The weight of the past

I am periodically re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 5 December 2010 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

(This is a companion blog to an earlier entry which used 4’33”to think about what happens when the medium used to (re)produce music shifts. The current entry thinks about photography, with the help of a book and a television programme.)

A few weeks ago, in a cafe or a restaurant, I noticed a couple looking through a set of photographs that they had just gotten back from being developed – a commonplace sight as recently as perhaps six or seven years ago, but much less so now.

Nostalgia touches photographs in many ways. In her beautiful book On Photography, Susan Sontag wrote:

A photograph of 1900 that was affecting then because of its subject would, today, be more likely to move us because it is a photograph taken in 1900. The particular qualities and intentions of photographs tend to be swallowed up in the generalized pathos of time past. Aesthetic distance seems built into the very experience of looking at photographs, if not right away, then certainly with the passage of time. Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art.

Looking at the couple looking at actual, material photographs, not images on a screen, I felt nostalgia for a photographic process that is now a residual technology.

In On Photography, Sontag has a lot to say about the relationship with the past that photography invites. At times she is markedly critical. When she states that ‘photographs furnish instant history, instant sociology, instant participation’, she is pointing to what she sees as photography’s illusory offer of easy access to complex realities.

In another passage, Sontag suggests that photographs act as a substitute, and perhaps a poor one, for an older kind of link with the past:

Fewer and fewer Americans possess objects that have a patina, old furniture, grandparents’ pots and pans — the used things, warm with generations of human touch, that Rilke celebrated in The Duino Elegies as being essential to a human landscape. Instead, we have our paper phantoms, transistorized landscapes. A featherweight portable museum.

I recently revisited Sontag’s book alongside the BBC television drama Shooting the Past. The latter tells the story of a photographic collection which is threatened with destruction when the old building it is housed in is bought by American developers so that it can become the site of a business school. The developers arrive under the impression that the staff are aware of what is happening and have made arrangements for the collection to be re-housed, but find out that they are wrong on both counts. The matter then becomes, as the chief developer puts it, one of hard economics: the photographs have a monetary value less than the cost of even a few days’ delay in construction, so they will have to be destroyed.

The problem that the collection represents, and that those who wish to preserve it face, is that, en masse, these photographs constitute not a ‘featherweight portable museum’, but a bulky, decidedly material, set of objects. One could facetiously observe that if it were a collection of digital photographs, there would be no story: the staff could put their memory sticks in their pockets and be on their way. But as well as all the other questions this leaves unanswered, it runs the risk of succumbing to a form of digital utopianism which ignores the material basis of even these new technologies, a hubristic blindness which both their producers and consumers often participate in.

The point is that just as media have a history, so too does the way we think about those media. What seems featherweight to one generation, whose point of comparison is something that came earlier, becomes bulky to another, who have moved on once again. The current pace of technological change means that we can witness this process take place over the space of less than five years; think of mobile phone technology. Now that celluloid is on its way out (and the stars of classical Hollywood are almost all dead), theorisations of film based on movement, or even absent-presence, are receding, and newer theories linking the moving image with death are coming to the fore. We ought to be at least a touch more precise and acknowledge that, like nostalgia, death has been associated with photography, including moving photograpy, for a long time (Bazin once observed that if photography were subject to pyschoanalysis, one of the key motives behind it would be the embalming of the dead). So it is more accurate to say that whilst there will always be competing theorisations of media at any given moment, there will be a historical variation in the prominence of these models.

There’s another way of reading Shooting the Past that appeals to me at this particular historical moment. The programme tells the story of capitalists encountering an institution which they now have control of, even if they do not understand it. And all of a sudden, the guardians of that institution are told that they must face ‘reality’, or, to decode that term of blackmail, a certain brand of economics (as if up until this point they had been living in a dreamworld). The imperatives of a balance sheet and a timetable become the only ones that matter. In this situtation, the value of what is preserved and disseminated by the institution can only be conceived of in financial terms, terms which, of course, completely overlook the institution’s real value.

But that’s another blog entry…

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