On Photography and letters

Years ago I had an idea for a series that was to consist of images of inanimate objects juxtaposed against landscape backdrops. The sources were assembled from a mix of photographs I had taken myself as well as photos clipped from magazines and newspapers, but the actual juxtapositions were to be executed digitally. The original intention was to compose the works in a manner that was to result in an image that could be interpreted either as a pastiche or a figurative rendition of a floating form in the foreground of a pictorial space. I made a few of these compositions before realizing that the results were somehow much more sarcastic and insincere than I had intended. At first I thought this was because the juxtapositions were too whimsical to begin with, but as I continued to look at more scanned photographs, I somehow detected the same quality even in the absence of the quirky juxtapositions.

Although this phenomenon is certainly at least partially subjective, it was one I’d never noticed before, but have continued to notice ever since. On one occasion this strange effect manifested itself in old pictures from our family photo albums my mother had scanned and e-mailed. It seemed almost as if by default that the photos on the screen were intended to be ironic about the very notion of photography itself. This was in spite of the fact that the only ostensible difference in how I was now viewing these pictures was that they were on my computer instead of in our family album. These same snapshots which I had known for decades were now like paradoxical cartoons that managed to elusively poke fun at the pictures I’d remembered, but without being distorted or altered in any way.

Is this just a phantom phenomenon that I unconsciously now try to perceive, or is it a latent aspect of photography that has always existed and that digital media has merely underscored or unveiled? Is this merely an idiosyncratic personal bias, or will this elusive quality gradually be noticed by others as well and grow to transform how we perceive and use photography?

Approximate equivalents exist in other fields. Although nothing identical to the aforementioned retroactive photographic affliction seems to plague the oldest and best examples of historical public statues, as a whole the practice now seems anachronistic and obsolete in a manner roughly proportional to what I have described with scanned pictures. If the idea of making a statue of Ty Cobb doesn’t strike one as absurd, surely the notion of erecting a statue of Rocky Balboa must. Even if the particular statue I’m referring to was originally fabricated as a prop for the third film in the “Rocky” series, the very thought inadvertently parodies sculpture and monuments alike.

A closer parallel might be the relationship of the written letter to the modern standard of e-mail. The irreplaceable conveniences of e-mail are indisputable, but one fundamental and perhaps less obvious imperfection inherent in analog letter writing that e-mail essentially eliminates is clarified by the effortless reference potential in filing old e-mails and having instant access to them. Naturally, everyone must find this preferable to digging through shoe boxes of old letters for the sake of deducing what one has said before, and after becoming accustomed to such a technological convenience, it’s practically impossible to imagine returning to the anachronistic form of analog letters. If only there were some conversational equivalent to this improvement; some sort of external neurological hard drive to attach to our minds for the sake of alleviating the embarrassment of retelling the same old stories to our tolerant friends and acquaintances.

One might think the combined communication and reference potential of e-mail would only upgrade the art of writing letters through modernizing it. Alas, it seems to have somehow destroyed the form altogether. I personally had never used e-mail before the age of thirty, and in retrospect wonder if my more tech-savvy friends and relatives were confused or bored by the occasional lengthy communiqués I burdened them with in my first electronic mail efforts, written in roughly the same fashion as my old hand written letters. Now I cautiously edit my e-mails to make them somewhat succinct and reasonably superficial for the sake of avoiding being accused of having nothing better to do. In the mean time, it goes without saying that I’m always surprised to receive anything other than junk mail in my old fashioned mail box.

So for the time being, one must now wonder whose e-mails will be published and read with the same degree of wonder and curiosity as the correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson or Franz Kafka’s irate letter to his father. The prospect seems disquietingly proportional to that of erecting a statue of Sylvester Stallone. Were Adams, Jefferson, Kafka and countless others the sentimental and verbose old fashioned ones, or are we the shallow modern ones? This line of questioning is not as bitter as it may sound. If we pay attention to these changes, whether they result from our traditional art forms souring, or from their irrelevance slowly manifesting itself in relation to modern culture, we can work within the limitations the changes impose to establish more current applications in a critical fashion instead of a passive manner to ensure that they evolve into new forms with new substance instead of shallow nostalgic imitations.