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ThemesPhoto/ByteInstant Images
Instant Images: The Recording, Distribution and Consumption of Reality Predestined by Digital Photography [1]
Kathrin Peters

The German Photoindustrie-Verband e.V. (Photographic Trade Association) has every reason to be pleased: «Never before were so many cameras sold in Germany than in 2004.» In figures this represents 7 million digital and 1.4 million analog cameras, of which a total of about 120 million are in circulation on the so-called world market, not including cell phone and disposable, singleuse cameras. This expansion encourages conclusive statements such as «Consumers have rediscovered and intensified their pleasure in taking photographs.» [2]

These consumers cannot all be family men. Whereas in 1965 the group surrounding the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu identified the documentation of family rituals as the ritual confirmation of the institution of the family itself, emphasizing the social function of taking photographs, [3] in view of the current sales boom in the camera sector, the validity of this theory is arguable. For it is not a drop in the use of photographic technologies that is accompanying the dissolution of traditional family structures and bonds, rather it is apparently a rise in their use. This essay does not treat this increase as a mere consequence ofmarketing, but rather as a sign of changing photographic gestures, therefore of changing community bonds beyond the family. This may sound very theoretical at first, and in fact it will first be necessary to single out a few photographic practices from within a jumbled social framework. If one considers both amateur photography as well as the field of the fine arts and its periphery, the specific practices and events consist on the one hand of an increase in the value of a snapshot aesthetics which makes construed or actual reference to familial and everyday experiences, and on the other hand an arrangement of photographic images in online databases for which the name of the artist or the photographer is not essential, as the images and the users form a community that is only constituted through its presence on the Web site. The emphasis on authenticity and individual experience and making images (publicly) accessible once more seems to have been made over to the notion of photographs as memory stores. Digital recording and distribution processes are connected with these practices without these practices solely being justified by the same—the equipment, practices and symbols in circulation are too heterogeneous. While since the 1980s the majority of theoretical considerations with regard to digital photography concerned image processing, the following will deal with electronic signal storage, i.e., not with the implications of image manipulation with the aid of computer technology, but with a more or less private photographic practice that uses digital cameras and/or stores photographs in digital distribution media. In this field, the notion of photographic authenticity is consistent; even more, due to the instantaneousness with which photographs can be taken and displayed under electronic conditions, it seems to have gained appeal. Disregarding some of the premature decisions with regard to the effects of the «digital revolution,» i.e., that photographic images will largely lose their reference to reality, [4] immediacy and true-to-lifeness also remain central criteria for the image recorded on a chip or circulating in the Internet. Thus it is about constituting an object of research to begin with; an object which is found in popular culture and which disassociates itself from a discourse among masters ofphotography, a discourse that has begun to dig its own grave.


The year 2004 was not only the year in which—due to the proliferation of lowcost and user-friendly cameras—the photography industry recorded a sales boom. It was also the year of the death of three of the so-called master photographs who had devoted themselves to the aesthetic and technical refinements of analog photography: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton. For the publicist Claus Heinrich Meyer, Avedon’s death also marked the death of a photographic era: «[T]he twenty-first century will not produce such personalities, such minds, such ‹still› images.» He was referring to Avedon’s knowledge of aesthetics and to his personality as well as that of the people of whom he made large-format portraits. Who populates the world now? Models? Role players? [Refer to the podium discussion with Isabell Heimerdinger: Media Reality and Authentic Expression.] In his discussion of Cartier-Bresson’s retrospective in Berlin’s Martin-Gropiusbau, Gustav Seibt also detects the end of an era—even the end of history: «[Mass culture] was no longer able to locate itself in the noble black-and-white photograph by the prophetic artist, but more likely in the blurred snapshot taken by an anonymous camera. The world of this consumerist pop is egalitarian, garish, coarsegrained. Cartier-Bresson’s world abounds with shadows and gestures; there is something monumental, human, historical about it.» [5] In view of picture messaging and imaging, Seibt’s traditionalist comparisons—history versus mass culture, an abundance of shadows versus consumerist pop, black-andwhite versus full of color, prophetic artist versus the anonymity of the camera— may have an associative power of persuasion, but they are nevertheless still irritating. For there are good reasons to maintain that the era of photography has always been one of mass culture, of the mechanization of consumption—or modernity. The denial of the embedding of photography in the history of media continues a specifically art-photographic attitude that since the late nineteenth century has not ceased to aestheticize photography: Like other Anglo-American critics who have intervened in this discourse, the arthistorian Abigail Solomon- Godeau describes the criteria for regarding photography as art as follows: «For the art photographer, the issues and intentions remained those traditionally associated with the aestheticizing use and forms of the medium: the primacy of formal organization and values, the autonomy of the photographic image, the subjectivization of vision, the fetishizing of print quality, and the unquestioned assumption of photographic authorship.» [6] Indeed, the private snapshot is diametrically opposed to this aesthetic program. Unlike in Cartier-Bresson’s «decisive moment,» [7] the snapshot does not condense meaningful constellations into a single, ‹still› image. Rather it is bound to the moment without any regard for decisiveness. The snapshot has nothing to say about history and the events, great men and chronologies by which it is influenced. It only has something to say about immediate surroundings, about friends and relatives, about festivities and outings.

Nevertheless, it is not implausible to short-circuit photography and history (even if the proclamation of an end itself proceeds historiographically). Siegfried Kracauer was not the only one to notice a parallel between «historical reality and camera reality,» [8] which for him had its roots in the element of distance, of alienation. Roland Barthes also noted «a paradox: the same century invented History and Photography.» [9] For Barthes this coincidence is paradoxical because historical science is construed remembrance, whereas the photographic image is not a memory store but an option on the certainty about «what has been.» That is a subtle but decisive difference, because from here photographs cannot only be conceived of as more or less semantically compressed historical documents, but as an abrupt return of the past independent from the aesthetic quality of the individual images or the already doubtful quality of a photographic signature. Barthes clearly declared his advocacy of private photography. In view of its manifestations, which will be treated in the following, it is questionable whether his «romantic» notion of private photography, which deals with love and death, is still appropriate. [10] And this because the element of reception has been pushed into the background in favor of excessive producing.

«we are in love with your picture» (Lomo)

On the side of the garish, coarse-grained, utterly devoid of anything prophetic or stage-managed and without a trace of depth: the lomographers. In this photo community, which was established at the beginning of the 1990s, egalitarian picture-taking is particularly desirable. Its orientation is participatory, i.e., taking photographs should distinguish itself as a social activity in which there is no interest in the success of an individual image; rather the decisive factor is participation in a non-elitist ‹project,› which in the broadest sense is nonetheless regarded as artistic. [11] The conventions governing the ‹good picture,› still prevalent in amateur photography, are circumvented by the programmatic-ironic rule stating that only a single, simple type of camera may be used and by the «Ten Golden Rules» [LI], which if followed are intended to help transport one back into a state of photograph naivete.

Lomography is photography using a «Lomo Kompakt Automat,» an analog Russian spy camera that supposedly fell into the hands of several Viennese students during their journey beyond the newly opened East European borders in 1991. The camera’s simplicity, its exceptional optics and its coming from the former Eastern bloc are already a guarantee for low-tech charm. The Lomographic Society in Vienna sets up the opportunity for the inexpensive, uncomplicated and ‹democratic› production of images; they arrange for the cameras to be imported and begin «spreading the message of LOMOGRAPHY throughout the globe» in a mixture of club and mission. [12] Lomography’s message, which is also sent around the world via Lomographic Embassies, is characterized by ten rules. At the core of these rules is the invitation to make taking photographs a part of life and to constantly—day and night—produce images. The rule concerning composition states that everything should be left to chance; at best one should not even look through the viewfinder. Not one moment is decisive or right or worth capturing, but every moment. The rejection of, indeed the ban on aesthetic considerations is reminiscent of the DOGME 95 drawn up by the film directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, in which ten rules on the use of a 35-mmhand-held camera prescribed shooting films at authentic locations and using only original sound. This «vow of chastity» was intended to create true-to-lifeness and ‹truth› by striking out any efforts at composition both at the level of the image as well as with regard to the uniformity of the entire film. «I swear to refrain from creating a ‹work,› as I regard the instant as more important than the whole.» [13] moblogs [14] and photosharing Web sites [15] link sharing photographs with the whole world with the euphoric notions of «love» and «friends.» In both cases this implies the idea of the WWW as a democratic, user-to-user medium that guarantees direct communication. [16]

The digitalization of images plays a major role in the activity of sharing photographs, whose medium is the Internet. Starting from media-scientific posits that digital images are no longer images, [17] the question remains of whether there is a difference between circulating photographs recorded by analog means and those recorded by digital means in electronic networks. Except for the fact that the processes produce a different look, for the context of photography, community and authenticity being discussed here, the answer to this question does not seem to be relevant. In contrast to the out-of-focus look of lomographs, the high degree of sharpness of digital images is more a criterion of difference within a community than a theory-capable, ‹innovative› feature or a medial discontinuity. What appears to be more essential is the lack of expenditure required to its core aims at holding on to each moment, not to make it memorable, but primarily to make it capable of being experienced in the first place as a momentary event.


In his novel Abfall für alle (Trash for everyone), [19] Rainald Goetz writes: «The snapshot. A kind of Polaroid of one’s mental state, at the moment. Of course it is also about what is on the photograph. But it is just as much about the KIND of image production, the production process, the method, i.e., something very formal. Not to recall something from the past, but something from NOW.» Before it appeared in book form, Abfall für alle was an Internet project in which every day over the course of an entire year (1998), the author noted bits and pieces of his life and published them online: thoughts, encounters, conversations, telephone conversations, shopping lists, etc. In this sense trash should not be taken literally, but as that which is left over at the end of a day’s work. In the process, neither interpretations nor justifications are attached to the snapshots—as records of materialmomentarily available or found—rather they are sampled and mass-produced in order to cross out any similarity with inwardness.

From a sociological standpoint, taking snapshots is a redundant activity whose sole function is ritual and which generates wholly stereotypical images; from a conventionally aesthetic standpoint, which lays down the template of the never explained and inexplicable category of the ‹good picture,› taking snapshots is absolutely deficient, results from a non-formation, and can also only produce ‹non-formations.› Following the writer Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, what Goetz suggests is something else: The snapshot stands for a process of developing writing and that to be written out of everyday occurrences, and a radical reference to the present. The issue is the performativity of writing itself, which here is crystallized in the metaphor of the snapshot, in an act «that in the varying repetition of introduced patterns and forms first produces that about which it appears to be speaking.» [20] If we transfer this to the specific practice of taking snapshots, a perspective opens up beyond the aesthetic or sociological (dis)qualification of the snapshot: What is of interest is less the image as a subject or even the individual image, rather more the act of the permanent reference to the present, the production of photographs. Repetitions and redundancies are always inherent in the performative act; moments are experienced anew every moment. In this respect, a critique of snapshot stereotypes has to miss the activity of taking snapshots, because it is not about originality—even contrary to claims made by the photographer him- or herself— but about repetitions; it is not about creativity, but about taking pictures of everything and everyone for everyone.

Goetz and Brinkmann have both combined their writing with their own and found photographs, e.g., Goetz in Celebration in 1999, and Brinkmann in Rom, Blicke in 1979. [21] In both cases, the state of temporarily being in another place, a journey so to speak—nights in a techno club or a stay at the Villa Massimo— are compressed into image/text montages in order to make a momentary feeling available: «That was a snapshot of my environment, but which leaves part of me for myself. Now, for example, the black coolness that is streaming into the room. I mean, one has tocling to such things with all one’s senses. The rest is rubbish.» [22] It is essential that the combinations of images and text do not present the material in a documentary fashion, but in sampled form. This means that the ‹snapshots› are transformed and assembled to make a larger text, built in to a larger text; it is about processes of the reception and processing of momentariness, where literary work starts. The question now arises of how snapshots—insignificant image material; material that is spoken of disparagingly in aesthetic discourses—can be put into a kind of order.

«cameraphone canada car cat» (Flickr)

Of the large number of photo sites, Flickr, a photosharing Web site developed in 2004 by the Canadian software developer Ludicorp («We're building a better platform for real time interaction online») and taken over by Yahoo in March 2005, stands out in particular. In principle, Flickr is an electronic depot consisting of 3.5 million images. Flickr supplements individually run photoblogs with a range of helpful photo-management tools: Moblogging [23] allows annotating individual parts of an image or specifying a particular closed user group, e.g., relatives who attended the last family gathering. The most innovative function is tagging: Tagging makes it possible to add keywords, or tags, to other users’ images. By means of these usergenerated tags, a collective taxonomy—or folksonomy, a neologism created out of «folk» and «taxonomy»—is produced which continuously generates new image-sorting criteria. This function is particularly useful for auditory and visual data, as these keywords, which are fixed and assigned only once, are difficult to find, and a full-text search string, which directly addresses the semantic units, cannot be adapted. Unlike in a traditional archive, here the classifications are neither consistent nor are they clearly assigned to the objects, rather they are expandable and, above all, variable. Wolfgang Ernst has pointed out that for electronic databases, the term «archive» only functions in a purely metaphorical way: «[T]he twenty-first century will be the century beyond the archives.» [24] In the intensely advertised «twenty-first century,» dynamic or variable keyword lists for accessing digitally recorded images that do not existoutside electronic systems take the place of ‹still› images, which can be located in flat file cabinets by means of systematic catalogs. This means that the images do not necessarily have to be stored or maintained as an object; it is possible that they merely circulate within electronic devices and networks, where they can also disappear. However, the immateriality of digital image data is relative, because the data are based on a considerable arsenal of hardware, which generates the ‹live experience› in the first place.

On Flickr, the most popular tags range from «africa, amsterdam, animal» and «family, february, festival» to «winter, work, yellow, zoo.» They designate an object, a place or the time of year of the photograph, or, as is the case for colors, an atmospheric impression in the broadest sense of the word, a mood. Even the variety of keywords does not cause their redundancy to collapse. This also applies to the images themselves. There are 21,690 photographs retrievable using the tag «cats,» and one has the impression that one is not looking at the images for the first time. The series of images might just as well be an ironic turn of the project comparative iconography or an artistic multiple on the stereotypy of amateur photography or the love of cats. However, one must at least assume that all of this is not the intention of Flickr or its users.

Found Footage

Several artistic works have also been devoted to the sorting aspects of photographic ‹trash.› They do not even take the category of the artistically valuable image into account to begin with. The two strategies that will be presented here are geared more towards bringing about an artistic posit solely by means of the serialization or sorting of photographs deemed useless or purely instrumental according to common criteria. This posit shifts authorship to the assemblage of found footage. [Also refer to the podium discussion with Jörg Sasse and the section Public-ation of the Private in the contribution by Jens Schröter.]

Thirteen issues of «Ohio», a photograph magazine edited by Uschi Huber and Jörg Janka, both of whom are well-known for their artistic photographic work, have been published since 1995. The magazines—and since 1999, the video cassettes and DVDs as well—donot contain any text. An image index is the only source of brief information about the origin of the published material. The first issues were published with the subtitle «photographs as never before.» «As never before» means that in order to enable the applied and artistic spheres to merge, Ohio opposes conventional categorizations such as «still,» «people» and «food,» common in commercial photography, and «landscape,» «portrait» and «still life,» common in artistic photography. «Never before» was not quite accurate, as Ohio had clearly been inspired by the found footage work by its original co-editor Hans-Peter Feldmann. Whereas the first issue was still a mixture of photographs from completely different sources, the publications were increasingly arranged according to themes or monographs. One issue, no. 4, is devoted to photographs taken by a hobby photographer who «for several years almost daily took photographs of the progressing construction of a railroad bridge in Hamm near Düsseldorf.». [25] «Ohio #7 consists of image and video sequences whose only sources are Webcams and livecams in the Internet:: Nightly scenes at African waterholes, waves on a New Zealand beach, big cities, traffic, private rooms, house pets, rain, construction sites in space, Loch Ness, and many more.» The arrangements of the image and video sequences have been copyrighted; they are not captioned because «in Ohio, the main focus lies in trusting the image itself.» That sounds like applied image science: In 1995, the year the first issue of Ohio was published, the professor of English and art history W.J.T. Mitchell demanded that with regard to visual culture, art historians should no longer ask «What do images mean?» but «What do images really want?» [26] In his anthropologization of the image he strives to remove images from the clutch of a text-oriented, semantic orientation and make them available for an analysis of emotions, perceptions, desire and remembrance. Interpretations do not appeal to Ohio either: «Image captions, which originally provided the viewer with a guide for interpretation, will not be used in Ohio.» But would it not have been enriching to include word or text elements in the «twenty-one uncommented sequences from the video archive of the Stiftung Warentest Berlin» (Ohio, no. 9) in order to understand the function or even the non-function of therecordings for the testing of consumer goods? Or the other way around: What emotions do the image sequences produce other than an ironic, knowing grin?

Peter Piller is aware of the significance of captions. He orders his comprehensive archive of newspaper photographs both according to keywords he has formulated himself, which for the most part designate peripheral objects in the image or provide rudimentary descriptions—for example, «turning the first sod,» «people standing in line,» «arrows,» «people standing in front of their house,» «touching a car.» Or the found subtitles themselves are used as ordering categories—«bone of contention,» «the idyll is deceptive.» What the limitation to newspapers as excavation sites and the specific interest in the regional sections produces is collections of images revolving around the distribution of property, social recognition and communal clean-up operations— collections which can never be complete. What can also not be brought completed is the number of categories Pillar draws up [27] without them being entirely arbitrary, as the artist includes, so to speak, his own attentiveness in the everyday photographs devoid of any kind of stylistic recognition. Pillar concerns himself with photographic trash, which often concerns itself, quasi self-referential, with trash—«car involved in an accident,» «trash as sculpture,» «falling towers»—without raising it to the status of drollery. Pillar does not search the Internet for pornographic photographs, which is also extremely popular among artists, but for «house+back» and «decoration+munitions,» in this way dissecting the value of residential property, idyll and defense out of both of them.


Two striking threads of discourse have settled on the history of photography: an aesthetic and a sociological one. If one follows the aesthetic discourse, one has no choice but to clearly reject all of the collections of images previously mentioned: In no case do they comply with the demands regarding originality, expressiveness, formal refinement or unity of the entire range of works (precisely Gustav Seibt’s complaint). Even if in their comments, Flickr users pursue precisely this direction of aestheticizingqualification—«wow, i love this color!» or «i very much like your pictures. you are very talented»—the poststructural finding holds good that photographs (and least of all snapshots) cannot be ennobled to objects of art without misappropriating their instrumental, medial or pretentious status. Found-footage artists respond with ironic or inquiring strategies to the non-aesthetics of instrumental or private images. In contrast, software-generated collating does not yield to the principles of compression or selection bound to authors. This may represent their advantage in view of the suspension of authorship; however, it is their disadvantage in view of commensurability—they simply store too many images.

With regard to their social function, the findings made in 1965 by Pierre Bourdieu and his research group with regard to family photography can apparently be seamlessly transferred to electronic photo sharing: «The geographical dispersal of individual relatives absolutely demands the more or less regular resuscitation of contact to relatives, and this is satisfied more so by photographs than the mere exchange of letters.» [28] We add: and this is satisfied more by placing images into the WWW than by sending letters., photoblogs and a variety of other photo-sharing Web sites directly confirm Bourdieu’s theory that photographs only gain meaning through the social participation they bring about., too, is deeply involved in the stereotypes of private photography, even if the photographs exhibit a certain stylistic difference with regard to focus and detail: What one sees are more or less blurred and poorly lighted snapshots of urban environments, friends, couples, lots of nature, and above all—as a guarantee for a certain formal capacity for abstraction—lots of water. On the whole, the images create a collective vacation atmosphere, a view of the world oriented towards the nice things in life. Here, the snapshot serves to overcome the banality of everyday life and turn it into «the idea of a successful day.» [29] A conciliatory, friendly atmosphere prevails on the Web site in which one is invited to share—«shoot, upload, share.» [30] However, it is precisely this staccato-like chain of invitations, whose characteristic linguistic style already transports immediacy, in which a medial difference to classic private photography is markedthat enables regarding the accumulation of photographs as something other than mere redundancies.

Sybille Krämer’s observations on interaction in the Internet lead us to suspect that the issue is more than just looking at individual images and keeping them as mementos; the issue here is participating in a game. [31] Thus the immediacy summoned by the photographic images is not located within the context of a heightening conveyance of everyday worlds about which one wants to inform other users, but more within the context of a game situation meant to «relieve one of the strain of the everyday world.» [32] What Krämer makes out here is a characteristic of the electronic network that conflicts with direct communication, because in contrast to the widespread myth of «direct communication» disseminated in Internet literature, one is not communicating with other users, but with texts or digitalized images, which as indicated by the humorous user names is bound to the «repeal of personality and authorship.» [33] What emerges is an intermediality or even an ‹intericonicity› in which it is not the meaning or the significance of an individual text or image that is central, but that which occurs between them. Accordingly, the game consists of producing additional images («shoot»), accumulating them («upload»), and making them available by means of a keyword search as well as allowing them to appear in more and more collated lists («share»). What is shared are not memories or ‹views,› but a collective, momentary game experience that revolves «passionately around the figures of the pointless and superfluous.» [34] From this perspective, the sheer incommensurable quantity of images makes sense: They are the stake, the «figure of the pointless» itself, which keeps the game going performatively.


But what is really at stake? A preliminary answer would be: lifestyles. Lomo’s message of practicing a photographic style of real life can also be understood as the production of a ‹real lifestyle.› According to the specific aspects of the Internet put forward by Lev Manovich, it is one of the basic principles of new, computer-based media to supply lifestyles through variability: «In a postindustrial society, every citizencan construct her own custom lifestyle and ‹select› her ideology from a large (but not infinite) number of choices.… Every visitor to a Web site automatically gets her own custom versions of the site created on the fly from a database.» [35] In defiance of all metaphors of friendship—or even better: precisely within a friendly community—the variable interfaces on the Web sites, on which, e.g., at Flickr a new leitmotif appears with every reload, the «hottest tags» are updated daily, and newly received comments about one's own images are displayed, always addressing the consumer. In this respect, the vanishing point of the everyday practice of photography is not, or no longer, familiality, but the playful and fun-oriented negotiation of tags or labels that mark temporary membership in a group. A community online game does not predestine the aesthetization of the images, but of life. An aesthetization that is not carried out outside the realm of economic interests, by which the boundaries of sharing become visible: Both and Flickr offer the licensing of images placed on their sites. [36] In view of these shifts from the figure of the photographic image as a cause for memory activity to the image as a permanent referent to presence, it is not only a media-economic assertion to declare a postphotographic age. And this not— or at least not only—based on the digital devices and technologies as such, but on the cultural practices that are tied to them and often embrace them in unforeseen ways. The altered photographic gestures and practices indicate, as Barthes wrote as early as 1979, that «the astonishment of ‹that-has-been› will also disappear. It has already disappeared. I am, I don't know why, one of its last witnesses (a witness of the Inactual) …» [37]

© Media Art Net 2004