Apple’s iCloud service has been bugging me to increase my online storage as mine has dropped to just 100MB, mostly occupied by pictures on my iPhone. thousands of them. The company must have a firm belief that the photos from the past seven years are worth preserving for posterity. I’m not sure. Ancillary data service providers are not as clairvoyant as the photo critic.
Scrolling back makes me wonder what I did. Family photos are fair enough to capture the changing generations. Also events. They only appear once. But what are all those summer vacation photos of buildings and landscapes that are so forgotten I even forgot I took them?
I imagine that for a moment I was so overcome with wonder at the scene before me – a pretty canal bridge in Venice or the grand squares of Kraków and Siena – that I had to tear myself out of it by grabbing it, That small clicks of the camera is the point where the moment stops before trotting off to the next location. There is a danger that one actually develops a real and deep appreciation for a place by standing still – highly unfashionable.
If Apple, Google Photos, or Facebook really wanted to do me a favor, they could put an onscreen notice that said, “This is a hackneyed scene and a waste of data.” made?” they might inquire. “We know. They’re all gathering dust on our servers. And besides, Geraldine from Newcastle took a much better one last week when the clouds were all moody.”
No artist need fear the images collected on my cell phone: they pose little threat to their profession. If, in 1859, when photography was becoming mainstream, Baudelaire was worried about whether the masses would see these silvered images with genuine art would confuse, I have helped to keep the distinction clear.
But if not art, are these images documents of something? And were they worth documenting when so many have explored the issues before? During the Renaissance, artists painted the palaces of their overlords so that they could be hung in other palaces to confirm ownership – see the Medici villas in Tuscany. Early European explorers and colonists took artists on board their ships to show new territories to the king or queen and aristocratic sponsors.
Was my photo from this Polish square a way to commemorate something? The buildings are clearly not mine, but the experience of seeing them is. Only the memory isn’t mine. It was broadcast on a major online platform. And when I look at the picture, I realize that it has slipped out of mine.
I suppose I could post a photo or two on Instagram to let others know about the wonderful places I’ve been and maybe arouse a little envy – until they’re replaced by someone else’s holiday snaps. It would flow into the ever-moving stream of social media, becoming less of a photo and more of a signal to friends, the passing utterance of “Hey, I’m here.”
“Visual speaking,” full of ums and aahs and the banalities of real life, is how social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson puts it in his book The social photo. Above all, it’s a blessed relief for Instagram followers, who need little more feign interest than a quick like — or, in the language, an uh-huh. The faster the developing image appears, the faster the upload time, the faster the half-life of the image.
I may not be a regular on social media, but the same effect is evident in my own library. The images sink further down the list and further out of consciousness until they become irritating. It costs memories in this day and age. Not the one-time cost of developing film and buying triangle corners for the photo album, but an ongoing subscription to offsite storage.
The ephemeral moments of family and friends are harder to banish from my iCloud, but landscapes and historic buildings seem a little ridiculous, like souvenirs you immediately regret. Hasn’t Siena, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, changed little since the 15th century? Barring an act of God, it’s not going to come down anytime soon. Didn’t these landscapes already exist before people saw them? They are more durable than digital photo formats.
Then again, there might be one tech company out there that has the last laugh. Like the rulers who collected images from their colonies, we mortals were sent out to map and render the world for the machine. It’s just possible that they’re not doing me a service, I’m doing it for them – helping to feed social media with every possible angle in every light change of the Piazza del Campo and collecting data for their digital twin.
Instead of trying to accuse me; shouldn’t I charge them?
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Luke Edward Hall returns next week
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