Essay

The many moments of the instant

Alejandro Malo

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Muybridge race horse animated
by Eadweard Muybridge

 The fleeting today is tenuous and eternal;
Don’t wait for another Heaven or Hell.
Jorge Luis Borges.

Photography is thought of as a way to freeze time and people rarely discuss how much time each photographic instant really represents. From the more than eight hours taken to shoot View from the Window at Le Gras to the fifteen minutes for Boulevard du Temple, to the speeds achieved in the past decade of more than a billion frames per second, each photograph prolongs a fiction in which we desire to see the ever-changing world imprisoned before our gaze. Movies, like theater and dance, derived from photographs precisely their desire to represent this same ever-changing world, but without being confined to an instant or synthesizing something living into a fixed image. The work of Muybridge and Marey, by capturing sequential movement and reproducing it in fixed or animated images, addressed these aspects which appeared to draw one path for photography and another for cinematography.

Decades later, communication vessels became popular, blurring the boundaries between these mediums. Photographic time extends itself in anyone’s hands and an image, previously immobile, unfolds instantly into movement with any number of applications such as Vine, Instagram, Cinemagram and others. With increasing frequency, photographers offer video work as part of their professional activities and create time-lapse or rephotography images to convey events that extend beyond the limits of a series or a single shot. Likewise, movies have shifted from the surprise occasioned by works like Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) and the flat sequences of Antonioni that scandalized Cannes in 1960 to a visual fascination with suspended, almost immobile shots, as in the Tarkovsky movies. Current cinematography often employs flat sequence structure, or imitates Ken Burns by recovering photographic files through a specific video editing effect named after him.

Tonino Guerra, in the preface to Instant Light: Tarkovsky Polaroids, anecdotes about how both Tarkovsky and Antonioni used Polaroid cameras in the late 1970s. The former was constantly worried about the volatility of time and his desire to freeze it in these instant images; it is not difficult to imagine how this impacted his movies. The latter discusses how, during a location scouting trip to Uzbekistan, an old man rejected a photograph recently take of him and two friends by asking: "¿“Why stop time?” to which neither man could respond. And this invites the questions: If photography is a way to stop time, how much time and how much mobility can an instant comprise? And no less important, how much do movies actually escape from their photographic desire to stop time, even though it captures entire lifetimes or historic moments?

The first question has been tested in a number of projects, and the opportunity to represent the variability of time has multiplied with the immediacy of available tools. The visual language permitted by cameras has led to the proliferation of works where years become a chronograph, days are the sun’s accelerated journey across the horizon, people are frozen in 360 degrees and cameras slow down or speed up at the pace of a silent film. Movies have their own experimental territory where more frequent use of the flat sequence and found footage, real or fictitious, and the recording and recovery of material in lapses is increasingly prolonged. The bridge between what was considered a brief, decisive instant and what was considered a long, narrative instant is constantly lengthening. The fields of photography and film are more accessible, and the instant, more relative. This freedom is worth exploring. 

Alejandro MaloAlejandro Malo (Mexico, 1972). Lives and works in Mexico and is the director of ZoneZero. Since 1993, he has taken part in various cultural projects and worked as an information technology consultant. He has collaborated in print and electronic publications, and given workshops and conferences on literature, creative writing, storytelling and technology. In 2009, Malo joined the team of the Fundación Pedro Meyer, where he directs the Archives and Technology departments.

 

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Muybridge race horse animated
by Eadweard Muybridge

 The fleeting today is tenuous and eternal;
Don’t wait for another Heaven or Hell.
Jorge Luis Borges.

Photography is thought of as a way to freeze time and people rarely discuss how much time each photographic instant really represents. From the more than eight hours taken to shoot View from the Window at Le Gras to the fifteen minutes for Boulevard du Temple, to the speeds achieved in the past decade of more than a billion frames per second, each photograph prolongs a fiction in which we desire to see the ever-changing world imprisoned before our gaze. Movies, like theater and dance, derived from photographs precisely their desire to represent this same ever-changing world, but without being confined to an instant or synthesizing something living into a fixed image. The work of Muybridge and Marey, by capturing sequential movement and reproducing it in fixed or animated images, addressed these aspects which appeared to draw one path for photography and another for cinematography.

Decades later, communication vessels became popular, blurring the boundaries between these mediums. Photographic time extends itself in anyone’s hands and an image, previously immobile, unfolds instantly into movement with any number of applications such as Vine, Instagram, Cinemagram and others. With increasing frequency, photographers offer video work as part of their professional activities and create time-lapse or rephotography images to convey events that extend beyond the limits of a series or a single shot. Likewise, movies have shifted from the surprise occasioned by works like Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) and the flat sequences of Antonioni that scandalized Cannes in 1960 to a visual fascination with suspended, almost immobile shots, as in the Tarkovsky movies. Current cinematography often employs flat sequence structure, or imitates Ken Burns by recovering photographic files through a specific video editing effect named after him.

Tonino Guerra, in the preface to Instant Light: Tarkovsky Polaroids, anecdotes about how both Tarkovsky and Antonioni used Polaroid cameras in the late 1970s. The former was constantly worried about the volatility of time and his desire to freeze it in these instant images; it is not difficult to imagine how this impacted his movies. The latter discusses how, during a location scouting trip to Uzbekistan, an old man rejected a photograph recently take of him and two friends by asking: "¿“Why stop time?” to which neither man could respond. And this invites the questions: If photography is a way to stop time, how much time and how much mobility can an instant comprise? And no less important, how much do movies actually escape from their photographic desire to stop time, even though it captures entire lifetimes or historic moments?

The first question has been tested in a number of projects, and the opportunity to represent the variability of time has multiplied with the immediacy of available tools. The visual language permitted by cameras has led to the proliferation of works where years become a chronograph, days are the sun’s accelerated journey across the horizon, people are frozen in 360 degrees and cameras slow down or speed up at the pace of a silent film. Movies have their own experimental territory where more frequent use of the flat sequence and found footage, real or fictitious, and the recording and recovery of material in lapses is increasingly prolonged. The bridge between what was considered a brief, decisive instant and what was considered a long, narrative instant is constantly lengthening. The fields of photography and film are more accessible, and the instant, more relative. This freedom is worth exploring. 

Alejandro MaloAlejandro Malo (Mexico, 1972). Lives and works in Mexico and is the director of ZoneZero. Since 1993, he has taken part in various cultural projects and worked as an information technology consultant. He has collaborated in print and electronic publications, and given workshops and conferences on literature, creative writing, storytelling and technology. In 2009, Malo joined the team of the Fundación Pedro Meyer, where he directs the Archives and Technology departments.

 

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Photo-Narrative: The stories in an image

Mónica Sánchez Escuer

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 fotonarrativa ezcuer
Pedro Meyer. Dhaka (Bangladesh), 2011

Stories are explicit, implicit or suggested within photographs. Photographs can expose a fragment of reality or express the totality of an event, but beyond showing or describing something, can photographs narrate? Narrating is a process as old as mankind. Telling daily events within the family nucleus, recalling the past, passing on traditions, creating and sharing the myths that lending meaning and structure to a community, is a practice that has been handed down from one generation to the next. Human beings explain themselves and the world they live in through tales spun from facts, feelings and hopes: the present acquires meaning through the past from which it came and from its vision of the future.

But tales have not always been told in words. If we think about the Paleolithic paintings in the Altamira or Benaojan caves, we can say that since prehistoric times, man has depicted the world and told of deeds through icons, long before the advent of writing. Let us recall that, “The evolution of language began with images, progressing to pictographs or self-explanatory vignettes, and subsequently phonetic units and lastly the alphabet” (Dondis, 2011, p. 11). Joan Fontcuberta believes that the meaning of an image lies in its narration: a photograph can simultaneously be an inscription and writing: “The language of photography constructs the story, insofar as the story lends meaning to the photograph” (Fontcuberta, 2004).

Nevertheless, what do we mean when we talk about narration? The Royal Academy defines the act of narrating as “telling, referring to events, or a fact or to a fictitious story” (Dictionary of the Spanish Language, 2001). This definition is broad enough to be applicable to any language: oral, written or graphic. Telling implies “enumeration”, a sequence of events; relating implies connecting people or actions; so narrating could be summarized as relating a series of connected events. Helena Berinstain, in her Dictionary of Rhetoric and Poetry states from a philological perspective that “narration is a statement of facts. The existence of narration requires relatable events. In general, the relation of a series of events is called a tale. […] These events are developed across time and are derived from one another, which is why they simultaneously offer a consecutive relationship[before/after] and a logical relationship [cause/effect]” (Berinstain, 1995, p. 355). So how can we apply these parameters to photography? Can an event be told in an image, can a tale be told? When we talk about an event, we are necessarily talking about time. An event can be made of a number of actions in a finite period of time, even if this time lasts only seconds. Photography freezes an instant. Its ability to be narrative will depend of the amount of information with which we are provided to suggest or reveal the facts that were not captured. There are photographs in which, through the composition of the elements depicted, the title or the accompanying caption, a sequence of events is explained or insinuated. In some, actions that take place before or after the moment captured can clearly be inferred. These are undoubtedly images that contain a narrative of their own.

When capturing a story, the photographer must focus, frame, calculate the light, and use not only formal strategies and visual techniques, but also a narrative and strategic discursive: at a general level, a scene, scenery or place is described; on the median plane, the narrative discourse is signaled by the elements in action; and on the first plane expressive language is indicated by details that convey emotions and feelings. Or it uses visual rhetoric, figures that are equivalent to literary rhetoric: metaphors, where an object or content is evoked by analogy with another element with shared characteristics; metonymy, when the object the image refers to is replaced by a related element; synecdoche when a total is represented in a detail or close-up; personification, when inanimate objects or animals are given human qualities, etc.

The clearest form of photographic narration in through diptychs, triptychs or multi-frame sequential images that illustrate different moments in the plot. The selection and arrangement of grouped photographs provides space and time coordinates allowing us to place and perceive the course of action through the illusion of movement, which an image alone could not give. In photographic sequences there is ellipsis in narrative time, not everything is told, and so the spectators’ imagination inserts the missing pieces. In movies and video, images flow smoothly, movement is evident, not simulated; and though the time ellipsis is a commonly used device in audiovisual discourse, the story is narrated in a continual and usually, explicit manner. Between the two visual forms of narration, photography or a series of photographs, and movies or video, a digital tale and a photo narrative can be found where the sequence of actions is dictated by the order of the still or moving images, the text (if there is any), and other artistic and formal features such as visual and sound rhythm.

All visual tales—but not all images—are constructed in the same way as literary tales. The elements are the same: a theme, a story, characters, a specific setting. The plot generally develops according to the formal precepts of a classic tale: It begins with an approach to the story, the conflict is explained, and the outcome is developed. An appropriate pace for the establishment and dosage of actions is created, planes, times and lighting are played with to create visual and narrative tension. In a story, the point is not to explain or show but to tell; and this is what literary narration consists of: telling and describing actions without explaining them. In audiovisual narration, the story arises not only from the actions but also through the images, that is, the telling is the showing, “The narrative is scenic and representational, it is a dramatized act”; (García García, 2006, p. 12). At the same time, showing is telling; actions are reinforced and made effective through imagery and audiovisual codes.

 

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 fotonarrativa ezcuer
Pedro Meyer. Dhaka (Bangladesh), 2011

Stories are explicit, implicit or suggested within photographs. Photographs can expose a fragment of reality or express the totality of an event, but beyond showing or describing something, can photographs narrate? Narrating is a process as old as mankind. Telling daily events within the family nucleus, recalling the past, passing on traditions, creating and sharing the myths that lending meaning and structure to a community, is a practice that has been handed down from one generation to the next. Human beings explain themselves and the world they live in through tales spun from facts, feelings and hopes: the present acquires meaning through the past from which it came and from its vision of the future.

But tales have not always been told in words. If we think about the Paleolithic paintings in the Altamira or Benaojan caves, we can say that since prehistoric times, man has depicted the world and told of deeds through icons, long before the advent of writing. Let us recall that, “The evolution of language began with images, progressing to pictographs or self-explanatory vignettes, and subsequently phonetic units and lastly the alphabet” (Dondis, 2011, p. 11). Joan Fontcuberta believes that the meaning of an image lies in its narration: a photograph can simultaneously be an inscription and writing: “The language of photography constructs the story, insofar as the story lends meaning to the photograph” (Fontcuberta, 2004).

Nevertheless, what do we mean when we talk about narration? The Royal Academy defines the act of narrating as “telling, referring to events, or a fact or to a fictitious story” (Dictionary of the Spanish Language, 2001). This definition is broad enough to be applicable to any language: oral, written or graphic. Telling implies “enumeration”, a sequence of events; relating implies connecting people or actions; so narrating could be summarized as relating a series of connected events. Helena Berinstain, in her Dictionary of Rhetoric and Poetry states from a philological perspective that “narration is a statement of facts. The existence of narration requires relatable events. In general, the relation of a series of events is called a tale. […] These events are developed across time and are derived from one another, which is why they simultaneously offer a consecutive relationship[before/after] and a logical relationship [cause/effect]” (Berinstain, 1995, p. 355). So how can we apply these parameters to photography? Can an event be told in an image, can a tale be told? When we talk about an event, we are necessarily talking about time. An event can be made of a number of actions in a finite period of time, even if this time lasts only seconds. Photography freezes an instant. Its ability to be narrative will depend of the amount of information with which we are provided to suggest or reveal the facts that were not captured. There are photographs in which, through the composition of the elements depicted, the title or the accompanying caption, a sequence of events is explained or insinuated. In some, actions that take place before or after the moment captured can clearly be inferred. These are undoubtedly images that contain a narrative of their own.

When capturing a story, the photographer must focus, frame, calculate the light, and use not only formal strategies and visual techniques, but also a narrative and strategic discursive: at a general level, a scene, scenery or place is described; on the median plane, the narrative discourse is signaled by the elements in action; and on the first plane expressive language is indicated by details that convey emotions and feelings. Or it uses visual rhetoric, figures that are equivalent to literary rhetoric: metaphors, where an object or content is evoked by analogy with another element with shared characteristics; metonymy, when the object the image refers to is replaced by a related element; synecdoche when a total is represented in a detail or close-up; personification, when inanimate objects or animals are given human qualities, etc.

The clearest form of photographic narration in through diptychs, triptychs or multi-frame sequential images that illustrate different moments in the plot. The selection and arrangement of grouped photographs provides space and time coordinates allowing us to place and perceive the course of action through the illusion of movement, which an image alone could not give. In photographic sequences there is ellipsis in narrative time, not everything is told, and so the spectators’ imagination inserts the missing pieces. In movies and video, images flow smoothly, movement is evident, not simulated; and though the time ellipsis is a commonly used device in audiovisual discourse, the story is narrated in a continual and usually, explicit manner. Between the two visual forms of narration, photography or a series of photographs, and movies or video, a digital tale and a photo narrative can be found where the sequence of actions is dictated by the order of the still or moving images, the text (if there is any), and other artistic and formal features such as visual and sound rhythm.

All visual tales—but not all images—are constructed in the same way as literary tales. The elements are the same: a theme, a story, characters, a specific setting. The plot generally develops according to the formal precepts of a classic tale: It begins with an approach to the story, the conflict is explained, and the outcome is developed. An appropriate pace for the establishment and dosage of actions is created, planes, times and lighting are played with to create visual and narrative tension. In a story, the point is not to explain or show but to tell; and this is what literary narration consists of: telling and describing actions without explaining them. In audiovisual narration, the story arises not only from the actions but also through the images, that is, the telling is the showing, “The narrative is scenic and representational, it is a dramatized act”; (García García, 2006, p. 12). At the same time, showing is telling; actions are reinforced and made effective through imagery and audiovisual codes.

 

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Seeing stories

Alejandro Malo

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meyer fotonarrativa
The Devil in New York. 1985. Pedro Meyer

In 2013, just over one billion smart phones came onto the international market, while only a little over sixty million digital cameras sold. Thanks to this push, the number of cameras sold as part of mobile devices will be greater than the number of people inhabiting the planet, which accentuates the visual avalanche we now face. Creating photographic images has become as trivial as chatting on the phone and their meaning, 2,000 millones de nuevasimágenes as they are uploaded and shared online every day is reduced, in many cases, to anecdotal scenes that are incomprehensible to strangers. In the face of this extensive iconographic universe, content runs the risk of being lost, of being confused amidst stylistic similarities, of sinking unceremoniously into the cracks of global networks; and one of the few useful tools for strengthening photographic discourse and emphasizing a relevant visual message is narrative.

Four years ago, in 2010, when ZoneZero's position within the ecosystem of projects at the Pedro Meyer Foundation was only just beginning to be defined, World Press Photo contacted us. They had interviewed a number of people and institutions from the field of photography in Mexico and were looking to define alternative forms of collaboration. Their goal was to develop an educational program designed for photojournalists. Our first exchanges created several points of tension, but each debate served to consolidate points of agreement. These points grew from reflections that are still meaningful today. 

The first was a diagnosis that was already evident at that point: the traditional role of photography could not continue unchanged in an environment where the sources of photographic material were multiplied at an unattainable pace. Capturing the exact photograph of an event had become a game of chance that could be won by anyone in possession of a mobile device. Originality paled in the face of quantity and mastery of technique dissipated with each technological advance. The very boundaries of photography we being blurred: the place for photography within interactive media, video, electronic books, websites and more, the relationship between these and other media, the frontier of the curatorial and author-oriented, all became territory for exploration. At that moment we chose to broach the concept of New Media, to emphasize our willingness to experiment with the sum of diverse technological resources, and for lack of another label with the same amount of breadth and flexibility for what we wanted to achieve.

The second reflection identified which tool could be useful both for photojournalists and the wider public that was already engaging in the educational activities at the Pedro Meyer Foundation and adhered to ZoneZero content. The choice was clear and conclusive: storytelling.  After being translated, the term was replaced with a new one, photo-narrative, to highlight the photographic component. Pedro Meyer’s story I Photograph to Remember with one of the cornerstones of Digital Storytelling, and his position that everything before a photographer tells a story, were influential in this choice. Nevertheless, it was equally or more important to consider that in an era where images and information are as abundant and immediate as they are now, context is the only thing that distinguishes them from background noise. Every image, in order to be more than ornamental, invites the viewer to interpret a meaning, to head in some direction, to guess the story and imagine the consequences of what it represents. Every memorable photo tells a story, whether in the tension of the elements it depicts, or in how it has been edited, or with the help of accompanying information. Whether it is a single photo, a series, images in movement or interactive formats, an image aspires to be coherent, to suggest a before and an after, to propose or explain change. We are not the same after the party or the childhood accident documented by the photograph, nor after national disaster or glory.

Today, after a number of years collaborating with World Press Photo, three editions of Diplomado de Fotonarrativa y Nuevos Medios and a plethora of technological changes that could only have been imagined, photo-narrative is even more important.  During this time we have learned and changed. Our ideas about photography and narrative continue to change. World Press Photo now has multimedia categories that include long feature, short feature and interactive documentary. Photo-narrative’s effectiveness means that it has been used in a number of different fields. Because of this, it is also our task to explore and exhibit examples that, as with other issues, foster dialogue and reflection. Every one of us is the sum of our personal, familiar, collective and even fictional stories. Being understood and understanding one another begins with knowing how to tell these stories. 

Alejandro MaloAlejandro Malo (Mexico, 1972). Lives and works in Mexico and is the director of ZoneZero. Since 1993, he has taken part in various cultural projects and worked as an information technology consultant. He has collaborated in print and electronic publications, and given workshops and conferences on literature, creative writing, storytelling and technology. In 2009, Malo joined the team of the Fundación Pedro Meyer, where he directs the Archives and Technology departments.

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meyer fotonarrativa
The Devil in New York. 1985. Pedro Meyer

In 2013, just over one billion smart phones came onto the international market, while only a little over sixty million digital cameras sold. Thanks to this push, the number of cameras sold as part of mobile devices will be greater than the number of people inhabiting the planet, which accentuates the visual avalanche we now face. Creating photographic images has become as trivial as chatting on the phone and their meaning, 2,000 millones de nuevasimágenes as they are uploaded and shared online every day is reduced, in many cases, to anecdotal scenes that are incomprehensible to strangers. In the face of this extensive iconographic universe, content runs the risk of being lost, of being confused amidst stylistic similarities, of sinking unceremoniously into the cracks of global networks; and one of the few useful tools for strengthening photographic discourse and emphasizing a relevant visual message is narrative.

Four years ago, in 2010, when ZoneZero's position within the ecosystem of projects at the Pedro Meyer Foundation was only just beginning to be defined, World Press Photo contacted us. They had interviewed a number of people and institutions from the field of photography in Mexico and were looking to define alternative forms of collaboration. Their goal was to develop an educational program designed for photojournalists. Our first exchanges created several points of tension, but each debate served to consolidate points of agreement. These points grew from reflections that are still meaningful today. 

The first was a diagnosis that was already evident at that point: the traditional role of photography could not continue unchanged in an environment where the sources of photographic material were multiplied at an unattainable pace. Capturing the exact photograph of an event had become a game of chance that could be won by anyone in possession of a mobile device. Originality paled in the face of quantity and mastery of technique dissipated with each technological advance. The very boundaries of photography we being blurred: the place for photography within interactive media, video, electronic books, websites and more, the relationship between these and other media, the frontier of the curatorial and author-oriented, all became territory for exploration. At that moment we chose to broach the concept of New Media, to emphasize our willingness to experiment with the sum of diverse technological resources, and for lack of another label with the same amount of breadth and flexibility for what we wanted to achieve.

The second reflection identified which tool could be useful both for photojournalists and the wider public that was already engaging in the educational activities at the Pedro Meyer Foundation and adhered to ZoneZero content. The choice was clear and conclusive: storytelling.  After being translated, the term was replaced with a new one, photo-narrative, to highlight the photographic component. Pedro Meyer’s story I Photograph to Remember with one of the cornerstones of Digital Storytelling, and his position that everything before a photographer tells a story, were influential in this choice. Nevertheless, it was equally or more important to consider that in an era where images and information are as abundant and immediate as they are now, context is the only thing that distinguishes them from background noise. Every image, in order to be more than ornamental, invites the viewer to interpret a meaning, to head in some direction, to guess the story and imagine the consequences of what it represents. Every memorable photo tells a story, whether in the tension of the elements it depicts, or in how it has been edited, or with the help of accompanying information. Whether it is a single photo, a series, images in movement or interactive formats, an image aspires to be coherent, to suggest a before and an after, to propose or explain change. We are not the same after the party or the childhood accident documented by the photograph, nor after national disaster or glory.

Today, after a number of years collaborating with World Press Photo, three editions of Diplomado de Fotonarrativa y Nuevos Medios and a plethora of technological changes that could only have been imagined, photo-narrative is even more important.  During this time we have learned and changed. Our ideas about photography and narrative continue to change. World Press Photo now has multimedia categories that include long feature, short feature and interactive documentary. Photo-narrative’s effectiveness means that it has been used in a number of different fields. Because of this, it is also our task to explore and exhibit examples that, as with other issues, foster dialogue and reflection. Every one of us is the sum of our personal, familiar, collective and even fictional stories. Being understood and understanding one another begins with knowing how to tell these stories. 

Alejandro MaloAlejandro Malo (Mexico, 1972). Lives and works in Mexico and is the director of ZoneZero. Since 1993, he has taken part in various cultural projects and worked as an information technology consultant. He has collaborated in print and electronic publications, and given workshops and conferences on literature, creative writing, storytelling and technology. In 2009, Malo joined the team of the Fundación Pedro Meyer, where he directs the Archives and Technology departments.

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Liquid Identity

Alejandro Malo

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8717157387 7213690b55 o
Hiawatha Playfield wading pool, 1912. Don Sherwood Parks History Collection (Record Series 5801-01), Seattle Municipal Archives.

Until a few centuries ago, one’s own image, clear and individual, was an experience many people could only achieve when they gazed at a mirror of water. It is no coincidence that, while Balzac and Dickens were recovering all types of characters from anonymity, technology made mirrors affordable and photography emerged from laboratories. The need arose to recognize one’s self. Suddenly, presenting one’s self and surviving in an image was available to more people, as demonstrated by the business cards popularized by Disdéri in France and Victorian post-mortem photography.

Nonetheless, the concept of identity was gradually constructed and consolidated throughout the 20th century, from various fronts, accompanied by photography. Identity documents and passports, the evolution of cameras, the growing visual recognition and recording of minorities all led to the current possibility of determining for ourselves not so much who we are, but how we wish to be seen. A few years ago, students were typically asked: what do you want to be when you grow up? Today, with photography linked to social networks, many young persons are constantly reporting who they are, and do not have to wait for an uncertain definitive vision of themselves, which technology makes impossible. More and more people, in response to an environment that is changing at breakneck speed, must repeatedly adapt to an identity that assumes the shape of its opportunities, and benefits as much as possible from its learning capacity.

Where there is life, identity cannot be carved in stone. It has now become liquid and we will have increasing opportunities and challenges to guide its flow. Confronted with the risk of our own face slipping out of our hands in the immense torrent of memes, filters and recreations that enable the digital world and facilitate social networks, it is important to know how other persons have channeled their means of depicting themselves. There is an inexhaustible ocean of images for this topic, from which we have selected a small sample that enable us to explore this horizon. This phenomenon, and its most recent evolution, is such a vast sphere that it is barely possible to scratch the surface, but we wish to share this journey with you.

Alejandro MaloAlejandro Malo (Mexico, 1972). Lives and works in Mexico and is the director of ZoneZero. Since 1993, he has taken part in various cultural projects and worked as an information technology consultant. He has collaborated in print and electronic publications, and given workshops and conferences on literature, creative writing, storytelling and technology. In 2009, Malo joined the team of the Fundación Pedro Meyer, where he directs the Archives and Technology departments.



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8717157387 7213690b55 o
Hiawatha Playfield wading pool, 1912. Don Sherwood Parks History Collection (Record Series 5801-01), Seattle Municipal Archives.

Until a few centuries ago, one’s own image, clear and individual, was an experience many people could only achieve when they gazed at a mirror of water. It is no coincidence that, while Balzac and Dickens were recovering all types of characters from anonymity, technology made mirrors affordable and photography emerged from laboratories. The need arose to recognize one’s self. Suddenly, presenting one’s self and surviving in an image was available to more people, as demonstrated by the business cards popularized by Disdéri in France and Victorian post-mortem photography.

Nonetheless, the concept of identity was gradually constructed and consolidated throughout the 20th century, from various fronts, accompanied by photography. Identity documents and passports, the evolution of cameras, the growing visual recognition and recording of minorities all led to the current possibility of determining for ourselves not so much who we are, but how we wish to be seen. A few years ago, students were typically asked: what do you want to be when you grow up? Today, with photography linked to social networks, many young persons are constantly reporting who they are, and do not have to wait for an uncertain definitive vision of themselves, which technology makes impossible. More and more people, in response to an environment that is changing at breakneck speed, must repeatedly adapt to an identity that assumes the shape of its opportunities, and benefits as much as possible from its learning capacity.

Where there is life, identity cannot be carved in stone. It has now become liquid and we will have increasing opportunities and challenges to guide its flow. Confronted with the risk of our own face slipping out of our hands in the immense torrent of memes, filters and recreations that enable the digital world and facilitate social networks, it is important to know how other persons have channeled their means of depicting themselves. There is an inexhaustible ocean of images for this topic, from which we have selected a small sample that enable us to explore this horizon. This phenomenon, and its most recent evolution, is such a vast sphere that it is barely possible to scratch the surface, but we wish to share this journey with you.

Alejandro MaloAlejandro Malo (Mexico, 1972). Lives and works in Mexico and is the director of ZoneZero. Since 1993, he has taken part in various cultural projects and worked as an information technology consultant. He has collaborated in print and electronic publications, and given workshops and conferences on literature, creative writing, storytelling and technology. In 2009, Malo joined the team of the Fundación Pedro Meyer, where he directs the Archives and Technology departments.



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The Usefulness of Conversation (2/3)

André Gunthert

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André Gunthert, "Conversational image: new uses of digital photography.", Etudes photographiquesn° 31printemps 2014.

Nowadays we dislike the overwhelming amount of images, for we link this proliferation to the progress of reproducibility. But is the technical predictability the only parameter for this growth? This could be explained more satisfactorily in terms of more uses for photographs. In any case, this is what is suggested by the observation of connected uses.

The first period of the static websites was characterized as a "society of authors 14 ". In contrast, the abilities of symmetric interaction promoted by the Web 2.0 have lead to users describing the activity of on-line publications as a conversation 15 . Studied in detail by Pragmatics or Ethnomethodology, the oral exchange structured by the order of speaking is considered as one of the foundations of sociability. "That is where the child learns to speak, where the stranger socializes by entering a new group (...), where the social relationship is built, where the system of the language is formed and transformed 16 ."

The ordered, symmetrical, open, and cumulative interaction that characterizes instant messaging or on-line exchanges is similar to the egalitarian sociability of conversation. As Jean-Samuel Beuscart, Dominique Cardon, Nicolas Pissard and Christophe Prieur note in their study on Flickr, the integration of the image in this economy represents a remarkable evolution of these features 17 . Rather than having conversations about pictures, they say, the Web has favored having conversations using pictures.

However, the ability of using an image as a message wasn't born with digital devices. For example, this attribute is also offered by an illustrated postcard, which has seen a marked development since the end of the 10th century. If we agree to add the correspondence as a conversational genre, the association of the image allows us to see a primitive state of this creation, following a much slower rhythm. Even if the industrial production requires us to turn to standard ways or situations, the usefulness of postcards provide precious examples of the archeology of the visual conversation.

In its digital version, it appears at the core of e-mail and on-line forums, and then in multimedia messaging services, or MMS, that appeared with the first camera phones. The Sharp J-SH04, released in Japan in October 2000 at a cost of $500, works with the J-Phone network, which allows sharing pictures among users.

In the middle of the 2000's an intermediate stage was born with "monoblogging", where sharing pictures taken with a camera phone in a blog was the predecessor of the instant publication in social networks. Therefore, if there are two different uses for the connected image, taking one from the private conversation, and the other one from the public or semi-public conversation, it is equally important to notice the permeability between the different spaces, which is encouraged by the digital fluidity.

3-purikura

Fig. 3. Album of purikura, Tokyo, 2003(courtesy of Claude Estebe).

Recently baptized as "selfie", a form of contextual self-photograph, this type of picture is possibly the oldest identifiable practice of the connected image. The birth of camera phones in Japan is placed in the wake of the phenomenon, purikura 18, that can be attached multiple decorations with the goal of becoming collectible items (see fig. 3). The first camera phone model by Sharp has a small mirror in front, an original scheme to make taking self-portraits easier. The promotional images from that time leave no room for questions: the camera was conceived by the manufacturer to allow users to take pictures of them at an arm's length by using a lens of short focal length.

If these features were only imagined as a gadget, it is a more dramatic way to manifest the transformation of the uses provided by connected images. On July 7th, 2005, between 8:50 and 9:47am, four bombs transported by terrorists blew up three subway stations and a bus in London, resulting in 56 dead and 700 injured. While the media was not able to enter the subway, Sky News broadcasted at 12:35pm an image taken very near the attack: it was a picture taken at 9:25am with a camera phone of user Adam Stacey in the corridor connecting to King's Cross, and sent as an electronic message to many recipients (see fig.4).

 

4-AdamStacey

Fig. 4. Photograph of Adam Stacey by Kevin Ward, London subway, July 07, 2005 (CC licence).

Although this image shows a face, it is by no means a portrait in the sense granted by pictorial tradition. And, even if the circumstances caused its public diffusion 19 , its initial share belonged to a private conversation. Due to the immediacy of its communication, the photo of Adam Stacey, taken on his demand by a friend who was with him in order to keep his next of kin informed, has, first of all, a useful function as a way of relaying quickly a fact.

If the documentary vocation is an integral part of the history of visual recording, this generally concerns specialized uses, such as scientific, media or industrial. In terms of personal photography, the use of the image continues being essentially symbolic: the preservation of memories or the writing of family history.

There are examples of practical uses, such as the documentation of an assessment of loss for an insurance company, that have been observed since the beginning of the 20th century. But they continue to be discreet, they don't matter to the observers and they aren't described in any history or sociology texts on amateur photography.

However, by making images available faster, some technical innovations such as the instant development proposed by Polaroid have competed to improve the practical use of pictures, and have made room for a wide range of recording uses. This also holds true for the instant transmission of the connected image, which gives photography access to the universe of communication. We can see a significant example of these current applications in the selfie of co-founders of Flickr, Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake, from October 2005. Titled " Hi Mom ", the picture published on Flickr has an accompanying explanation: "Sent to my parents while I spoke to them on the telephone so they could share the view of the environment where we were" ( see fig.5 ).

5-HiMom

Fig. 5. " Hi Mom", selfie of Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake, co-founders of Flickr, October 2005 (CC licence).

The available studies on new communicative practices witness an unprecedented extension of the utilitarian applications 20 . By associating the visual dimension with shared data, the image allows to supply information about a situation (an arrival to or presence in a place, the use of a mean of transportation...), a check of appearance (an outfit test, the result of a haircut, physical aspect...), but also countless practical information, such as the purchase of a product, the composition of a dish, the state of a building, etc. Photography allows us to record all of this or transmit it faster than a written message 21 . The connected image lends itself particularly to the regular exchange of signals destined to maintain an effective, friendly or romantic relationship. It can also serve for political or military goals, such as the pictures of gatherings during the Arab Spring, immediately distributed to get people to join the demonstrations 22 .

The extreme variety of these applications shows a fast adaptation to connected tools, as well as the development of a new skill: the ability to translate a situation visually, a way to be able to offer a summary, often personal or playful, a way to reinterpret reality that reminds us of "The Practice of Everyday Life" by Michel de Certeau 23 .

 


 

14 Bernard Stiegler, " Situations technologiques de l’autorité cognitive à l’ère de la désorientation ", the conferences of the seminar " Technologies Cognitives et Environnements de Travail ", May 12th, 1998, ( quoted in Valérie Beaudouin, De la publication à la conversation . Lecture et écriture électroniques , Réseaux n° 116, 2002, p. 225).

15 Valérie Beaudouin, "De la publication à la conversation. Lecture et écriture électroniques", Réseaux , n° 116, 2002, p. 199-225.

16 Lorenza Mondada, "La question du contexte en ethnométhodologie et en analyse conversationnelle", Verbum , 28-2/3, 2006 [2008] (I thank Jonathan Larcher for his invaluable indications).

17 Jean-Samuel Beuscart, Dominique Cardon, Nicolas Pissard and Christophe Prieur, "Pourquoi partager mes photos de vacances avec des inconnus? Les usages de Flickr", Réseaux , n° 154/2, 2009, p. 91-129.

18 Jon Wurtzel, "Taking pictures with your phone", 18 September 2001, BBC News ( http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/1550622.stm). Developed by Altus and Sega, the first purikura cabins appeared in Tokyo in 1995.

19 André Gunthert, "Tous journalistes ? Les attentats de Londres ou l'intrusion des amateurs", in Gianni Haver (dir.), Press photo. Usages et pratiques , Lausanne, éd. Antipodes, 2009, p. 215- 225 (on line : http://www.arhv.lhivic.org/index.php/2009/03/19/956).

20 Olivier Aïm, Laurence Allard, Joëlle Menrath, Hécate Vergopoulos, "Vie intérieure et vie relationnelle des individus connectés. Une enquête ethnographique", French Telecoms Federation, slide show, September 2013 (on line: http://www.fftelecoms.org/sites/fftelecoms.org/files/contenus_lies/vie_interieure_vie_relationnelle_mai_2013.pdf).

21 According to ComScore, 14.3% of European smart phones owners (that is 155 million people in August 2013) have sent the picture of a product on sale to a close relation in order to get information or to ask for details, a slightly higher percentage of the total of sent SMS or calls (14%) with the same purpose (Ayaan Mohamud, "1 in 7 European Smartphone Owners Make Online Purchases via their Device", ComScore, Octobre 21st, 2013 (http://www.comscore.com/Insights/Press_Releases/2013/10/1_in_7_European_Smartphone_Owners_Make_Online_Purchases_via_their_Device).

22 Azyz Amami, "Photographier la révolution tunisienne" (memo at the symposium "Photographie, internet et réseaux sociaux", Rencontres d'Arles, July 8th, 2011), L'Atelier des icônes, July 9th, 2011 (audio, http://culturevisuelle.org/icones/1860).

23 Michel de Certeau, L’Invention du quotidien, (1) Arts de faire (1980), Paris, Gallimard, 1990

André GunthertAndré Gunthert (Francia, 1961). Lives and works in France. He works as a researcher in cultural history and visual studies, holds a PhD in Art History and is an associate professor at the EHESS (School for Higher Studies in Social Sciences). Gunthert is also the director of the Laboratory of Contemporary Visual History (LHIVIC) and the founder of the digital journals Photographic studies and Visual Culture. He is currently carrying out research into the new uses of the digital image. His writings on visual culture can be consulted in his blog: L'Atelier des icônes.
 

 

 

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André Gunthert, "Conversational image: new uses of digital photography.", Etudes photographiquesn° 31printemps 2014.

Nowadays we dislike the overwhelming amount of images, for we link this proliferation to the progress of reproducibility. But is the technical predictability the only parameter for this growth? This could be explained more satisfactorily in terms of more uses for photographs. In any case, this is what is suggested by the observation of connected uses.

The first period of the static websites was characterized as a "society of authors 14 ". In contrast, the abilities of symmetric interaction promoted by the Web 2.0 have lead to users describing the activity of on-line publications as a conversation 15 . Studied in detail by Pragmatics or Ethnomethodology, the oral exchange structured by the order of speaking is considered as one of the foundations of sociability. "That is where the child learns to speak, where the stranger socializes by entering a new group (...), where the social relationship is built, where the system of the language is formed and transformed 16 ."

The ordered, symmetrical, open, and cumulative interaction that characterizes instant messaging or on-line exchanges is similar to the egalitarian sociability of conversation. As Jean-Samuel Beuscart, Dominique Cardon, Nicolas Pissard and Christophe Prieur note in their study on Flickr, the integration of the image in this economy represents a remarkable evolution of these features 17 . Rather than having conversations about pictures, they say, the Web has favored having conversations using pictures.

However, the ability of using an image as a message wasn't born with digital devices. For example, this attribute is also offered by an illustrated postcard, which has seen a marked development since the end of the 10th century. If we agree to add the correspondence as a conversational genre, the association of the image allows us to see a primitive state of this creation, following a much slower rhythm. Even if the industrial production requires us to turn to standard ways or situations, the usefulness of postcards provide precious examples of the archeology of the visual conversation.

In its digital version, it appears at the core of e-mail and on-line forums, and then in multimedia messaging services, or MMS, that appeared with the first camera phones. The Sharp J-SH04, released in Japan in October 2000 at a cost of $500, works with the J-Phone network, which allows sharing pictures among users.

In the middle of the 2000's an intermediate stage was born with "monoblogging", where sharing pictures taken with a camera phone in a blog was the predecessor of the instant publication in social networks. Therefore, if there are two different uses for the connected image, taking one from the private conversation, and the other one from the public or semi-public conversation, it is equally important to notice the permeability between the different spaces, which is encouraged by the digital fluidity.

3-purikura

Fig. 3. Album of purikura, Tokyo, 2003(courtesy of Claude Estebe).

Recently baptized as "selfie", a form of contextual self-photograph, this type of picture is possibly the oldest identifiable practice of the connected image. The birth of camera phones in Japan is placed in the wake of the phenomenon, purikura 18, that can be attached multiple decorations with the goal of becoming collectible items (see fig. 3). The first camera phone model by Sharp has a small mirror in front, an original scheme to make taking self-portraits easier. The promotional images from that time leave no room for questions: the camera was conceived by the manufacturer to allow users to take pictures of them at an arm's length by using a lens of short focal length.

If these features were only imagined as a gadget, it is a more dramatic way to manifest the transformation of the uses provided by connected images. On July 7th, 2005, between 8:50 and 9:47am, four bombs transported by terrorists blew up three subway stations and a bus in London, resulting in 56 dead and 700 injured. While the media was not able to enter the subway, Sky News broadcasted at 12:35pm an image taken very near the attack: it was a picture taken at 9:25am with a camera phone of user Adam Stacey in the corridor connecting to King's Cross, and sent as an electronic message to many recipients (see fig.4).

 

4-AdamStacey

Fig. 4. Photograph of Adam Stacey by Kevin Ward, London subway, July 07, 2005 (CC licence).

Although this image shows a face, it is by no means a portrait in the sense granted by pictorial tradition. And, even if the circumstances caused its public diffusion 19 , its initial share belonged to a private conversation. Due to the immediacy of its communication, the photo of Adam Stacey, taken on his demand by a friend who was with him in order to keep his next of kin informed, has, first of all, a useful function as a way of relaying quickly a fact.

If the documentary vocation is an integral part of the history of visual recording, this generally concerns specialized uses, such as scientific, media or industrial. In terms of personal photography, the use of the image continues being essentially symbolic: the preservation of memories or the writing of family history.

There are examples of practical uses, such as the documentation of an assessment of loss for an insurance company, that have been observed since the beginning of the 20th century. But they continue to be discreet, they don't matter to the observers and they aren't described in any history or sociology texts on amateur photography.

However, by making images available faster, some technical innovations such as the instant development proposed by Polaroid have competed to improve the practical use of pictures, and have made room for a wide range of recording uses. This also holds true for the instant transmission of the connected image, which gives photography access to the universe of communication. We can see a significant example of these current applications in the selfie of co-founders of Flickr, Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake, from October 2005. Titled " Hi Mom ", the picture published on Flickr has an accompanying explanation: "Sent to my parents while I spoke to them on the telephone so they could share the view of the environment where we were" ( see fig.5 ).

5-HiMom

Fig. 5. " Hi Mom", selfie of Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake, co-founders of Flickr, October 2005 (CC licence).

The available studies on new communicative practices witness an unprecedented extension of the utilitarian applications 20 . By associating the visual dimension with shared data, the image allows to supply information about a situation (an arrival to or presence in a place, the use of a mean of transportation...), a check of appearance (an outfit test, the result of a haircut, physical aspect...), but also countless practical information, such as the purchase of a product, the composition of a dish, the state of a building, etc. Photography allows us to record all of this or transmit it faster than a written message 21 . The connected image lends itself particularly to the regular exchange of signals destined to maintain an effective, friendly or romantic relationship. It can also serve for political or military goals, such as the pictures of gatherings during the Arab Spring, immediately distributed to get people to join the demonstrations 22 .

The extreme variety of these applications shows a fast adaptation to connected tools, as well as the development of a new skill: the ability to translate a situation visually, a way to be able to offer a summary, often personal or playful, a way to reinterpret reality that reminds us of "The Practice of Everyday Life" by Michel de Certeau 23 .

 


 

14 Bernard Stiegler, " Situations technologiques de l’autorité cognitive à l’ère de la désorientation ", the conferences of the seminar " Technologies Cognitives et Environnements de Travail ", May 12th, 1998, ( quoted in Valérie Beaudouin, De la publication à la conversation . Lecture et écriture électroniques , Réseaux n° 116, 2002, p. 225).

15 Valérie Beaudouin, "De la publication à la conversation. Lecture et écriture électroniques", Réseaux , n° 116, 2002, p. 199-225.

16 Lorenza Mondada, "La question du contexte en ethnométhodologie et en analyse conversationnelle", Verbum , 28-2/3, 2006 [2008] (I thank Jonathan Larcher for his invaluable indications).

17 Jean-Samuel Beuscart, Dominique Cardon, Nicolas Pissard and Christophe Prieur, "Pourquoi partager mes photos de vacances avec des inconnus? Les usages de Flickr", Réseaux , n° 154/2, 2009, p. 91-129.

18 Jon Wurtzel, "Taking pictures with your phone", 18 September 2001, BBC News ( http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/1550622.stm). Developed by Altus and Sega, the first purikura cabins appeared in Tokyo in 1995.

19 André Gunthert, "Tous journalistes ? Les attentats de Londres ou l'intrusion des amateurs", in Gianni Haver (dir.), Press photo. Usages et pratiques , Lausanne, éd. Antipodes, 2009, p. 215- 225 (on line : http://www.arhv.lhivic.org/index.php/2009/03/19/956).

20 Olivier Aïm, Laurence Allard, Joëlle Menrath, Hécate Vergopoulos, "Vie intérieure et vie relationnelle des individus connectés. Une enquête ethnographique", French Telecoms Federation, slide show, September 2013 (on line: http://www.fftelecoms.org/sites/fftelecoms.org/files/contenus_lies/vie_interieure_vie_relationnelle_mai_2013.pdf).

21 According to ComScore, 14.3% of European smart phones owners (that is 155 million people in August 2013) have sent the picture of a product on sale to a close relation in order to get information or to ask for details, a slightly higher percentage of the total of sent SMS or calls (14%) with the same purpose (Ayaan Mohamud, "1 in 7 European Smartphone Owners Make Online Purchases via their Device", ComScore, Octobre 21st, 2013 (http://www.comscore.com/Insights/Press_Releases/2013/10/1_in_7_European_Smartphone_Owners_Make_Online_Purchases_via_their_Device).

22 Azyz Amami, "Photographier la révolution tunisienne" (memo at the symposium "Photographie, internet et réseaux sociaux", Rencontres d'Arles, July 8th, 2011), L'Atelier des icônes, July 9th, 2011 (audio, http://culturevisuelle.org/icones/1860).

23 Michel de Certeau, L’Invention du quotidien, (1) Arts de faire (1980), Paris, Gallimard, 1990

André GunthertAndré Gunthert (Francia, 1961). Lives and works in France. He works as a researcher in cultural history and visual studies, holds a PhD in Art History and is an associate professor at the EHESS (School for Higher Studies in Social Sciences). Gunthert is also the director of the Laboratory of Contemporary Visual History (LHIVIC) and the founder of the digital journals Photographic studies and Visual Culture. He is currently carrying out research into the new uses of the digital image. His writings on visual culture can be consulted in his blog: L'Atelier des icônes.
 

 

 

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The visibility of the "barbaric taste" (3/3)

André Gunthert

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André Gunthert, "Conversational image: new uses of digital photography.", Etudes photographiquesn° 31printemps 2014.

The connected photography can't exist without a recipient. Beyond a first-degree utility, the communicative systems also give images the function of engaging in a conversation or a dialogical unity. This way they acquire a second-degree utility as expressive forms. In private exchanges, the protection of the messages and the familiarity of the participants encourages implicit contents, contextual games, or transgression24. In social networks, the public visibility enables collective practices: a participative interpretation through a series of commentaries generated by an iconic source, or a choral construction, by taking and repeating a motive transformed in a meme25, that shows the social productivity of visual forms (see fig. 6).

6 conversation

Fig. 6. Picture published in Facebook and its accompanying conversation, February 2012 (Hipstamatic, courtesy of Catherine Harmant).

As a sign of its success, we see a tendency to an autonomy of the visual conversation, through tools of collection and rebroadcast of images, such as Tumblr (2007) or Pinterest (2010), where retaking and circulating the content are the main resources of validation. A platform dedicated to the connected image, such as Instagram (2010), allows helping in the creation of collaborative answers to a common event, a meteorological phenomenon or a cultural occasion, welcomed by a photographic production whose display takes the aspect of a collective game (see fig 7).

 

7-GTA5 instagram

Fig. 7. Collection of selfies published in Instagram on the release date of the video game Grand Theft Auto 5, September 2013 (priv. coll.).

Conversely, integrating images in the conversation makes them benefit from the validation systems that reward participating in social networks. The exposition and public appreciation of self-produced photography grant it a critical, aesthetic or social legitimacy. They also favor the presence of an autonomous interpretation exercise, that seems necessary to reduce the ambiguity of the images26

By sharing broadly the new visual practices, the big social networks also give them an unprecedented visibility and contribute to their viral propagation. A satirical video published in December 2012 at the College Humor site redirects a song by Nickelback to make fun of the trends in connected photography27. Pictures of meals, feet, cats, airplane wings, filters, selfies, etc.: the clip draws up a long list of themes repeated on the timelines of Facebook and Twitter. This excellent parody shows that placing these visual forms together is beautiful and correctly identified as numerous autonomous patterns.

8-pieds plage

Fig. 8. Contextual self-photograph of a pair of feet published on Facebook, Rio de Janeiro, August 2012 (priv. coll.).

 

By examining the characteristics of private photographies from the early 20th century, Marin Dacos noticed that a large part of album photos reproduced the models of studio photography or publicity published on the papers28. By granting a group of visual practices a certificate of recognition, the video of College Humor suggests that from now on we help in a reversal phenomenon. As with memes or recommendations, the private iconography benefits from the transition that sees social networks take the place of traditional media in terms of cultural developers. Through them, the vernacular productions achieve a rank of identifiable and reproducible models. 

This new visibility manifests particularly through negative reactions. This way, in 2013 we were able to see "selfie" being selected as word of the year by the editors of the Oxford Dictionary due to a share of media commentaries that denounced that the Web was saturated with this narcissistic exercise of connected self-portraits29. By criticizing an excessive presence, this reception is witnessing an standard that the genre is in the process of achieving. 

When Michel de Certeau was trying to get close to the "ordinary culture", he expressed his discomfort at facing the "almost invisibility" of practices "that were hardly signaled by their own products30". On the contrary, the visibility that the main social networks give the individual expression reverse the dynamic of the production of the standard. In the past, the popular classes copied whatever the stars did. From this point forward, celebrities and the big names of this world are the ones who reproduce the models issued by the general public by conforming themselves to the rules of the selfie.

selfie obama

Fig. 9. Roberto Schmidt, photograph of a selfie with a smartphone by Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning--‐Schmidt next to Barack Obama and David Cameron during the Nelson Mandela memorial service, December 11th, 2013 (AFP).

We can regret this development of a "barbaric taste" —to quote Kant's expression retaken by Bourdieu31— by social networks, the intermediaries of the ordinary culture. But isn't bringing good and bad taste into opposition the wrong way of address the problem? While the visual or musical practices encourage an unexpected approach inspired on art history, that places first the creativity of the authors and supposes a self-sufficiency for the expressive motivation, the test of language forms proposes a neutral description of the process. But, unlike the creation, or even the expression, the conversation is an autonomous domain with a communicative and social utility32. In this context, the new visual practices shouldn't be analyzed only from an aesthetic point of view.

The victory of use over content is particularly obvious with Snapchat (2011), a mobile application of visual messaging that offers the possibility of deleting the picture a few seconds after consulting it.

This feature of protected conversations through the fugacity of an iconic message has become a success for this medium with the young population, who uses it at a rhythm similar to SMS. By programming the disappearance of the image, Snapchat adds a playful dimension, as well as a supplementary freedom for the user, promoting an informal or relaxed use. The application clearly illustrates the desertion of the territory of labor and elaboration in favor of a conversation in real time. Already broadly detectable by most social networks, this shift suggests the description of ordinary practices of the image as a new language.

As with the arrival of the cinema or the television, the arrival of the conversational image transforms deeply our visual practices. Photography used to be an art and a medium. We are living the moment when it is accessing the universality of a language. Integrated by multipurpose tools for connected systems, the visual forms have begun to engage greatly in both private and public conversations. Whatever individuals can do for their production and interpretation contributes to a fast evolution of formats and uses. The visibility conferred by social networks speeds their diffusion and gives birth to self-produced standards. The appropriation of the visual language helps reinvent everyday life. Moreover, the extension of the utility of images states specific problems to be analyzed. If the semiotics of visual forms had until now leaned on a narrow register of assumed contexts, identifiable by a unique formal test, the variety of these new applications is imposing a change towards an ethnography of uses. 


 

24 Tim Kindberg, Mirjana Spasojevic, Rowanne Fleck, Abigail Sellen, "I Saw This and Thought of You. Some Social Uses of Camera Phones", Extended Abstracts of the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2005), 2005, ACM Press, p. 1545-1548 ; Gaby David, "The Intimacy of Strong Ties in Mobile Visual Communication", Culture Visuelle, April 22th, 2013 (http://culturevisuelle.org/corazonada/2013/04/22/the-intimacy-of-strong-ties-in-mobile visualcommunication/).

25 A meme is a repetitive pattern whose viral diffusion takes the form of an adaptable game based on decontextualization (André Gunthert, “La culture du partage ou la revanche des foules”, in Hervé Le Crosnier (dir.), Culturenum. Jeunesse, culture et éducation dans la vague numérique, Caen, C & F Editions, 2013, p. 163-175).

26 Fatima Aziz, "L'image transactionnelle, enquête sur les usages visuels de Facebook", Etudes photographiques, n° 31, Spring 2014 (to be published).

27 "Look at this Instagram (Nickelback Parody)", College Humor, December 3th, 2012 (http://www.collegehumor.com/video/6853117/look-at-this-instagram-nickelback-parody).

28 Marin Dacos, "Regards sur l'élégance au village. Identités et photographies, 1900-1950", Études photographiques, n° 16, May 2005 (on line: http://etudesphotographiques.revues.org/728).

29Sherry Turkle, "The Documented Life", The New York Times, December 15th, 2013 (on line: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/16/opinion/the-documented-life.html).

30 Michel de Certeau, op. cit., p. 53.

31 Emmanuel Kant, Critique de la faculté de juger (1790, éd. Ferdinand Alquié), 1-13, Paris, Gallimard, 1985, p. 155 ; Pierre Bourdieu, op. cit., p. 130.

32 Catherine Kerbrat-Orecchioni, L'Enonciation. De la subjectivité dans le langage, Paris, Armand Colin, 4 e éd., 2009.

 

André GunthertAndré Gunthert (Francia, 1961). Lives and works in France. He works as a researcher in cultural history and visual studies, holds a PhD in Art History and is an associate professor at the EHESS (School for Higher Studies in Social Sciences). Gunthert is also the director of the Laboratory of Contemporary Visual History (LHIVIC) and the founder of the digital journals Photographic studies and Visual Culture. He is currently carrying out research into the new uses of the digital image. His writings on visual culture can be consulted in his blog: L'Atelier des icônes.
 
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André Gunthert, "Conversational image: new uses of digital photography.", Etudes photographiquesn° 31printemps 2014.

The connected photography can't exist without a recipient. Beyond a first-degree utility, the communicative systems also give images the function of engaging in a conversation or a dialogical unity. This way they acquire a second-degree utility as expressive forms. In private exchanges, the protection of the messages and the familiarity of the participants encourages implicit contents, contextual games, or transgression24. In social networks, the public visibility enables collective practices: a participative interpretation through a series of commentaries generated by an iconic source, or a choral construction, by taking and repeating a motive transformed in a meme25, that shows the social productivity of visual forms (see fig. 6).

6 conversation

Fig. 6. Picture published in Facebook and its accompanying conversation, February 2012 (Hipstamatic, courtesy of Catherine Harmant).

As a sign of its success, we see a tendency to an autonomy of the visual conversation, through tools of collection and rebroadcast of images, such as Tumblr (2007) or Pinterest (2010), where retaking and circulating the content are the main resources of validation. A platform dedicated to the connected image, such as Instagram (2010), allows helping in the creation of collaborative answers to a common event, a meteorological phenomenon or a cultural occasion, welcomed by a photographic production whose display takes the aspect of a collective game (see fig 7).

 

7-GTA5 instagram

Fig. 7. Collection of selfies published in Instagram on the release date of the video game Grand Theft Auto 5, September 2013 (priv. coll.).

Conversely, integrating images in the conversation makes them benefit from the validation systems that reward participating in social networks. The exposition and public appreciation of self-produced photography grant it a critical, aesthetic or social legitimacy. They also favor the presence of an autonomous interpretation exercise, that seems necessary to reduce the ambiguity of the images26

By sharing broadly the new visual practices, the big social networks also give them an unprecedented visibility and contribute to their viral propagation. A satirical video published in December 2012 at the College Humor site redirects a song by Nickelback to make fun of the trends in connected photography27. Pictures of meals, feet, cats, airplane wings, filters, selfies, etc.: the clip draws up a long list of themes repeated on the timelines of Facebook and Twitter. This excellent parody shows that placing these visual forms together is beautiful and correctly identified as numerous autonomous patterns.

8-pieds plage

Fig. 8. Contextual self-photograph of a pair of feet published on Facebook, Rio de Janeiro, August 2012 (priv. coll.).

 

By examining the characteristics of private photographies from the early 20th century, Marin Dacos noticed that a large part of album photos reproduced the models of studio photography or publicity published on the papers28. By granting a group of visual practices a certificate of recognition, the video of College Humor suggests that from now on we help in a reversal phenomenon. As with memes or recommendations, the private iconography benefits from the transition that sees social networks take the place of traditional media in terms of cultural developers. Through them, the vernacular productions achieve a rank of identifiable and reproducible models. 

This new visibility manifests particularly through negative reactions. This way, in 2013 we were able to see "selfie" being selected as word of the year by the editors of the Oxford Dictionary due to a share of media commentaries that denounced that the Web was saturated with this narcissistic exercise of connected self-portraits29. By criticizing an excessive presence, this reception is witnessing an standard that the genre is in the process of achieving. 

When Michel de Certeau was trying to get close to the "ordinary culture", he expressed his discomfort at facing the "almost invisibility" of practices "that were hardly signaled by their own products30". On the contrary, the visibility that the main social networks give the individual expression reverse the dynamic of the production of the standard. In the past, the popular classes copied whatever the stars did. From this point forward, celebrities and the big names of this world are the ones who reproduce the models issued by the general public by conforming themselves to the rules of the selfie.

selfie obama

Fig. 9. Roberto Schmidt, photograph of a selfie with a smartphone by Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning--‐Schmidt next to Barack Obama and David Cameron during the Nelson Mandela memorial service, December 11th, 2013 (AFP).

We can regret this development of a "barbaric taste" —to quote Kant's expression retaken by Bourdieu31— by social networks, the intermediaries of the ordinary culture. But isn't bringing good and bad taste into opposition the wrong way of address the problem? While the visual or musical practices encourage an unexpected approach inspired on art history, that places first the creativity of the authors and supposes a self-sufficiency for the expressive motivation, the test of language forms proposes a neutral description of the process. But, unlike the creation, or even the expression, the conversation is an autonomous domain with a communicative and social utility32. In this context, the new visual practices shouldn't be analyzed only from an aesthetic point of view.

The victory of use over content is particularly obvious with Snapchat (2011), a mobile application of visual messaging that offers the possibility of deleting the picture a few seconds after consulting it.

This feature of protected conversations through the fugacity of an iconic message has become a success for this medium with the young population, who uses it at a rhythm similar to SMS. By programming the disappearance of the image, Snapchat adds a playful dimension, as well as a supplementary freedom for the user, promoting an informal or relaxed use. The application clearly illustrates the desertion of the territory of labor and elaboration in favor of a conversation in real time. Already broadly detectable by most social networks, this shift suggests the description of ordinary practices of the image as a new language.

As with the arrival of the cinema or the television, the arrival of the conversational image transforms deeply our visual practices. Photography used to be an art and a medium. We are living the moment when it is accessing the universality of a language. Integrated by multipurpose tools for connected systems, the visual forms have begun to engage greatly in both private and public conversations. Whatever individuals can do for their production and interpretation contributes to a fast evolution of formats and uses. The visibility conferred by social networks speeds their diffusion and gives birth to self-produced standards. The appropriation of the visual language helps reinvent everyday life. Moreover, the extension of the utility of images states specific problems to be analyzed. If the semiotics of visual forms had until now leaned on a narrow register of assumed contexts, identifiable by a unique formal test, the variety of these new applications is imposing a change towards an ethnography of uses. 


 

24 Tim Kindberg, Mirjana Spasojevic, Rowanne Fleck, Abigail Sellen, "I Saw This and Thought of You. Some Social Uses of Camera Phones", Extended Abstracts of the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2005), 2005, ACM Press, p. 1545-1548 ; Gaby David, "The Intimacy of Strong Ties in Mobile Visual Communication", Culture Visuelle, April 22th, 2013 (http://culturevisuelle.org/corazonada/2013/04/22/the-intimacy-of-strong-ties-in-mobile visualcommunication/).

25 A meme is a repetitive pattern whose viral diffusion takes the form of an adaptable game based on decontextualization (André Gunthert, “La culture du partage ou la revanche des foules”, in Hervé Le Crosnier (dir.), Culturenum. Jeunesse, culture et éducation dans la vague numérique, Caen, C & F Editions, 2013, p. 163-175).

26 Fatima Aziz, "L'image transactionnelle, enquête sur les usages visuels de Facebook", Etudes photographiques, n° 31, Spring 2014 (to be published).

27 "Look at this Instagram (Nickelback Parody)", College Humor, December 3th, 2012 (http://www.collegehumor.com/video/6853117/look-at-this-instagram-nickelback-parody).

28 Marin Dacos, "Regards sur l'élégance au village. Identités et photographies, 1900-1950", Études photographiques, n° 16, May 2005 (on line: http://etudesphotographiques.revues.org/728).

29Sherry Turkle, "The Documented Life", The New York Times, December 15th, 2013 (on line: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/16/opinion/the-documented-life.html).

30 Michel de Certeau, op. cit., p. 53.

31 Emmanuel Kant, Critique de la faculté de juger (1790, éd. Ferdinand Alquié), 1-13, Paris, Gallimard, 1985, p. 155 ; Pierre Bourdieu, op. cit., p. 130.

32 Catherine Kerbrat-Orecchioni, L'Enonciation. De la subjectivité dans le langage, Paris, Armand Colin, 4 e éd., 2009.

 

André GunthertAndré Gunthert (Francia, 1961). Lives and works in France. He works as a researcher in cultural history and visual studies, holds a PhD in Art History and is an associate professor at the EHESS (School for Higher Studies in Social Sciences). Gunthert is also the director of the Laboratory of Contemporary Visual History (LHIVIC) and the founder of the digital journals Photographic studies and Visual Culture. He is currently carrying out research into the new uses of the digital image. His writings on visual culture can be consulted in his blog: L'Atelier des icônes.
 
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From the fluid image to connected photography (1/3)

André Gunthert

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André Gunthert, "Conversational image: new uses of digital photography.", Etudes photographiquesn° 31printemps 2014.

1-weare99

 Fig. 1. Collection of visual messages from the collaborative activist blog "We are the 99%", October 2011.

 

Directed by Steven Spielberg and based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, the movie Minority Report released in 2002 is renowned for the credibility of its predictions about technology. It depicts a universe in 2054 based on the propositions of a group of experts, and it is famous for having foreseen the use of tactile interfaces. In addition to the visualization of mental images, it predicts the generalization of optical identification for monitoring or advertisement profiling purposes.

The most important part of this forecasting exercise is how its near-sightedness is even more remarkable in face of what has become, shortly after, common in the visual practices of developed countries. In the film, the private uses of the image are limited to traditional printed photographs, three-dimensional films, and interactive video conversations.

Some years later, these expectations seem to have been exceeded long ago. Instead of half a century, man only needed three to five years to have available on a daily basis video communication tools (Skype 2.0, 2005) or tactile interfaces (Apple iPhone, 2007). In contrast, no one would have imagined the rise of multimedia messaging services, the diversity of images or visual conversations in social networks. The present has left the future behind, and nowadays Minority Report seems trapped in a Foucauldian perception of the image as an instrument of control and domination. 

The unforeseen uses, much more avant-gardist than anything that could have been imagined at the beginning of the 21st century, have turned upside-down our visual practices and have evidently found a place of their own. Yet, its unpredictable nature provides an invaluable historical indication. Quite the opposite of what happened to the automobile, aviation, or television —that fell into an extension of horse carriages, navigation, or radio— the development of innovations such as photography, cinema, or records depends on proprietary mechanisms where the choice of users has had a major role. The same holds true for interactive images, an unexpected product of the encounter of the digitalization of visual contents and the documented interaction. 

From the fluid image to connected photography

At the beginning of the 1990's, the digitalization of photography was described both as a revolution and as a catastrophe. By prolonging the traditional technical approach, many specialists see in the transition to pixels the ruin of the indexicality and a sign of the end of our trust in the truth of images 1 .

At one time writing transformed the language into information, granting it irreplaceable properties of preservation, reproduction, or transmission. Now, by reducing the images' materiality, digitalization grants them a new plasticity and mobility. In the form of files easy to copy or manipulate, the iconic object becomes a fluid image.

This first stage of digital transition has important consequences in the industry of images: the disappearance of laboratories, simplification of procedures, multiplication of numerical databases, and rise of prices. However, in spite of a considerable technological jump, we have been able to observe a remarkable continuity in the forms and uses. For twenty years the digital transition has only affected the edges of visual practices. Contrary to the most somber predictions, journals have continued publishing illustrated reports and parents still take pictures of their children. Just as an automobile that traded a thermal motor for an electrical one, photography has preserved its most essential functions. There has not been a catastrophe of what is visible but, more mundanely, an acceleration of the rationalization of the field 2.

Following the example set in Minority Report, many specialists expected that this rise of new visual tools came with a shift to animated and more seductive images, and a loss of interest for motionless images. The practice of amateur video has certainly seen an important progression 3.

Nevertheless, the motionless image continues to be the most exchanged content.

It is not easy to compare in absolute terms the amount of photos and videos shared in social networks, for seconds are usually counted up in broadcasting hours. Facebook has stopped providing regular information regarding animated images, which suggests a weak increase. In 2010, at a time where social networks had half a billion members, the figures available indicated 2.5 billion of downloaded photos per month but only 20 million videos, that is 125 times less (the difference of point of view of the amateur production increases if we consider the fact that shared videos constitute a more important proportion of repeated material while photo is richer in self-produced contents).

It seems that the main advantage of the motionless image over the video is its fluidity. Video is at a disadvantage due to the weight of its files, the download time, and the restriction of formats. Not being as universal as a photo, a video can only be envisioned in an environment comprised by an appropriate reading device. In contrast, a JPEG file or an animated GIF4 have the advantage of being able to appear in any environment, in a computer or a platform, a mobile or a tablet.

Between 2008 and 2011 the landscape changed unexpectedly. It came not in the form of a camera, but a hand-held telephone produced by a computer brand. The Apple's iPhone, conceived by Steve Jobs to give major access to web features 5  (especially the 3G version available since 2008), foretells an essential evolution: that of connected photography6.

In every developed country, it is not long before the sales of cameras were surpassed by those of cell phones. In 2011, while 4.6 million of cameras were being commercialized in France (two times more than in the late 1990's) smartphones reached 12 million units 7

The adaptation of photography to mobile telephony existed since the first camera phones were available in Japan since the year 2000. But the power conferred to this convergence by the 3G norm (UMTS), comparable to the transition from modem to broadband, opens the way to the full implementation of visual practices.

This evolution turns a smartphone into a universal camera. In the past, carrying a camera implied anticipating an occasion to take pictures. In contrast, the telephone that we carry for communicative tasks or for fun, turns photography into something that is always available 8.

The moment to take a photograph belongs to a range of codified events, outside of which taking pictures is not tolerated9

The only exception being tourists and the justification of exoticism authorize an extreme use of a camera. By granting the possibility of being recorded to every moment in life, a cell phone transforms each one of us into a daily tourist, ready to take a picture at any time. This new skill is manifested mainly by the publication in the press of amateur photos or videos of major tragedies or accidents (the London attacks in 2005; the campus shootings in Virginia Tech in 2007; the plane crash in Hudson River in 2009, etc.).

But the metamorphosis does not end with the production of images; connected photography results in the alliance of the smartphone and communication tools, instant messages, or social networks, where the image can be immediately transferred through elemental operations. Even if this union is but a fraction of amateur practices, it imposes itself as an emblematic stage: the symbol of a second evolution of digital images.

 

2-Museo Británico

Fig. 2. Photograph at a museum. A tourist uses at the same time a camera and a camera phone, depending on what she wishes to achieve or convey in the image (British Museum, London, 2008, priv. coll.).

Being able to share in real time a photo to a friend or group of friends —an ability once reserved only to some wireline services— modifies thoroughly its uses. During this initial period, the quality of pictures offered by smartphones regressed in comparison to that proposed by compact cameras. In these terms, choosing a cell phone rather than a camera or the strong progression of production in this format indicated that users find an advantage to connected photography. The lack of quality is largely made up by the utility of new uses of the image, particularly by the increase in the ability to exhibit them through social networks.

Facebook, the vastest of them, which was made public in 2006, improved considerably its interface to present images between 2009 and 2011, making it easier to integrate visual files and offering a better visibility. From this point forward, taking a picture is no longer enough, what counts is being able to show it, discuss it, and share it. As the first place of exposition of self-produced photographs, Facebook logically became the most important collection of images in the world (over 250 billion photos downloaded in September of 2013 10 ). In spite of the recent loss of media achievements, this will always be the main historical site of spreading regarding connected images.

Being able to share your own photographs or to discuss them was already possible at Flickr since 2004. But the specialized platform continues to be a space for discussion centered on images. The breach created by Facebook was to propose a general environment equipped with a maximum of features, structured not around specific interests but, more fundamentally, around the interaction between real people. As Pierre Bourdieu had noticed, the uses of amateur photography continue to be mainly social 11. In Facebook, discussion focuses on any aspect of existence. Images are not mobile mainly due to aesthetic qualities but because they document life, take part in the game of self-representation, and are useful as reference documents.

This revolution of diversification modifies fundamentally the ancient paradigm of photography based on technique, the supremacy of taking pictures, the materiality, and the objectivity of the image. While the visual recording used to form an autonomous universe strongly identified, what characterizes it nowadays is its integration to the gist of multipurpose systems. The delay for camera manufacturers, who objected to transform their materials into connected tools and kept the communicative features to a minimum12 is meaningful to the extent of the change. For the first time in history, photography has become a niche practice at the core of a more vast universe: that of electronic communication.

We can compare this integration with the process of miniaturization that affected clock making between the 15th and the 19th century, taking the timepieces from bell towers of churches to the interior of salons, and to the pocket of a piece of clothing. By gaining availability at each stage, the time function evolves and transforms itself:

"The small time pieces that, as a result had, domestically or personally, a whole different quality and sense than public and monumental mechanisms. The possibility of a use both private and universal established the bases of a way to control time, in contrast to the merely obeying it", explains historian David Landes13.

Having become one of many components in the universe of communication, is photography not at risk of disappearing? Quite the contrary. If photography integrates blends with other devices, it will be inconceivable to think of a communication tool without a camera, or a digital environment lacking a visual display. In every connected object the photographic feature is independent; it has gained in universality and adaptation, fulfilling to its best its promise of democratization of the visual production. As with the clock, the integration of photography, which is only beginning, continues announcing that it will go beyond its original function. Hereafter, the generalization of the production of images announces a revolution of its uses.


 

1 William J. Mitchell, The Reconfigured Eye. Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era,Cambridge, London, MIT Press, 1992; Pierre Barboza, Du photographique au numérique. La parenthèse indicielle dans l'histoire des images, Paris, L'Harmattan, 1996.

2 Sylvain Maresca, Dominique Sagot-Duvauroux, "Photographie(s) et numérique(s). Du singulier au pluriel" (memo at symposium "Travail et création artistique en régime numérique", Avignon, 27 may 2011), La vie sociale des images, 5 may 2011 (http://culturevisuelle.org/viesociale/2791).

3 Out of 100 people aged 15 and over, 14 declared having made movies or videos in 1997 vs. 27 in 2008, an increase by almost 2-fold; Olivier Donnat, Les Pratiques culturelles des Français à l'ère numérique. Enquête 2008, Paris, La Découverte, 2009, p. 190. Confirmation of determination through fluidity: short-video formats have experienced the strongest development.

4 Proposed in 1991, the JPEG format (Joint Photographic Expert Group) is a compressed format used for most motionless images on line. The animated GIF (part of the public domain since 2004) allows to post in the same context a looped sequence of images, joined in a same file.

5 Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs Trans. by Dominique Defert and Carole Delporte. Paris, Lattès, 2011. p. 529-539.

6 Edgar Gómez Cruz, Eric T. Meyer, "Creation and Control in the Photographic Process. iPhones and the Emerging Fifth Moment of Photography", Photographies, 5/2, 2012.

7 "The life cycle of a photograph in the digital era", Ipsos survey 2011 (communication SIPEC September 2011).

8 Nancy Van House et al., "The Uses of Personal Networked Digital Imaging. An Empirical Study of Cameraphone Photos and Sharing", Extended Abstracts of the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2005), 2005, ACM Press, p. 1853-1856.

9 "In the eyes of the peasant, the city-dweller is the one who succumbs to a sort of perceptual 'anything goes-ism'; and this attitude appears incomprehensible to him because he refers to an implicit philosophy according to which only certain objects, on certain occasions, are worthy of being photographed", Pierre Bourdieu, "The Social Definition of Photography", Un art moyen. Essai sur lesusages sociaux de la photographie, Paris, Minuit, 1965, p. 117. 

10 « Every day, there are more than 4.75 billion content items shared on Facebook (including status updates, wall posts, photos, videos and comments), more than 4.5 billion "Likes", and more than 10 billion messages sent. More than 250 billion photos have been uploaded to Facebook, and more than 350 million photos are uploaded every day on average », A Focus on Efficiency, Facebook/Ericsson/Qualcomm whitepaper, 16 September2013, p. 6(en línea: https://fbcdn--dragon-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-prn1/851575_520797877991079_393255490_n.pdf ).

11 Pierre Bourdieu, "La définition sociale de la photographie", op. cit., p. 108-138. 

12 Samsung, the main competitor of Apple in terms of smartphones, proposed in 2012 the first "smart cameras" equipped with Wi-Fi transmitters, the variety of NX hybrid and the EX2F, a compact expert. That same year, Nikon chose to introduce its Coolpix S800c with Android OS.

13 David S. Landes, L'Heure qu'il est. Les horloges, la mesure du temps et la formation du monde moderne (1983, translated from the English by  Pierre-Emmanuel Dauzat), París, Gallimard, 1987, p. 30.

André GunthertAndré Gunthert (Francia, 1961). Lives and works in France. He works as a researcher in cultural history and visual studies, holds a PhD in Art History and is an associate professor at the EHESS (School for Higher Studies in Social Sciences). Gunthert is also the director of the Laboratory of Contemporary Visual History (LHIVIC) and the founder of the digital journals Photographic studies and Visual Culture. He is currently carrying out research into the new uses of the digital image. His writings on visual culture can be consulted in his blog: L'Atelier des icônes.
 
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André Gunthert, "Conversational image: new uses of digital photography.", Etudes photographiquesn° 31printemps 2014.

1-weare99

 Fig. 1. Collection of visual messages from the collaborative activist blog "We are the 99%", October 2011.

 

Directed by Steven Spielberg and based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, the movie Minority Report released in 2002 is renowned for the credibility of its predictions about technology. It depicts a universe in 2054 based on the propositions of a group of experts, and it is famous for having foreseen the use of tactile interfaces. In addition to the visualization of mental images, it predicts the generalization of optical identification for monitoring or advertisement profiling purposes.

The most important part of this forecasting exercise is how its near-sightedness is even more remarkable in face of what has become, shortly after, common in the visual practices of developed countries. In the film, the private uses of the image are limited to traditional printed photographs, three-dimensional films, and interactive video conversations.

Some years later, these expectations seem to have been exceeded long ago. Instead of half a century, man only needed three to five years to have available on a daily basis video communication tools (Skype 2.0, 2005) or tactile interfaces (Apple iPhone, 2007). In contrast, no one would have imagined the rise of multimedia messaging services, the diversity of images or visual conversations in social networks. The present has left the future behind, and nowadays Minority Report seems trapped in a Foucauldian perception of the image as an instrument of control and domination. 

The unforeseen uses, much more avant-gardist than anything that could have been imagined at the beginning of the 21st century, have turned upside-down our visual practices and have evidently found a place of their own. Yet, its unpredictable nature provides an invaluable historical indication. Quite the opposite of what happened to the automobile, aviation, or television —that fell into an extension of horse carriages, navigation, or radio— the development of innovations such as photography, cinema, or records depends on proprietary mechanisms where the choice of users has had a major role. The same holds true for interactive images, an unexpected product of the encounter of the digitalization of visual contents and the documented interaction. 

From the fluid image to connected photography

At the beginning of the 1990's, the digitalization of photography was described both as a revolution and as a catastrophe. By prolonging the traditional technical approach, many specialists see in the transition to pixels the ruin of the indexicality and a sign of the end of our trust in the truth of images 1 .

At one time writing transformed the language into information, granting it irreplaceable properties of preservation, reproduction, or transmission. Now, by reducing the images' materiality, digitalization grants them a new plasticity and mobility. In the form of files easy to copy or manipulate, the iconic object becomes a fluid image.

This first stage of digital transition has important consequences in the industry of images: the disappearance of laboratories, simplification of procedures, multiplication of numerical databases, and rise of prices. However, in spite of a considerable technological jump, we have been able to observe a remarkable continuity in the forms and uses. For twenty years the digital transition has only affected the edges of visual practices. Contrary to the most somber predictions, journals have continued publishing illustrated reports and parents still take pictures of their children. Just as an automobile that traded a thermal motor for an electrical one, photography has preserved its most essential functions. There has not been a catastrophe of what is visible but, more mundanely, an acceleration of the rationalization of the field 2.

Following the example set in Minority Report, many specialists expected that this rise of new visual tools came with a shift to animated and more seductive images, and a loss of interest for motionless images. The practice of amateur video has certainly seen an important progression 3.

Nevertheless, the motionless image continues to be the most exchanged content.

It is not easy to compare in absolute terms the amount of photos and videos shared in social networks, for seconds are usually counted up in broadcasting hours. Facebook has stopped providing regular information regarding animated images, which suggests a weak increase. In 2010, at a time where social networks had half a billion members, the figures available indicated 2.5 billion of downloaded photos per month but only 20 million videos, that is 125 times less (the difference of point of view of the amateur production increases if we consider the fact that shared videos constitute a more important proportion of repeated material while photo is richer in self-produced contents).

It seems that the main advantage of the motionless image over the video is its fluidity. Video is at a disadvantage due to the weight of its files, the download time, and the restriction of formats. Not being as universal as a photo, a video can only be envisioned in an environment comprised by an appropriate reading device. In contrast, a JPEG file or an animated GIF4 have the advantage of being able to appear in any environment, in a computer or a platform, a mobile or a tablet.

Between 2008 and 2011 the landscape changed unexpectedly. It came not in the form of a camera, but a hand-held telephone produced by a computer brand. The Apple's iPhone, conceived by Steve Jobs to give major access to web features 5  (especially the 3G version available since 2008), foretells an essential evolution: that of connected photography6.

In every developed country, it is not long before the sales of cameras were surpassed by those of cell phones. In 2011, while 4.6 million of cameras were being commercialized in France (two times more than in the late 1990's) smartphones reached 12 million units 7

The adaptation of photography to mobile telephony existed since the first camera phones were available in Japan since the year 2000. But the power conferred to this convergence by the 3G norm (UMTS), comparable to the transition from modem to broadband, opens the way to the full implementation of visual practices.

This evolution turns a smartphone into a universal camera. In the past, carrying a camera implied anticipating an occasion to take pictures. In contrast, the telephone that we carry for communicative tasks or for fun, turns photography into something that is always available 8.

The moment to take a photograph belongs to a range of codified events, outside of which taking pictures is not tolerated9

The only exception being tourists and the justification of exoticism authorize an extreme use of a camera. By granting the possibility of being recorded to every moment in life, a cell phone transforms each one of us into a daily tourist, ready to take a picture at any time. This new skill is manifested mainly by the publication in the press of amateur photos or videos of major tragedies or accidents (the London attacks in 2005; the campus shootings in Virginia Tech in 2007; the plane crash in Hudson River in 2009, etc.).

But the metamorphosis does not end with the production of images; connected photography results in the alliance of the smartphone and communication tools, instant messages, or social networks, where the image can be immediately transferred through elemental operations. Even if this union is but a fraction of amateur practices, it imposes itself as an emblematic stage: the symbol of a second evolution of digital images.

 

2-Museo Británico

Fig. 2. Photograph at a museum. A tourist uses at the same time a camera and a camera phone, depending on what she wishes to achieve or convey in the image (British Museum, London, 2008, priv. coll.).

Being able to share in real time a photo to a friend or group of friends —an ability once reserved only to some wireline services— modifies thoroughly its uses. During this initial period, the quality of pictures offered by smartphones regressed in comparison to that proposed by compact cameras. In these terms, choosing a cell phone rather than a camera or the strong progression of production in this format indicated that users find an advantage to connected photography. The lack of quality is largely made up by the utility of new uses of the image, particularly by the increase in the ability to exhibit them through social networks.

Facebook, the vastest of them, which was made public in 2006, improved considerably its interface to present images between 2009 and 2011, making it easier to integrate visual files and offering a better visibility. From this point forward, taking a picture is no longer enough, what counts is being able to show it, discuss it, and share it. As the first place of exposition of self-produced photographs, Facebook logically became the most important collection of images in the world (over 250 billion photos downloaded in September of 2013 10 ). In spite of the recent loss of media achievements, this will always be the main historical site of spreading regarding connected images.

Being able to share your own photographs or to discuss them was already possible at Flickr since 2004. But the specialized platform continues to be a space for discussion centered on images. The breach created by Facebook was to propose a general environment equipped with a maximum of features, structured not around specific interests but, more fundamentally, around the interaction between real people. As Pierre Bourdieu had noticed, the uses of amateur photography continue to be mainly social 11. In Facebook, discussion focuses on any aspect of existence. Images are not mobile mainly due to aesthetic qualities but because they document life, take part in the game of self-representation, and are useful as reference documents.

This revolution of diversification modifies fundamentally the ancient paradigm of photography based on technique, the supremacy of taking pictures, the materiality, and the objectivity of the image. While the visual recording used to form an autonomous universe strongly identified, what characterizes it nowadays is its integration to the gist of multipurpose systems. The delay for camera manufacturers, who objected to transform their materials into connected tools and kept the communicative features to a minimum12 is meaningful to the extent of the change. For the first time in history, photography has become a niche practice at the core of a more vast universe: that of electronic communication.

We can compare this integration with the process of miniaturization that affected clock making between the 15th and the 19th century, taking the timepieces from bell towers of churches to the interior of salons, and to the pocket of a piece of clothing. By gaining availability at each stage, the time function evolves and transforms itself:

"The small time pieces that, as a result had, domestically or personally, a whole different quality and sense than public and monumental mechanisms. The possibility of a use both private and universal established the bases of a way to control time, in contrast to the merely obeying it", explains historian David Landes13.

Having become one of many components in the universe of communication, is photography not at risk of disappearing? Quite the contrary. If photography integrates blends with other devices, it will be inconceivable to think of a communication tool without a camera, or a digital environment lacking a visual display. In every connected object the photographic feature is independent; it has gained in universality and adaptation, fulfilling to its best its promise of democratization of the visual production. As with the clock, the integration of photography, which is only beginning, continues announcing that it will go beyond its original function. Hereafter, the generalization of the production of images announces a revolution of its uses.


 

1 William J. Mitchell, The Reconfigured Eye. Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era,Cambridge, London, MIT Press, 1992; Pierre Barboza, Du photographique au numérique. La parenthèse indicielle dans l'histoire des images, Paris, L'Harmattan, 1996.

2 Sylvain Maresca, Dominique Sagot-Duvauroux, "Photographie(s) et numérique(s). Du singulier au pluriel" (memo at symposium "Travail et création artistique en régime numérique", Avignon, 27 may 2011), La vie sociale des images, 5 may 2011 (http://culturevisuelle.org/viesociale/2791).

3 Out of 100 people aged 15 and over, 14 declared having made movies or videos in 1997 vs. 27 in 2008, an increase by almost 2-fold; Olivier Donnat, Les Pratiques culturelles des Français à l'ère numérique. Enquête 2008, Paris, La Découverte, 2009, p. 190. Confirmation of determination through fluidity: short-video formats have experienced the strongest development.

4 Proposed in 1991, the JPEG format (Joint Photographic Expert Group) is a compressed format used for most motionless images on line. The animated GIF (part of the public domain since 2004) allows to post in the same context a looped sequence of images, joined in a same file.

5 Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs Trans. by Dominique Defert and Carole Delporte. Paris, Lattès, 2011. p. 529-539.

6 Edgar Gómez Cruz, Eric T. Meyer, "Creation and Control in the Photographic Process. iPhones and the Emerging Fifth Moment of Photography", Photographies, 5/2, 2012.

7 "The life cycle of a photograph in the digital era", Ipsos survey 2011 (communication SIPEC September 2011).

8 Nancy Van House et al., "The Uses of Personal Networked Digital Imaging. An Empirical Study of Cameraphone Photos and Sharing", Extended Abstracts of the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2005), 2005, ACM Press, p. 1853-1856.

9 "In the eyes of the peasant, the city-dweller is the one who succumbs to a sort of perceptual 'anything goes-ism'; and this attitude appears incomprehensible to him because he refers to an implicit philosophy according to which only certain objects, on certain occasions, are worthy of being photographed", Pierre Bourdieu, "The Social Definition of Photography", Un art moyen. Essai sur lesusages sociaux de la photographie, Paris, Minuit, 1965, p. 117. 

10 « Every day, there are more than 4.75 billion content items shared on Facebook (including status updates, wall posts, photos, videos and comments), more than 4.5 billion "Likes", and more than 10 billion messages sent. More than 250 billion photos have been uploaded to Facebook, and more than 350 million photos are uploaded every day on average », A Focus on Efficiency, Facebook/Ericsson/Qualcomm whitepaper, 16 September2013, p. 6(en línea: https://fbcdn--dragon-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-prn1/851575_520797877991079_393255490_n.pdf ).

11 Pierre Bourdieu, "La définition sociale de la photographie", op. cit., p. 108-138. 

12 Samsung, the main competitor of Apple in terms of smartphones, proposed in 2012 the first "smart cameras" equipped with Wi-Fi transmitters, the variety of NX hybrid and the EX2F, a compact expert. That same year, Nikon chose to introduce its Coolpix S800c with Android OS.

13 David S. Landes, L'Heure qu'il est. Les horloges, la mesure du temps et la formation du monde moderne (1983, translated from the English by  Pierre-Emmanuel Dauzat), París, Gallimard, 1987, p. 30.

André GunthertAndré Gunthert (Francia, 1961). Lives and works in France. He works as a researcher in cultural history and visual studies, holds a PhD in Art History and is an associate professor at the EHESS (School for Higher Studies in Social Sciences). Gunthert is also the director of the Laboratory of Contemporary Visual History (LHIVIC) and the founder of the digital journals Photographic studies and Visual Culture. He is currently carrying out research into the new uses of the digital image. His writings on visual culture can be consulted in his blog: L'Atelier des icônes.
 
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