We Are All Producers
In 19th century Europe, visual culture was transformed. It was certainly not the first time, but this point of technological change saw the foundations laid for the contemporary globalised world we now inhabit. The birth of photography allowed Nature to be captured through photographic processes, or in the words of Daguerre*1, “It is a chemical and physical process which gives her the power to reproduce herself.”*2 We may no longer require chemical processing in the shooting and development of photographic images, but the basic principles of photography remain unchanged: the light from our three-dimensional world becomes fixed as a two-dimensional representation. At the time of Niépce’s first successful heliograph*3, and development of the Daguerreotype and subsequent processes that followed, I wonder, could Niépce or Daguerre have truly fathomed the omnipresence that the photograph would attain? On contemplating this current place and time, it is somewhat difficult to project the resultant impact and longevity of more recent development in visual culture. Politics, economy, and a host of other factors will determine which methods of image-production are to stand the test of time ― light-field, 3D, 360-degree cameras, etc. Yet, in many ways, the method of production has become less important. Not as a means of image making per se, but rather as one of dissemination, social media is without doubt one of the greatest changes in our experience of images. Even as recently as the end of the last decade of the 20th century, although it was common to consume images on a daily basis ― through advertising, books and magazines, television, and the Internet, to name but a few examples ― the making of images was not a daily activity for the majority. Nowadays, through social media, in addition to consuming images, the extent to which the average user shares image content is astounding. Social media has irrevocably impacted our relationship with photographic imagery and has made producers of us all.
Let’s take a moment to consider this role of “producer”. It is true that the rate of the public’s general production of images has increased exponentially, but we are also less involved in the making process. It is a challenge to fail at taking a photograph with an iPhone, or most other recent models of smart phones. The software and camera technology do most of the work. The camera adjusts tone, allows the user to shoot in extremely low light, and handles dynamic range better than most compact cameras, in addition to offering presets through which we can select the desired style of image even before the shutter is opened. Through our cameras we can view our world in black and white, sepia tone, or vivid colours, though the real-time generated preview image. We can even bring the Purikura booth with us to draw out that inner kawaii. It is as simple as making a request ― envisioning the end image and instructing the machine to produce the image as per the specifications. And as I relay this information that you are likely well aware of, you may be thinking to yourself that this is hardly something new or cutting-edge. This way of viewing the world is now commonplace. Not only can we imagine our world in images, but we can also view our immediate surroundings through the lens and computer processing of our phones in real-time. The old clichéd image of raised lighters was replaced by that of an ocean of glowing smart phones some time ago, as festival-goers can spend an equal amount of time viewing performers on the screens of their phones, while broadcasting the images live along with saving the experience for posterity. But now in this second decade of the 21st century, as instagrammable takes its place in the lexicon of the English language, public events, concerts, exhibitions and travel can be measured and valued in their ability to be reproduced as images. The ease with which an experience can be captured as an image and shared through social media platforms is impacting the way our first-hand experiences are being designed and structured.
Smart devices may already feel like an extension of our selves, and it may be only a matter of time before the distinction between the body and machine is less clear-cut, but the shift in our visual experience of the world is already changed. As we await the A.R. or V.R. revolution, it is easy to miss the fact that in our hybrid digital/analogue world, Mixed Reality is already very much here. If we could only project fifty or so years into our own futures to pull this period of development into focus, into perspective in the broader history of human technological development, I can’t help but wonder what profundities of our current technological development will be so clearly visible in hindsight as that of photography of the 19th century.
*1 Louis Jaques Mandé Daguerre (1787 – 1851), a French artist and inventor who, through his collaboration with Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, developed the Daguerreotype process, the first photographic process available to the public (1839).
*2 “Daguerreotype”, Louis Jaques Mandé Daguerre. Classic Essays on Photography Edited by Alan Trachtenberg. Leete’s Island Books. New Haven, Conn. 1980
*3 Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765 – 1833), a French inventor and pioneer in photography who produced the world’s first surviving photographic image, and the first photographic image from nature View from the Window at Le Gras (1826/1827), a heliograph (from Greek: helios meaning sun and graphein meaning to write).