Watching the amusing Business Nightmares (BBC2, Monday), the interview with a former senior Polaroid executive stood out. Polaroid is of course a company whose core product simply became obsolete for the mainstream user. He commented: “We weren’t able to see that people wouldn’t want a hard copy print; it sure came as a heck of a surprise that people wouldn’t want one…”
Then he paused and sheepishly admitted “But I don’t either”!
For many, the physical photo album has indeed become quaint, but let’s face it, those physical albums were only rarely looked through anyway. Are their modern digital equivalents viewed more, for all their greater accessibility? Probably, but I suspect there is still only a spike of initial views and then increasingly rare subsequent views.
Some photographs are taken with artistic aspirations, though perhaps pretensions is a more accurate word for the many taken with this intent but in the absence of talent. Others are taken for purely documentary or illustrative purposes in mind, be they journalistic or commercial in nature.
But the majority of photos are simpler snaps; taken to solely to mark a transient experience and commemorate the passages of life’s rituals. The documentary quality of the image is almost irrelevant in these cases; the emotional power of these snaps are nearly all in the acts of taking and sharing the image. I don’t Facebook myself, having an aversion to acquiring yet another time sink, but I’m struck by the avid taking and sharing of images by those who are on such social networking sites. The sharing of a photograph has an interesting dynamic tension: it works to define the sharer’s identity, but simultaneously the highly communal act requires others to pay the photograph attention to render it this definitional power. The photograph can thus be seen as a social transaction between the taker/sharer and the community, where the utility of the transaction is a mutual strengthening of interpersonal ties and roles.
This is a similar role to that of photos in their former hard copy incarnations. The leafing through the physical photo album was a ritual done at time of social or emotional need, to remind self and others of their respective roles through a remembrance of the emotional content of times past. This is the mythic power of the photograph, where it is not the content that matters, but the symbolism.
The photo is a conduit to emotional social resonance, similar to ancient folklore passed on through the oral tradition, or engrained ceremonial ritual such as we recently witnessed in the Royal Wedding.
If you have a favourite photo, do you love it for the image, or the emotional memory it evokes?