photographs in order to deny the possibility of death, to stop time in its tracks and us with it.

But that very same photograph, by placing us indisputably in the past, is itself a kind of mini-death sentence, a prediction of our ultimate demise at some future time. It certifies times past and time’s inevitable passing. Every snapshot, no matter what its subject matter, embodies this paradoxical message, speaking simultaneously of life and death.

[On Bourdieu] Among other things, he points out that family snapshots can be taken with any sort of camera, and that, equally, a snapshot camera can take a variety of kinds of picture; what makes a snapshot a snapshot is its function, not its pictorial qualities, and this function is determined by the network of social relationships of which it is a part.

[On snapshots] We have to have them (to know we have them), but we don’t necessarily have to see them.

This influential essay – part autobiographical novel, part philosophical rumination – is also an account of photography in which the snapshot experience is, for once, given a central role.

I have argued elsewhere that Camera Lucida, with its carefully calibrated choice of illustrations, its peculiar temporal convolutions, its supplementary logic, binary terms, and inverted layout (a layout in fact borrowed from Walter Benjamin’s 1931 “Little History of Photography”), offers an historical view of photography that is deliberately structured like a photograph.

In short, the book seeks to tell us certain things about photography by itself becoming photographic, by giving us a specifically photographic experience.

Like Benjamin before him, Barthes burrows into the very flesh of photography by allowing his text to take on many of its most salient attributes, such as the play between negative and positive that is at the heart of most photographic practices.

Abandoning chronology as an organizing principle, he looks primarily at ordinary photographs, rather than masterworks, opening up the entire field of photography for examination and eschewing any reliance on art historical prejudices. Aiming only to be representative, rather than comprehensive, Barthes even proffers the possibility of a history based on just one (unseen) photograph.

In short, the analytical approach demonstrated by Camera Lucida produces a history that is actually about photography, not just of photographs.

Barthes thus does something that none of these other histories of the snapshot has dared to do – he describes the essential snapshot, but does not make it visible, demanding that we do that work for him in our mind’s eye. As a consequence, infinity and zero – every snapshot ever taken and this evoked, but forever absented one – are made to turn in on each other without pause.

Using Camera Lucida as a possible model for another mode of historical accounting, I have proposed we adopt a similar sort of analytical oscillation to the one found there, a back and forth between whatever orphaned examples of snapshot culture we encounter in the world and our own prized photographic reliquaries, between cliche and sublimity, sameness and difference, truth and fiction, public and private, infinity and zero, without letting either term ever rest on its laurels.

For it is surely only here, here within the unstable spacing of this kind of oscillation, that a truly photographic history for the snapshot can plausibly be staged.

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