- ami Creates
What is photography for?
"Hey Siri, what is Photography for?"
"Here's what I found on the web for 'What is Photography for?'"
"Okay, thanks, then Google."
"That’s not very nice.."
Closes laptop and looks across Battersea Park pond.
Throughout my career as a photographer and curator, I’ve seen numerous moments of revolutionary change for the photographic medium. This will be a short blog series where I’ll aim to share my opinion on some of these world-changing movements and point my own imaginary lens into the future, to focus my thoughts on what may come next, for good or for worse.
I write this post at the dawning of a new age of media creation and exchange, where we watch the web2 oligarchy scramble to get back in front of the innovation, to plant their gates ahead of us all once more. I’m of course, talking about AI.
My question to Siri was a loaded one. You and I both know just how that question would be answered by a bastion such as Google. So, to no one’s surprise, sitting beside three (quite informative) reads are sponsored links to take your mind away from information, to places of commerce. ‘The medium is the message,’ said one brilliant communication theorist, and this is why it’s impossible to talk about photography now without also talking about how we share the medium. Light, and with it our truths, enters a lens, and the story begins, but where we consume our media gives most of the meaning to what most of us photograph.
Part 1 - What is Photography for?
Battersea Park was opened in 1852. While sitting here at the waterside, looking at the trees reflecting across the water, you can see the evidence of this in their shape and scale. You can imagine the stories of the countless lives that passed beneath them, walking down the boulevard of this quiet, west London park. Thirteen years prior to the opening of Battersea Park, in an attic at the end of Boulevard Du Temple, one Louis Daguerre looked out of his window to take one of the most important photographs ever; creating what’s now called a Daguerreotype. In the nearly two centuries between then and now, the photographic medium has changed beyond all the imagining of Mr Daguerre.
The velocity in which the medium is now created and shared, and the way it exchanges visual language, means that sometimes it’s a more efficient way to communicate than the written word. Think of your recently used meme and the complex meaning you’re able to communicate within it. The art form is set to continue changing the story of the world, one photograph at a time. All the lies and all the truth of the world are seen through the lens; it is blind to nothing. How does it do this? Through three simple variables, aperture, time, and light..... and the internet.
Life can only be seen by looking at it backwards, but we must live it going forward, chasing down the clock. We use the camera to hold onto and share the lessons and experiences that we learn from along the way so that those who come after may stand a better chance.
Opens phone."Hey Siri, show me photographs of Battersea Park from the 1800s”
An untitled photograph taken circa 1800 in Battersea Park, owned by the V&A.
Skipping over almost 100 years of the art (we’ll come back to this in Part 2 - Camera Obscura and the Bare Bottom), we arrive at the smartphone; camera x internet = smartphone.
These devices are estimated to be in the pockets of 6.8 billion people today, making a total of trillions of photographs created each year. The most recent evolution of the medium wasn’t driven so much by the tool itself, but rather by the places we view them, social media ‘streams’, and the places they end up, the cloud.
How accessible are your photographic memories that you keep safe within Apple’s all-too-easy-to-fill iCloud storage? Most of our society’s visual databases are kept by the vendors, for the vendors, and publicly owned visual databases are about as hard to access as the photographic medium was during the 1800s.
Outside of rare institutions like the V&A, where can humanity’s story be found these days?
The vast majority of visual media created today is held and harvested by these same powerful corporations. It's hard to reach and gatekept. Most of us by now generally understand that the purpose of social media was to be an environment for commerce first and a place for us to connect secondly. We eventually realised that we are the product, but somehow, it became accepted that our very own visual voices, the stories of our very lives, became a literal commodity for our gatekeepers to trade. So, if platforms such as Instagram and the like, stream past us a trillion photographs a year, is that what Photography is for, now?
Most assets like the one seen above are hidden within private collections or are likely to eventually succumb to the entropy of bad archiving. I’ve seen this first-hand many times. Therein lies what I contend is our problem. Because of the inaccessible nature of our gargantuan archives, I believe photography has lost a little of its original purpose, and has been hijacked as a tool for something else.
I’m a Curator of Photography, and I specialise in the curation of multi-generational family archives. On an average day in the office, I can expect to see a photographic archive containing the birth and infancy of a person’s life, through to said individual’s grandchildren standing over their tombstone. The entirety of one visual narrative read in a day, one complete life. I clean degenerated assets, bringing back to them what time has taken away. I add metadata to fields if they're missing, allowing them to later be searched for in great granularity. And based on a specifically designed philosophy, we tag each asset with keywords to describe the complete narrative within a single or batch of images. In doing all this we give our clients access to their family legacy in a manner that exists nowhere else.
I believe photography is for holding onto facts, fiction, emotion, and narrative, taking all this meaning through time to a point of unknown destination. We can be both the teller or the listener of the story, but in either case, photography bridges time and binds us. Connecting one another, to our surroundings, to what it is that makes us us, and it, an it.
“Whoa, look at that dog!”, ”Did you see that moon?”, “I’ll never forget you”, “I miss you”.
If photography is for any of the above reasons, why then is it so hard to search for these lived stories? If we can take our own private and shared photographic memories out of the reach of big data, with their harvesting machines and endless, thumb-numbing-advertisement-peppered streams, and back into the realm of a story for the story's sake, information for information's sake. What new things could we learn from each other? What lessons can we learn from the past? And what boundaries can we break through?
Personally, I no longer wish to sit beside a stream of photographs that speedily run past me, with one in every four being an advert. Instead, I want to be free to paddle around an ocean of human stories, diving deep into the narratives of their lives and surroundings.
To do this, we again need photography to evolve. At my company, we believe that the optimal product we need to create is an archive that can be searched in a way that is almost indistinguishable from how it feels when we simply close our eyes and remember. You would be able to ask a verbal request to a device, and the photographic memories of the past would be accessible and navigable in real-time.
We’ve successfully taught our own algorithm to ‘read’ the narrative within a photograph and identify which of a selection of photographs, best represents the memories attempting to be documented. This will be the year when we start implementing what we have designed and developed.
If in the future, when our descendants are "memory diving" through the better chronicled and curated database of our lives, we hope that they will have all the answers they need to understand how they got there. This connection will be made, so what will you tell them?
'Writing by the Peace Pagoda, Battersea Park - March 2023'
by Oli Savage