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I’ve not posted for ages, I know- I have assignments and exams. I have found this essay I wrote in first year and thought I would share it with you…

Domestic Photography and Digital Photography

We are told we are living in time of one of the greatest cultural revolutions man has seen. The ‘Digital Revolution’ has been claimed by some to be more influential to the cultural development of mankind than the Renaissance. It has changed the way we communicate, work and spend our leisure time. It has the potential to make our lives simpler and increase our potential for productivity, creativity and knowledge. In terms of photography, digital methods of image capture and manipulation have been met with both trepidation and excitement. The question of photographic truth has been challenged in terms of documentary and photojournalism. While other areas of photography, such as advertising, art and fashion have welcomed the creativity afforded to them with the chance to manipulate images with such ease. This essay will look at domestic photography and the phenomenon of the ‘snapshot’ and how this has changed, if it has, with the advent of digital. I will ask if our personal photographs have changed their meaning, have the photographs themselves changed and what are the likely changes to be in the future?
Since George Eastman introduced the ‘Box Brownie’ camera photography moved from being strictly a past time for the rich upper classes to the masses. Mass production of cameras meant they became cheap and easily available. Hardware design brought portability and, essentially, ease of use. Film that could be contained in small cartridges and developed at professional labs meant that darkrooms and expensive chemicals were no longer needed to produce prints. Photography grew to influence every part of our lives with many genres. We learnt the ‘language’ of the photograph and it became the most widely used form of visual representation. Photographs are used to sell things but they are also a commodity themselves. Equipment and the means to produce photographs have been marketed as both a leisure activity and a means to represent our leisure time and therefore our identities (Slater 1995b)
In the 1950s Russell A. Kirsch developed a means for images to be scanned into a computer and stored as binary information. In his 1994 essay, ‘The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post Photographic Era’ Mitchell tells us of digital images made up of discrete integers (pixels) that can be continuously copied without degradation as well as easily manipulated and that these technological differences lead to a change in cultural meaning. As stated previously this difference was met both positively and negatively but in terms of domestic photography digital has largely been embraced. The reasons for the popularity of digital for the consumer are obvious and many. No darkroom is needed just a PC and easy to use software in their electronic forms photographs are easy to view and share: snapshots are now out of the proverbial shoebox and in cyberspace. Complementary technology such as the internet, powerful PCs, microchips and DVDs have now advanced to make pictures easier to capture, share, store and view. The cameras are small; they don’t need film and are easy to use. Like the first consumer cameras of Kodak they are heavily marketed as desirable gadgets that your life is not complete without, just as is the other digital must-have gadget: the ipod. Furthermore, because pictures can be viewed before printing consumers only need to pay for the prints they want and they can improve their skills much more quickly through trial and error. Photographs can easily be ‘improved’ using manipulation software such Photoshop.
Apart from improving exposure, composition and other technical issues there is the potential to remove unwanted characters from pictures, or change their appearance, or change other aspects, location or weather for example. This gives more creativity but goes against the traditional reason to take a snapshot: to record. Our snapshots are our memories, they show we went on that holiday, that is our family, we were there when that happened. We look at our photographs when we want to be reminded of these things. So, with the currency of photographic truth so devalued has the snapshot and the family album lost its worth?
Manovich (2003) claims that digital photography does not exist:

‘If we limit ourselves by focusing solely, as Mitchell does, on the abstract principles of digital imaging, then the difference between a digital and a photographic image appears to be enormous. But if we consider concrete digital technologies and their uses, the difference disappears.’

The technology employed to create a photograph is irrelevant, the pictures we take are still essentially the same; it is the context and the currency of the image that is changed in the digital world. Family snapshots capture sentimental idealised moments whether they are captured on an analogue or digital camera. Decisions made in composing a shot or editing a photo album are manipulations in just as a profound way as making adjustments in Photoshop are. For me the ability to share pictures is much more profound. Slater (1995b) tells us that ‘we construct ourselves for the image and through images.’ We represent ourselves though our snapshots. Now we have ability display these representations: they can quickly and cheaply be sent electronically around the world instead of remaining in the dusty photo album. So the advantages of digital photography for the consumer are clear. In the UK Jessops has discontinued selling 35mm cameras and the choice is increasingly limited. Yet photography is relatively new part of our digital entertainment lifestyles. Computers, video game consoles, digital music players and televisions have been in the home for years and are becoming the integrated norm in Western households. Slater (1995b) tells us our leisure time is increasingly centred around the home with sets of options or programmes (television channels, DVD titles, options for playing computer games for example) to structure our leisure time and allow media companies to sell us specific products. While choosing and using a camera falls within this structure (models available to buy and the options on a camera’s menu for example) the viewing of domestic pictures does less so. Traditionally the photo album may have only been brought out when relatives came to visit or someone died. Recently however companies such as Flickr and Ringo have emerged to allow consumers to both store and show their pictures. Programmes such as these really are the digital equivalent of the traditional photo album.

Unfortunately, however, despite no such structure imposed upon us regarding what we take pictures of the vast majority is ‘regarded as a great wasteland of trite and banal self-representation’ (Slater 1995b). We buy the equipment and develop the pictures but despite the potential for creativity discussed earlier little thought is given to their meaning and what they represent. Perfect examples of this are holiday snapshots. Throngs of people will queue to take a picture in the same places on front of monuments or sunsets in a sheep like manner without thinking what the place means to them personally. Take the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, Paris. People fight to the front to take a picture and don’t take time to look at it. They want a picture because it has become a well known commodity, marketed as a work of genius and replicated countless times. They think it infers artic genius or at least an appreciation of it onto them. With a little thought and imagination they could represent the painting and themselves in much better way than the conventional snapshot.

Photography has been described as the form of expression for the masses in the modern era and follows that digital photography should be for the post-modern era. Yet the photograph, however it is captured and whatever it represents, is still within the frame of reference of the traditional form of photography. If images are a complex series of signs given meaning by their place in our shared culture (Hall 1997) then it is unsurprising that they have not changed yet. Digital photography is still relatively new and social trends do not change over night. Yet with so much of decisions about our lives made for us can we expect domestic to photography to ‘grow up’? Slater (1995b) identifies three ‘utopian demands or hopes’ reflecting the contradictions of domestic photography.
1. ‘Potential empowerment’ – telling our own stories rather copying others.
2. ‘Potential of demystification’ – understanding the world around us and ourselves rather than accepting others’ interpretations.
3. ‘Potential for cultural politics’ – self produced images to counter those of the mass media.

Slater seems pessimistic about these hopes, indeed ‘utopian’ suggests unattainable. Ten years on we see news broadcasts increasingly using images from members of the public. People take pictures of parts of their lives they would not have before with phone cameras always available. However, perhaps the camera is no longer the first choice for representing the self in the post-modern period. If any machine can do this today it is the computer. Cameras are now a part of the computer and photography just one many forms of self-expression. Think of the blogs coming out of Baghdad during the coalition led assault and occupation have not been sanctioned or published by any media group, they are personal views using writing, images and recorded sound.
It is certain digital photography as a commodity is a success but commerciality is suppressing the potential for creativity. More photographs do not automatically equal better photographs. It is clear it is cultural influences that will bring changes in our domestic picture facilitated not dictated by technology. Photographs themselves do not hold the same power they used to just as written text lost out to the image. Slater talks of our lives becoming increasingly centred on the home yet through our computers we can communicate with others better than ever before. Perhaps it is computers and the Internet that will become the foremost representational tool in the digital post-modern age with photography stepping back to become just one aspect. Yet it is important to remember this is a digital revolution and it is very difficult to tell where revolution will end.

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~ by peterdarch on May 19, 2007.

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