10 March 2008

Memories are made of this

I've just posted a response over on photo.net's Philosophy of Photography forum which is probably not going to do my cultural credibility much good. At the same time, I feel it's important, so ... in for a penny, in for a pound.

The thread, "Every Photograph is worthy", was started by Nic Bower:

"...when I look at any photograph produced in a different time or generation, I find interest in it. It could be a standard family snap shot but if it was produced 30 or more years before - it invites or commands a deeper interest or delight or pleasure from fresh eyes not belonging to the time when the photograph was produced. What a fantastic. amazing medium photography is; almost every photograph from anyone ever taken will be considered valuable by someone."
(Nic Bower, Mar 10, 2008; 09:56 a.m.)

Following that are several responses; I recommend reading the whole stream, including the opening lines which I have clipped above. As I write this, nobody has come back at me for my two penn'orth; (but I expect they will) so it closes the sequence for the time being. Fore those who read here but not there, here it goes:

I have to pluck up the courage for this [gulp] but ... I'm with Nic on this one.

There are different kinds of value and worth ... kinds, not levels.

Most of the emphasis here in photo.net is on functional or 'high art' worth - functional being, just for example, anything from social documentary to wedding or sports work, while by high art I mean the image as an æsthetic object in its own right.

Those are both important and worthwhile. But they are neither the only kinds of worth nor more important than other kinds.

Snapshot photography is many things: again taking only two examples, it is individual self examination of a unique kind on a mass scale and at the same time a single social artefact.

I think all those inane shots of Bob and Tash getting progressively rat-arsed in a bar in Ayia Napa, and the growing pains of Sam (age 3 months), and the repetitive strain of Aunt Agatha recording every park bench in Christendom, are wonderful and epic.

Yes ... unlike [the response contributor preceding mine], I would go so far as to say that every cellphone snap is worthy. Not worthy or epic in the same way as Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941, nor for the same reasons, nor on the same scale, nor for the same people, nor even in the same cultural universe ... but equally so, yes.
(Felix Grant, Mar 10, 2008; 04:34 p.m.)

One question that occurs to me, in response to suggestions that one type of image is worthy and another is not, is: worthy of what, exactly?

There's another aspect to mass snapshot photography, which I didn't mention above. For the past three months, I've been privileged to have access to the ongoing project notebook of Sue Bamford, an artist working on a theme of memory, and the experience has quite profoundly changed the ways in which I see the relation between memory and image.

The nature of memory is an elusive and intriguing thing. Artistic memory is structured in particularly nuanced and layered ways, which make externally visible those mechanisms which are usually hidden and unconscious. Mass snapshot photography is stripped down and unsubtle, by comparison: it serves as the concrete armature upon which agreed versions of memory can be constructed between individuals who might otherwise have very different memories of the same events. Beyond that, it now serves a very similar function for society as a whole. Social memory is the total body of all photographs (I include video) taken ... and if "professional" images provide the underlying skeleton of that social memory, mass snapshots provide the flesh which give it life and form. It may not be great art, or the sort of memory we would chose to have ... but it's how we, as a single extended social meta organism, see ourselves.