photographic assemblages

I’ve just finished reading a new book by Risto Sarvas and David M. Frohlich called From Snapshots to Social Media: The Changing Picture of Domestic Photography.  It’s a fascinating read, not least because the authors are almost entirely unburdened by the literature in cultural studies on domestic photography: there’s barely a mention of Barthes, for example.  This is refreshing, and helpful, because what it allows them to do is focus on the contexts – both social and technological – in which domestic photography is embedded, rather than write oh-so-movingly about the images themselves (their own illustrations are largely of cameras and networks rather than photographs), or oh-so-theoretically about the affect of the digital.  And what they argue is that family snaps are increasingly part of social media networks, and that this changing context is altering the editing, storing, sharing, content and organisation of family snapshots.

I agree.  I think a lot of photographs now are taken and shared not as referential evidence of the there-then (to use Barthes), but rather as ways of connecting with family and friends.  Sending a snap is less an act of archive dispersal and more an act of keeping in touch.  What this means for the images themselves isn’t addressed by Sarvas and Frohlich at any length.  I wonder though if in part what it means is that the images themselves don’t mean so much any more, because they are taken to be sent, not taken to be kept.  Which raises some interesting questions about the legibility of photographs now…

a performer at a school show, photographed by Giorgio Ciaccio aged 11, on his mum's camera.

The most enthusiastic photographer in our household is 11-year old Lydia.  Sarvas and Frohlich mention several times that many more children now own a camera, most often the camera in their phone, and they wonder what new forms of photography might emerge when kids are sending pictures to each other.  It’s an interesting question and one which I think they might have pursued a little more fully.  Because it seems to me that there are a lot of different kinds of photographies that are emerging, now that photography itself is such an ubiquitous practice.  Sarvas and Frohlich kind of assume that domestic photography is morphing entirely into online social media.  While much of it is, that’s not true of all domestic photography, and I think even when it does, there are social media and social media; several people I know have more than one Facebook account, with different privacy settings and different Facebookfriends, and they upload different photos to each.  Then there are the teenagers explored by Frohlich’s colleague Abigail Durrant, who have one (or more) Facebook photo displays, another set in their bedroom, and are part of further displays in other parts of their family home.

And then there is the increasingly blurred line between ‘domestic’ and ‘professional’.  In the last week at work I’ve met two more people who work for The Open University as administrators but who also work as photographers (that makes four now, and counting); and I’ve also learnt a lot from Gary Penny about how popular wedding photography is among keen photographers who want a career change.  And then of course there is the increasingly blurred line between how art photography looks and the appearance of other kinds of photography, a point made very effectively by Julian Stallabrass at a recent event organised by the Photographers’ Gallery and the networking project Archiving Cultures, part of the Institute for Modern and Contemporary Culture at the University of Westminster, called ‘Vernacular Photographies‘ (though as Julian also noted, in many other ways the line between ‘art’ and ‘other’ sorts of photography is very clearly policed by the critical apparatus).

All this suggests to me that all photographies are vernacular, in the sense that they are all practiced in specific social worlds, through particular combinations of software, hardware, objects, images, discourses, and subjectivities.  And there’s huge scope – as Sarvas and Frohlich also conclude – for much more research exploring these specific assemblages as they emerge.

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