Artifacts and raw materials: a few thoughts on our changing relationship with photographs

Discussing their 1994 telephone survey, Rosenzweig and Thelen count “taking photographs to preserve memories” among a number of other “past-related ‘activities'” interviewees engaged in. That certainly seems a reasonable way to categorize photography…but I wonder if the meaning has changed somewhat.

Everything is digital now. (Okay, not everything, and dark rooms still exist; but digital cameras, as standalone devices or cell phone features, are widely used and available, and the survey was all about broad patterns anyway.) Popular photography is no longer artifact-based. You used to take a picture, get the film developed, and have your artifact. Yes, you could create copies from the negative or duplicate your photograph, and professionals or hobbyists who did their own developing might choose to work magic in the dark room to get special visual effects. But still, the ultimate goal was an artifact.

Now, you get a file. Mostly .jpgs, though you might opt to play with your digital camera’s raw files (or just save them, the way we do, much like we have old negatives sitting around “just in case”). It is trivial to duplicate that file. You can send it to people or get prints. It’s also easy to manipulate the file. Crop it, change the size, Photoshop it to your heart’s content. (At least, I assume any picture I take is ripe for alteration. I may be a bit of an outlier, since I’ve had jobs and/or hobbies that involved some graphics work…but a modest slate of photo manipulation options seems to be commonly available in various free tools, so I suspect the idea of “fixing it in post-production” is reasonably widespread.) But the end result is, while the photographs are still taken to preserve the memory, they are not taken to create an artifact to preserve the memory.

I’m not sure what this means. I suspect it is an evolutionary change, rather than a revolutionary change. It provides the photographer (and anyone else with access to the digital file) more options to interact with the image. I suspect the ability to Photoshop it lends a greater sense of ownership, makes the process of image creation more actively engaging. Options for digitally sharing photographs present more opportunities to describe and contextualize the image (potentially in multiple ways, tailored for different audiences).

I also suspect I’m not alone in having a profoundly disorganized and incomplete collection of physical photographs. The Daughter doesn’t have a baby book in the traditional sense; she has a blog routinely accessed by family and friends. I could make a baby book, or any other photo album, with a relatively modest effort. But I don’t know that the impulse to fetishize photo albums as physical objects would be engendered by their mere existence. They might be nice, and fun to flip through, but photo albums are no longer irreplaceable records of the past…as long as you’ve taken care to back up your hard drive.