Dear Photograph

The response is as old as photography itself. A small photographic image that you hold in your hand, a miniaturised depiction of someone or something from the past, throws you off-guard in the present.

Snapshots, in particular, have a way of churning up memory and emotion and, every once in a while, helping us to reexamine our personal histories from a new perspective. The materiality of snapshots, their papery vulnerability and smooth surfaces, contributes greatly to our experience of them and their impact and power. Run your finger over one and a yet-to-be-understood, sense-memory experience takes hold. Neurological gates swing open. Time compresses. Feelings swell. Unresolved or loose threads of experience fall into place.

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Snapshots trigger epiphanies, as one so famously did for Roland Barthes, whose profound response to a snapshot of his mother led him to write Camera Lucida, ‘a first-person anecdote about the wonder induced by an otherwise ordinary photograph’. Old snapshots work similarly, if less poetically, upon the rest of us, too. But these days, instead of writing books about that experience, snapshot fans are more likely to pay a virtual homage to the materiality and emotional impact of snapshots by scanning, posting and commenting about them online, which may help to explain the genesis and success of a year-old website called Dear Photograph.

Last May, Taylor Jones, a 22-year-old social media specialist in Canada, was going through snapshots with family members when he came across one made years earlier to commemorate his younger brother’s third birthday party. ‘He was sitting in front of his Winnie-the-Pooh birthday cake,’ Jones said of the primal image that inspired Dear Photograph, and ‘it was weird, because my brother was there in the exact spot he was sitting in the photograph.’ Like so many of us who take pictures, now, of whatever is odd or cool—because it’s fun, because we can, because there’s always a smart- or cell-phone close at hand—Jones held the vintage snapshot up, aligned it to match with the kitchen scene before him, and documented the serendipity of that temporal/spatial/material coincidence. He then posted his image to a blog, accompanied by a brief description of the “oh-wow” nature of it all. Within days and to Jones’ surprise, the new picture of the old picture went viral.

Today, a year after its launch, Dear Photograph archives around 200 similarly structured photographs that have been sent in by others, boasts a fan base of 23,000 followers, spawned a book that comes out this month, and a movie deal is said to be in the works, none of which is surprising given the project’s easy-to-grasp format and brandable appeal. ‘The idea behind Dear Photograph is simple,’ a press release promoting Jones’s availability as a public speaker explains: ‘Hold up a photo from the past in front of the place where it was originally shot, then take a picture of the picture, adding a dedication about what the photograph means to you. The results…are astounding. By turns nostalgic, charming, and poignant, Dear Photograph is a stunning visual compilation that evokes childhood memories, laments difficult losses, and above all, celebrates the universal nature of love.’
Sweep that hyperbolic sell-copy aside and you’ve still got to admire the power of Jones’s concept, even if it’s not an absolutely original one. People love visual tricks, like M. C. Escher’s trippy scenes, where seemingly ordinary things turn themselves inside-out and become extraordinary. Historically, depictions of photographs within photographs have sparked reveries and revelations like the ones Dear Photograph trades in and profits from. It wasn’t unusual for daguerreotypes, for example, to present scenarios in which sitters held or looked at a daguerreotype, depicting a wondrous loop of looking. A century later, in the late 1960s and early 70s, conceptual image-makers played around with similar set-ups to zero in on the parameters of photography itself. Among the most famous examples of that, Chicago-based Ken Josephson’s picture-within-a-picture pieces, half-jokingly but elegantly nailed the photographic trope that, thanks to Dear Photograph, has become a pop culture meme. What’s different about Dear Photograph’s spin on this strategy, though, is that instead of using it as a springboard to challenge photography’s truth functions, images and accompanying texts on the website aim straight for the heart.

Jones says about twenty new submissions are sent in daily, a steady stream of visitor-contributed content that not only reflects the sincere, if gimmicky, charm of the endeavor, but also the exhibitionist and image-conscious spirit of our time. More than a picture editor, Jones functions as a curator of human interest stories comprised of Twitter-length texts and poignant pictures, mostly about longing and reconciliation, the two most prominent themes that seem to drive the site. In one example after another, mundane photographs prompt major realisations. It’s achingly human, effective and moving until the categories of entries and the empathy buttons they push turn predictable: I was young, but now I’m old. I was thin, then I bulked up. We were happy, now we’re not. I was naïve, now I know better. You had cancer, and you beat it. Because the project is photography based, the killer category is the most obvious one: they were here and now they’re gone. Dear Photograph is dense, probably too dense, with entries that ruminate on the inevitable and heartbreaking loss of parents, siblings, relatives, friends, and pets.

Life, photographs and texts on the website remind us, always merits a second look. What doesn’t hold up so well to repeated encounters is the quasi-Victorian salutation, “Dear Photograph” that starts off each of the entries and turns arch quickly. It’s clearly a takeoff on the “Dear Reader” conceit that worked so effectively in engaging readers of less interactive fictions, one hundred years ago. But in the twenty-first century, it’s hard to imagine exactly who the “Photograph” character who is being addressed might be. Some ghost from photography’s pantheon? A panoptic spirit far more benevolent than most critical theorists have led us to believe? Given that the percentage of actual photographic prints produced are in sharp decline in relation to the soaring numbers of digital images being made, and taking into account the fact that most snapshots are no longer discrete and material things, but collections of pixels that coalesce on demand, all the entreaties to “Dear Photograph” take on a plaintive tone, like appeals to the image world’s equivalent of St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes.

Dear Photograph is also part group therapy session, a neutral zone where contributors and site visitors make their peace with all that is going and gone, including the waning materiality of photography itself. Ironically, as Facebook albums and Flickr accounts flood with digital imagery, the fetishisation of and nostalgia for photographic prints and processes of the past builds. This phenomenon reflects, perhaps, the nervousness of this transitional moment in visual culture. In the past decade, we’ve watched the art museums that snubbed “vernacular” photography reverse course to exhibit vintage snapshots on the verge of extinction. Photo-world conferences with alarm-ringing titles like “Is Photography Dead?” and “What’s Next?” suggest a pervasive anxiety about what lies ahead.

That uncertainty may also help to explain why some contemporary image-makers (like Chuck Close, Adam Fuss, or Deborah Lusker, to name a few) have chosen to resurrect antique or “alternative” processes like daguerreotypes and tintypes. It’s surely the comforting look (if not the actual feel) of old photographs that motivates the marketing of thousands of retro photo apps, like “Bleached Polaroid,” that digitally mimic the idiosyncratic look of old lenses, photo mounts and finishing techniques. The fact that precious personal images can disappear with an errant keystroke, the loss of a portable hard drive, or might disappear in some poorly managed or not-profitable-enough digital cloud, explains why it’s Internet-savvy couples with young children who print out more photographic images than any other demographic group.

The fragile snapshots that get the memorial treatment in Dear Photograph speak to the oversized significance they are taking on as material objects in a digital age. A snapshot is a souvenir, a powerful object, according to critic Susan Stewart, ‘because of its connection to biography and its place in constituting the notion of the individual life.’ Each one becomes a memento, she goes on to say, that ‘becomes emblematic of the worth of that life and of the self’s capacity to generate worthiness.’ No wonder people are still logging on and looking.[/ms-protect-content]

Published in Photoworks Issue 18, 2012
Commissioned by Photoworks

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