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Photographs as heirlooms

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Wednesday, Aug 22, 2007

With the digital cameras relatively cheap and ubiquitous, it may be that the printed photograph will start to assume some of the qualities vinyl LPs have taken on in recent years. The new ones being made seem hokey and anachronistic, while the authentic old ones have acquired an aura, have become rare, on the cusp of vanishing completely. Of course, there will always be fine-art photography, and people who school themselves in the arcane arts of the darkroom, but it seems that we should be beginning to mourn the death of the clumsy amateur snapshot, now that any images haphazardly captured digitally can be cleaned up after the fact by anyone who has downloaded Picasa. Already, the idea that we once had strips of negatives to go with our pictures seems as peculiar as the idea of having recorded answering machine messages on little tapes; yet the analog qualities of the film medium seem more recognizable than ever, more legible—odd to think that photography was once regarded as a near-transparent medium, now that digital photography has supplanted it, providing even more convenience and immediacy. Since we have arrived at the end of the photographic-film era, we know that the amount of legitimate snapshots—ones taken in full knowledge that snapping the shutter had real consequences in the the physical universe, that an image would be burned onto a surface, and film and money would be wasted if the frame was poorly composed—is now officially finite; this makes that corpus of browning pictures in family albums seem exceedingly rare, much more like heirlooms, irreplaceable antiques. Our children will have absolutely nothing like them to pass on to their children. Sure, they’ll have digital archives of many, many more images of themselves and their loved ones, but somehow, I can’t help but feeling (with the bias of one whose way of life is rapidly becoming moiribund) they will have captured less. Already it seems like real pictures, from film, have more soul—just as the scratches on a jazz record make the music seem more intimate and true.


Now that there is no cost to capturing a digital image—if the image bores or doesn’t turn out, it can be deleted without a second thought. This has the effect of making old prints of accidents, mistakes, and faulty exposures seem suddenly precious, as they have become an endangered species. I have always been attracted to these discards—pictures of just streaks of color, or of an accidental landscape, or of someone’s finger over the lens—but now I feel like there’s even a greater urgency to gathering them up. (I used to find such shots on the street routinely, in drug-store parking lots or inside library books; now I never come across them.) When no one uses film, no one will make these serendipitous images of nothing in particular and nothing intended that somehow, because of that, capture something integral about the ephemeral nature of our existence in our media-saturated moment in time. I can’t be the only person who feels this way. Maybe I should do a search for the sites of people who have scanned in their botched, blurred and poorly developed snapshots and made photosets out of them.

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