Friday, July 15, 2011

Ain't gonna hang no picture frame (13 Jan 2009)

Rob Walker recently posted about Polaroid's efforts to survive in the digital-camera era. It now intends to offer the PoGo, a digital camera that comes with a built in printer. Judging by the AP review Walker cites, both the camera and printer are somewhat rudimentary, yielding small, low-res prints. This, Walker suspects, will prove to be a feature rather than a bug, since "the imperfections and limitations of actual Polaroid pictures were, in a way, part of their appeal."

This got me thinking about photos as artifacts, as specific objects that acquire a patina. Part of what makes photos worth saving is not their content alone, the image itself, but also the history that the object itself accumulates as it becomes like a heirloom. And as printing an image becomes more onerous and unnecessary, old photos seem to become valuable in and of themselves, as souvenirs of lost technologies, like old 78s or rotary phones. I wouldn't want to take the photos I have in box, scan them all, and throw them away (as I did with my CDs after I ripped them to my hard drive). The physical collection has a gravity to it that would be lost and would probably become inconceivable if it were digitized. Handling the objects seems to affect the feelings I have about what I am seeing. (I feel the same way about my long-since-scattered record collection, sacrificed because of NYC-apartment space constraints.) Paging through photo albums, too, is utterly different than scrutinizing image pools online. (This line of thinking makes me wonder if I should print my blog out and bind it, stick it with my college notebooks.)

With actual printed photos, there is a sense that something delicate and ineffable has managed to survive, a small miracle amidst the rampant image destruction we experience in our disposable culture. They seem to have an occult power, as pictures in lockets sometimes seem portentous, mystically imbued with significance. Digitization, though, puts photos in the same category with flickering TV images, meant to be consumed and forgotten after being experienced as entertainment. A physical archive seems to put them in a category with paintings, which invite us to take the time for contemplation. Digital photos are pushing prints further into the rarefied realm of fine art, the audience for them will most likely become reduced to those with the appropriate cultural capital -- the aesthetic appreciation training and so on.

Anyway, as a result of all this, I find digital-image frames strange and sad. Would you really stop to contemplate an image in a digital frame? Particularly one that will rotate new images into view like the billboards on bus shelters rotate ads? A certain contempt for memory seems to be built in to this technology. It encourages us to regard nothing framed as permanent, and by extension it prompts us to consider every impulse we might have to frame and preserve a particular image as provisional. The disregard for permanence embodied in such devices as this may establish a kind of material base for institutionalized forgetting. (I typed that sentence a few minutes ago, and now have come back to this and have no idea what I was getting at. Talk about forgetting.) History could be effaced, 1984-style, but worse, we could be convinced by the sorts of things we have in our culture that we shouldn't even bother with memories. (When people from my high school who I never talked to contact me through Facebook as though we were friends, I have this sense that memory is already under attack -- technology affords such interconnectivity that it seems to undermine the finality of choices made in the past, as though they never happened.) There may be no reason to automatically assume that memory preservation is inherently important to us. Given the right conditions, and a certain kind of society fixated on novelty, we could end up with every incentive to try to forget as much as possible, and have new images in our digital frames on a quarter-hourly basis.

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