A Collections of Notes While Photographing Near the World's Most Photographed Places
[Published in: Kapsula Magazine, Crisis 2/3, August 2013]
Prior to the digital revolution we had things—for better or worse—that we could identify as real. The Eiffel Tower was a place, and the photograph of it came from a negative that was as real as the cobblestones the photographer walked along to reach it. A digital image, however, consists of a much more abstract construction, and while it still requires a physical lens to concentrate its image over a digital sensor, the result remains at best a mathematical conglomeration of 1s and 0s that nothing less than a computer could intelligibly interpret. It is a coded message that simultaneously seems more complex and more akin to the reality it attempts to represent.
Tourism offers a uniquely ideal backdrop to explore the cultural transition of the photograph as it fades into digital obscurity. It is here that we most desperately try to record our experience and relentlessly point our cameras. Here, in the most pictorially reproduced places in the world, we choose to take the most pictures. From Instagram posts to Tumblr blogs, a vacation's worth of images clogging our hard drives, cell phone cameras and GoPro helmet cams, the sheer amount of data we create provokes a re-consideration of these recordings' purpose. Where once a few rolls of film would have sufficiently described the world around us, now returning from a trip with thirty-six or so images would be considered idiotic. We choose to create digital memories, and lots of them, so that others may enjoy our experiences for us.
A single photograph from this body of work speaks most eloquently about these issues. In Camera Portrait #9 a woman stands with her right hand covering her eyes and her left clenching a digital camera. It resembles a staged photograph as much as a documentary image. It was taken in the exact place where millions of photographs have been taken before. It says more about photography than I ever could, yet rightfully raises more questions than it answers. It brims with the contradictions we find ourselves trapped within today. It offers an ode to the digital photographer—every one of us—as we collectively stare into our screens, creating a world we wish was as simple and perfect as it appears on the back of our digital camera.
Perhaps the sound of a digital camera re-enacting the physical shutter's click offers the greatest metaphor for the transition from analogue to digital media. Like the photograph, the comforting sound of the metallic clink, signifying that a picture has been taken, too has been digitized. There are lots of metallic clinks at tourist spaces. Too many, one could argue, for our own good. The authoritative, singular photograph that was once associated with analogue photography is rapidly reaching its end and digital technology is providing a new role for the photograph—one that sees it as a small part of a complex, connected and networked system. As I photographed near the world's most photographed places I realised that the photographers themselves were often the most intriguing elements of these historic landscapes. They glared into the backs of their cameras, and I imagined them being bathed by the light of their glowing screens, preferring the simplicity of their compositions to the spectacle of the tourist site.
The shift of the photograph from its physical form into digital data points to lost referents and a loss of the symbiotic relationship it shared with the material world. But it also points to a new way of seeing the world. The practical limits of analogue photography were once a burden to the casual photographer and tourists, who would limit their precious film consumption, as it was expensive and a pain to deal with. One photograph of the Colosseum was enough to express our desire to share what we've witnessed. Today we take more because we can, and the slightest variants between our photographs surely represent more time considering how we photograph as opposed to what we photograph. Whereas a photograph was once a means of sharing experiences, we now obsess over the act of photographing. In theory, our photographs share what we are doing on vacation, but what are we showing when all we are doing is taking pictures?
In 2005 artist Robert Burley began documenting the death of traditional photography. Titled "Disappearance of Darkness," the project led Burley across Canada, Europe and the United States in search of the signs of this demise, usually in the form of facility closures. Factories that had been in operation since the beginnings of the production of film were closing at an alarming rate. Photographic film was becoming redundant, its function usurped by the efficiency and popularity of the digital sensor. Burley describes his work: "[T]he act of dissolving blocks of silver into ditric acid, mixing it with the tissue of animals and coating it onto film and paper—all so the world could partake in one of the world's most fascinating and important inventions—was coming to a rapid halt."
Photographic film as we know it has been around for over one hundred and fifty years, but its near disappearance has only taken a fraction of this time. Burley's fascination with this demise was spurred by reflecting on his reliance on these traditional materials over his entire photographic career, and the inevitable questions about what would happen next. Within his body of work we find images of demolition, abandoned buildings and stripped interiors. Implosions of Buildings 65 and 69, Kodak Park, Rochester, New York [#2], 2007, however, remains perhaps the most iconic of them all. Burley directed his camera at the media cameras as they attempted to capture the moments during and after the demolition of a historic Kodak building. The photograph is lit by an eerie glow, as the dust and debris seem to have made taking any kind of photograph of the building's implosion impossible.
In its final moments the Kodak building escaped any form of representation, its debris instead creating a great, blinding veil that raised the question: with the death of analogue photography, what will happen next?
The Atlantic Symposium: Art Crit As Nowhere...Or Everywhere?, Canadian Art
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