This essay began as a challenge to Susan Sontag’s On Photography, but how do you slay a giant? (Would you want to?) If Sontag’s infamous tome is a serious look at the ethical, ontological, and epistemological consequences of photography, then this essay picks up where Sontag left off. Can we comb the ruins and salvage something gorgeous, meaningful, useful?
Ruins are an apt metaphor for what some snobs imagine cell phone photography to be. One acquaintance expressed total disinterest with iShow, telling me she hated selfies. And isn’t cell phone photography just a bunch of selfies? Sometimes, yes: see Michelle Lapointe’s Mirror in the Bathroom and Carol Scavotto’s I Am Pretty Now, two unconventional takes on this now inescapable genre. I’ve tackled the selfie before in an article for Art New England, and I concluded that, pitted against less spontaneous self-portraiture, the selfie is artistically lacking. I mostly stand by that, but I’ve reconsidered what it means for images to be impactful.
Gallery owner Marika Van Vessem came up with the idea for this show and let me curate it. The original intent was for this to be a fun, summer event and I think we’ve achieved that. More importantly, this show encapsulates a certain trend that hovers between fine art and snapshots. Though some professionals have tried to slow its unstoppable march, smart phone photography is becoming one of the principal means we acquaint ourselves with the world.
Some of these images are perhaps unassuming on their own but, arranged with others, they form something cohesive and symbiotic. This replicates the way images actually behave online. In the Instagram Epoch, the image is understood only sparingly as an individual thing. Images are better taken as units to be rearranged, pictures to be scrolled through, selfies to like. The cell phone in your pocket holds a similar bounty: the camera roll, a stream of images that will end only by choice.
There is a nicely-proportioned mix of images here. Some, like Ck Ledesma’s Trazos series, use the camera phone as one would any other camera, thereby proving its talents to the sad, sad purists who still subscribe to the idea of owning a warehouse full of speciality lenses. Others, like Leslie Block Prip’s Wickenden Street and Rohina Hoffman’s stunning Glow and Couple at Dinner, are more actively “mobile,” using the smartphone as a thief (or perhaps rescuer) of the most transitory moments.
Capturing the most inconsequential moments: is this the logical limit of photography? Sontag was indeed right, and ridiculously prophetic in her words: everything now “ends in an image.” Desire ends in pornography, commerce ends in a shopping cart full of product thumbnails and communication ends in a profile picture. The photograph begins to acquire a certain quaintness, and it has never looked as benign as it does now. Even the most magnificent photos are swallowed up in streams of data. Somewhere, some teenager is remixing images of tragedy into internet memes. The photograph is still a potent art form, but most images burned into today’s collective consciousness are not art images but news images. Outside art world regulars, the images people often remember are ones the mass media bombards into us, not exemplars of aesthetic merit.
Still, good images deliver emotion, awe, joy. As someone who has had the privilege of having ecstatic experiences, I am interested in art as a means of bringing enlivening energy to a greater number of people. The art crowd can be one of the most politically and socially conservative cliques in the world despite the surplus of allegedly liberal-minded people who inhabit it. In theory, cell phone photography is adamantly opposite to classism and the somehow-still-breathing, reified concept of taste.
Photography is indeed a “language,” as Sontag suggests, and not an inherently artistic thing. But, with cellphone in hand, finger on the trigger, we can work toward uncovering what renegade philosopher Simone Weil called “the order of the world.” With luck, we might smash the barriers of social organization and delusion and let the chaos of the uncreated earth run free once more. (See, for example, the monstrously mythical and invincible Colorado landscapes of Brandi Finley, or Kathy Crowley Gardner’s ultra-ethereal Early Morning.)
“We reconstruct for ourselves the order of the world in an image, starting from limited, countable and strictly defined data…The substance of the universe only manifests itself to us by the blows it deals,” Weil wrote. “Looking is what saves us.”
Weil knew that beauty hurts. The quest to find it can be utterly exhausting. The sublime is reached only with a bit of self-sacrifice. (Scavotto’s masked selfie and Bunny Head actually achieve this brutal-sounding self-effacement with humor.) With the camera phone, we are able to collaborate and combine our photographs inadvertently, instantly. Sometimes, this can make the world of cell phone images feel like the Platonic cave. Instagram is a particularly cavernous place, containing many rabbit holes that send you through colliding streams of images. But rather than see this as a negative, I prefer to think that the modern presentation of photographs —the Instagram feed, Facebook albums, Tumblr— can teach us to appreciate juxtaposition, crossover, the unification of dissimilar things without erasure of their difference. Kristin Street took the lead in hanging this show, and her configuration is a superb mimic (or perhaps alternative to) online presentation.
Sontag feared that seeing would become our only means of experience, but she seemingly clung to the antique ontology that reality was somehow homogenous in its character. More recent authors like Japan’s Saitō Tamaki have shown that the image world is an equally viable source and object of desire, engagement, humanity. Saito found photographs to have a “lower context.” Saying “I like photographs” refers to an enormous and vague collection of things. Saito believed photography to be one of the less stimulating mediums, but the openness of photographs is what supplies them their contemporary strength. The photograph has no prejudice until it meets the photographer. Photographs do not replace experience; they isolate a part of it and make it open to interpretation — not in the analytical sense, but as a means through we may question our own accepted notions of reality. We should be open and unafraid to receive this knowledge. The photographer must let their work be more than a standalone piece by joining forces with others’ images.
The network of images is now millions of pictures deep. No one controls this entity, and by engaging it we learn something or, better yet, obtain more questions. I know very little about Sally Mendzela’s I Will Follow. I’m told it was taken with a flip phone in Vermont. (Do I need to know anything else?) But even before I learned that, the image moved me. The saturated leaves jumping off the ground, the twisting forest path, the second dog in the distance reduced by perspective to nothing but a tiny speck — this is a dream, an ancestrally remembered image, a reassuring phantom that heals and restores even without its title. But the title is luscious too, and a good piece of advice. We must be willing to follow others sometimes, to quiet our egos and let beauty lead us.
“He who is aching in every limb…bears the reality of the universe in his flesh like a thorn,” Weil wrote. “The difficulty for him is to look and to love. If he succeeds, he loves the Real.”
Weil knew the world was an awful, painful place, but to extend ourselves beyond the self means to reach for something that can alleviate the collective struggle. Cell phone photography — as a communal expression of the beautiful and intriguing in an age of extreme cynicism and apathy— is not a facile trend. With it, we make a humble offering to the ecstasy of not a singular vision, but collaborative sight.