Someday Your Memories Will Be Art
May 8, 2011
I’ve spent the week looking at the work on iheartphotograph by the group Global Pillage, which consists of found film negatives. I’m not sure how Global Pillage is finding what they find but it’s the recontextualization that interests me, because it’s in league with a lot of other work I’ve been seeing lately, art photography that uses found photography as source material altered or left untouched. There was also an article on Pitchfork I can’t find now that dealt with old candid photos as album art as a way of authenticating the product, and I think the thrust of that essay might be part of this larger push when we’re in an age where we’re absolutely flooded will millions and millions of candid images from point and shoots and smartphones.
There’s something about older photography that tags it as authentic and “real” in a way that the ghostliness of current digital image production can’t touch. Part of this authenticity is the fact that none of these photos were taken in an art context; these are all Kodak moments, personal memories now recategorized as art. So what once was a document of something someone wanted to remember becomes anonymous and public in a way that alters the nature of what we see when we see the images.
Consider the following image, courtesy of Global Pillage:
This once was a snapshot, a memory, something with local knowledge attached to it by the men photographed and the photographer, who I’m going to just presume was on friendly terms with the subjects if he (probably a he, here) was in the shower room after what looks like a football game from the smudge still below the central guy’s eye. This is a moment that only meant something to the people who were in or who knew the subjects; this is an aid to memory, a snapshot of fraternal good times.
Now, of course, here, it’s entirely different. We don’t see men we know, good friends, we see how the shot was tastefully composed so that it wasn’t “adult” and we wonder why someone had a camera in a shower room and we look at the relationship of the bodies of the men and maybe we think of friendship but maybe also we’re thinking about latent homoeroticism. We’re looking at this image not as a memorial document but as an image in the context of art, a context that strips memory and replaces it with another set of semantics altogether.
I’m not suggesting that this is either a good or bad thing. It’s simply a fact now that the history of photography lends us the ability to aestheticize any photographic image no matter how mundane, or no matter how murky the original context. This, basically, is photograph as readymade. The only problem with that is that the above image had a narrative meaning now replaced by an aesthetic one, an important shift not made in the original Duchampian shuffle. As a moment, this photo used to explain something to someone specific, but now we see it both as historical document and as art object because we can’t/don’t know the original participants and context of the image.
Again, this is neither a good or bad thing, it’s just something interesting to think about in terms of how the candid images we produce now might be seen or used 20 or 50 or 200 years from now. Of course vernacular art photography hit a crest in the ’90s with Nan Goldin and Wolfgang Tillmans and is still a going concern, but what’s fascinating to me is the implication that all candid/snapshot photography can be, given the distortion of time and the loss of context, art.