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Neither Cop Nor Criminal

August 24, 2018


Any image created from the spontaneous interaction of light upon a surface and retained in some form – either as physical residue on glass or film, etc., or as a digital data set on a chip – can be said to be a photograph; a graph of photons.

Wim Wenders acknowledges this with his typically misunderstood little video for the BBC in which he says that “everybody’s a photographer” and that “photography is more alive than ever, and more dead than ever.”

His complaint is not that cell phone photography is not photography, but rather that the cell phone camera technology has changed what we do with most of those photographs. He is correct that we hardly, if ever, look at them again and that they are rarely printed. He’s looking for a new word for this activity, because he feels that it is dramatically different than the historic act of photography.

I think he’s right. Whereas historically a photograph was meant to be considered and lingered on by its viewer, the cell phone photograph is meant to be gone in a near instant. It is more like television than photography.

In the field of music, we have the word “jingle” to differentiate an advertisement from what is otherwise called “music.” I think he’s looking for some similar distinction.

Do we need such a distinction? Yes. The difference between the jingle and any piece of music is that music, no matter how frivolous, wants to be considered. A jingle is just meant to catch your ear and be done. There is no there there. Similarly, the vast majority of cell phone pics are just meant to be snapped. Taken and done. It’s a quickie: a quickie pic.

But in the modern surveillance state, cameras, and especially a ‘serious’ camera along with the photographer behind it are seen as instruments of surveillance. Real photography becomes surveillance because the image is meant to be studied. This is the experience of every street photographer who must answer the question “did you just take my picture?” Whereas Sontag would describe the photographer of old as a voyeur, today the photographer is seen as either a cop or a criminal pervert. That one might be an artist with a camera is a difficult conception. That one might take a photograph for its own consideration as such is even more difficult.

So maybe a new word for internet photography would be helpful.

Music, like photography, has many different functions. The great composer John Cage tried to revive an old idea about one such function of music: “to still and quiet the mind in order to make it susceptible to divine influences.” We can say exactly the same thing about photography; that one of its functions can be to still and quiet the mind. We need a word for that which makes you neither cop nor criminal.

My photos are on Smugmug and Flickr
Follow me on Instagram @smalagodi

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