Photo: Installation photograph from “A Matter of Memory” showcasing the work of Matthew Brandt, courtesy of the Eastman House’s Instagram.
The photograph has radically changed so much that it is no longer what it once was. Coined in 1839 by Sir John Herschel, the word “photograph” explained the revolution in technology taking place. Inventors designed a process wholly new: the ability to capture light on paper in order to create a two-dimensional representation of the three-dimensional world. Herschel described this process as “drawing with light,” using Greek words to give it credibility in an academic world.
As photography came into vogue, it was an instant success, beloved for its populist abilities in the once elite world of image making and collecting. First it rendered the portrait affordable; then it put the power of portrait making in the hands of the consumer. Suddenly, a proliferation of images appeared from the hands of masters and amateurs alike. Mass media switched over from illustrations to photography, and the golden age of the magazine was born. The photography market exploded to meet the demand, creating point-and-shoot cameras that culminated in the disposable camera.
But all things considered, it still bore the expense of film and developing on top of the camera itself. Not everyone had the wherewithal to fund this practice until digital photography came along and changed the game forevermore. No longer was film required—and for many, neither were prints. The trafficking of scans satiated the appetite to consume images. Suddenly, the photograph was as ubiquitous as the word itself; everyone could write with light and become photo-scribes in the digital realm.
For those who remember the world of film, slides, and prints, this revolution in the medium has both positive and negative consequences. The photograph has become less about being an object, and more about being evidence, as popularized by the saying: “Pics or it didn’t happen.” The photograph has also come to represent a new kind of threat, one believed to exist in the “eternity” of the Internet. In this brave new world, scandal no longer comes and goes; it is forever, the legacy you could pass on to future generations as their inheritance.
Today, photography has become more than what it was, and in doing so, it has liberated the people of this world to write their own story—at their own risk. Like words, photographs offer the ability to speak, but they do so in every language simultaneously, conveying a multitude of ideas and opportunities for interpretation. With the new space photography occupies, many artists are confronted with questions about the transformation of their medium before their very eyes.
A new exhibition, A Matter of Memory: Photography as Object in the Digital Age, currently on view at the George Eastman Museum, Rochester, NY, through January 29, 2017, examines the new roll of photography n the world today and the way it shapes personal and collective memories. Featuring works by Matthew Brandt, Marco Breuer, Antony Cairns, Adam Fuss, Kenneth Josephson, Jim Lommasson, Diane Meyer, Vik Muniz, Taryn Simon, Bertien van Manen, James Welling, Bertien van Manen, and Augusta Wood, among others, A Matter of Memory explores the some of the potential consequences of the medium’s metamorphosis.
Some artists approach the photograph as the memory itself, revealing the way it shapes our perceptions into symbolic ideas of fact and truth. Like words themselves, photographs come to stand for reality in our minds, effectively dismissing Edgar Allen Poe’s warning, “Believe only half of what you see and nothing that you hear.”
Other artists take the object of the photograph to new lengths, reminding us of its very physicality is a construction unto itself. Here it takes on a more ambiguous space, simultaneously becoming a talisman as well as an interpretation of life, reminding us how self-conscious the photograph can make us when we consider it as an extension of life.
Taken as a whole, A Matter of Memory is a marvelous meditation on the medium in an ever-changing world, as new generations come to the fore with no previous knowledge of or experience with the form. Invariably, what was no longer is, but as an historical marker of where we have been.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.