Photo Fads and Photo Histories

churchill_aotw_0Churchill, from The Cape Times

Every few months the feeds and sites I subscribe to will briefly fill with talk of some new photographic fad. My interest in these gimmicks and trends is pretty limited. Most are dull in visuals and idea, lacking in even accidental interest. But for once three have caught my attention, partly because they are rather more sophisticated, but also because I think they unintentionally reveal something about the ways that people are interacting with the past, and particularly with historic photographs.

The first photo fad, the historical self-portrait, or ‘selfie’, is actually the product of a marketing campaign by the South African Cape Times. These are vintage photographs of historic personages (Jackie Kennedy, Winston Churchill), which have been photo manipulated to suggest that rather than being photographed by someone else, the subject is reaching out their arm and snapping themselves with a phone camera. Considering a third of photographs taken by young people are said to be selfies (a photo stat which like any we should be cautious of), The Cape Times campaign is an amusingly wry comment on the present nature of photography. As many have observed. the rise of photo democracy has been tinged with the rise of photo narcissism.

Equally this practice suggests the idea that the iconic portrait of a well-known leader or artist might today not be the product of a professional photographer (whether granted privileged access or simply in the right place at the right time) but of the subject themselves. We’re yet to see a Bashar Al Assad self-portrait on the Syrian Government’s Instagram feed, let alone an iconic one, but it somehow feels depressingly easy to imagine. Of course there is the other debate, whether amongst the deluge of photographs it is even possible for any image to emerge as ‘iconic’, but that is a discussion for a future post.

The second fad is rather less novel but I think no less interesting. It’s the practice of colourising historic photographs, whereby practitioners (and there are many) digitally reintroduce colour to old black and white photographs. This is a practice which has a historical precedent in the hand tinted prints of the early days of photography. Some of these were really quite beautifully done, delicately toned by fine hands and sensitive eyes, others were utterly crude and kitsch. From what I’ve seen the same range in quality exists in contemporary colorisation.

The desire to reintroduce colour to photographs becomes most interesting when one is able to see two versions of the same image side by side (as demonstrated here). Inevitably the results are a product of the colourist’s imagination, their personal vision of the past. One person might colour an image in a way that gives it a warm, perhaps optimistic tone compared to the original black and white photograph, while a different colouring of the same photograph might emerge darker and colder. I think this rather nicely reflects the subjectivity inherent in reading all documents of the past, including photographs. It reminds us that multiple readings are always possible, and the one that prevails is often down to the predliections of the viewer as much the original creator’s intent, let alone the reality of what is being documented.

The third fad I want to mention seems not to have an agreed upon name. It again uses historic photographs, this time overlaying them onto a photograph of the same location in the present to create a montage that blurs together two moments in time. American soldiers fight in the street of sleepy French village while modern tourists stroll around them, or a 1920’s police officer stands on a twenty-first century street corner. For me this is by far the most sophisticated of the three, because it shows better than the other two the proximity between present and past, breaking with the notion of time as a consistent flow of events, each never able occupy the same space as each other.

Moderately interesting as these three trends are in themselves for what they individually say about photography, the present and the past, collectively I think they say something more. That perhaps we are no longer so content with taking the history on its own terms, with seeing the past as a ‘foreign country’ to use L. P. Hartley’s massively over quoted phrase. Perhaps increasingly we want to see the past more as an auxiliary or extension to the present, as a place which can be sampled and constantly re-shaped in form and re-imagined in light of the way we now live.

To be sure the problem with the past has often been that people have difficulty appreciating how similar it is to the present, to understand that those who came before us were capable of the same feelings, impulses and mistakes. The gift of hindsight, rather than amplifying our ability to learn from the past seems more often to undermine it. But while these altered images have a strange potential to counter this, to re-establish some sort of link to the past by making it understandable on our own terms, I worry that the faux and factual pasts can easily become inseparably mixed.

While I might appreciate the absurdity of Winston Churchill snapping a quick self-portrait on a phone, others won’t (credit to the Cape Times that they include a thumbnail of the original image in each of their selfies, but these are easily removed). It’s amazing to observe the way small children learn to master things like smartphones almost before they have learnt prerequisite abilities, like reading. These technologies which seemed so revolutionary to older generations pre-exist new ones, and the things that pre-exist us are easily taken as self-evident and eternal. The idea that Churchill might have taken a self-portrait on his phone is probably fairly believable to a child who has only ever known a world with such devices.

I’m not saying the relics of the past should be off limits to us, that they must never be altered, sampled, referenced. I’m just noting the difficulty of balancing the desire to do this and the potential value of such sampling with the difficulty of maintaining some sort of integrity about the past. History is often seen as something that can be delved into at any time by anyone, in search of material for any purpose. It’s not. The past is a place we visit, and we need be ever mindful of the subtle ways we alter it through our incursions.

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