"Since 1895, we have watched the world as moving pictures on screen. The world we see has in turn been shaped and ordered by the way we see it, from film to television and today's digital networks. The difference is that whereas we had to go somewhere specific to watch a screen , the screens now go everywhere we do." (Nicholas Mirzoff)
I had never seen the Venus de Milo. I'm still not sure that I really have.
To be honest, visiting an iconic museum like the Louvre during the summer tourist season was never going to work out as I had hoped. But I was fascinated by our collective response to the art (and, maybe, to life) as it unfolded in front of me.
So there she was, Aphrodite of Milos, rather taller than I had imagined and attracting quite a crowd. It seemed as though everyone in the room was a photographer, each keen to make their own two-dimensional, digital version of the statue. Notwithstanding the limited opportunity to simply stand and stare, it seemed like the primary experience of the Venus was via a 3-inch screen.
I'm not sure what Alexandros of Antioch would have made of such an appropriation of the work but wonder if, like me, he might have detected a sad wistfulness that the essence of his art had become so mediated.
Film director and photographer, Wim Wenders recently asked for help in labelling this kind of behaviour, declaring that it wasn't really photography. He says, "The trouble with iPhone pictures is that nobody sees them. Even the people who take them don't look at them anymore..."
But this dynamic has roots extending long before the iPhone. Back in 1843, Ludwig Feuerbach wrote that our society "prefers the image to the thing, the copy to the original, the representation to the reality, appearance to being." It seems we have a track record of separating ourselves from the lived, embodied sensation of our experiences. Ironically, we now have evidence that snapshots impair our memory due to the effect of 'cognitively off-loading' the images we attempt to record.
Personally, I notice that I find it difficult to make photographs of a place that I haven't visited for a while. It's as though there is too much going on for me to understand; I need to 'see my way in' to the light, the patterns and the human interactions before I can magic up a meaningful image. I get nowhere if I just dive in.
Novelist and poet Russell Banks even claims that visually recording an experience effectively removes him from it:
“I used to carry a camera when I traveled, but almost never took pictures with it, and apologized when I returned home, until I realized that my reluctance to point and click was really a reluctance to line up and edit and frame whatever I was seeing or hearing or smelling. The fall of the morning sunlight against the glittering sea. The crinkled face of an old woman selling spices in the market. It was, I believe, an instinctive reluctance to remove myself from my experience, an experience that could only occur far from home and habit, where the rules as much as the landscape were unfamiliar. To photograph it was somehow to reduce and domesticate my experience and ultimately to kill it.”
Banks reaches his experiences through writing, such that they become 'imprinted' on his conscious memory. It feels like a very active process. I happen to think that good photography is a very active process too.
And so here's the thing...
I don't believe we serve ourselves well if we run through life just 'snapping and retweeting' our experiences.
And, broadening the context for a moment, as a privileged Western consumer, if I don't pay any attention to where my wealth, advantage, food and clothes come from, I can rest easy.
The world deserves more than that.
We seem to be 'snapping and retweeting' a modern way of living which is founded on an uncritical, alienated and easy consumption. When we take time, pay close attention, immerse ourselves in our experience, deeply engage with the world before us, we 'see differently' and make our own judgements and decisions. It's a slow, deliberate process and invites the kind of criticality that can have a positive impact on our ecological, social and economic systems.
The Venus de Milo is worthy of more attention than just a snapshot.
So are we.
Fast Company thinks we should stop complaining about smartphones at museums.
You can find Russell Banks quoted in the 'evidence' article which I've linked to in the blog or watch him in this PBS interview.
I'm fascinated by Wim Wenders' work. Sadly it looks like his latest 'Polaroids' book is unavailable but here is a link to his mesmerising 'Places, strange and quiet'.
My Feuerbach quote is from Susan Sontag's 'On Photography'. Poor scholarliness, I know and I should really check back to 'The Essence of Christianity'. (One day...)
The Nicholas Mirzoff quote at the head of the article is from 'How to See the World'. (I have read that one....)
Finally, my sense of 'retweeting' is greatly informed by Timothy Mortons use of the word in his profound 'Being Ecological'.