The Ends of Photography
The end of film photography and the rise of digital photography have led to new genres, methods and histories.An overview of a dying and a thriving medium
Mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away.
– Paul Simon
The world’s last Kodachrome is slightly out of focus. One can read ‘Dwayne’s Photo’ and ‘Direct Duplicate Pictures’. The number below – 415 – refers to a location on South 32nd Street in the town of Parsons, Kansas, which turned out to be the last place on the planet where Kodak’s Kodachrome could be developed. The colour slide film required special equipment and chemicals, which Kodak stopped producing in 2009. In this group portrait, the fifty-odd employees of Dwayne’s Photo stand in front of the drive-by window, where customers could drop off their film rolls until 12 noon on 30 December 2010.
But it’s hard to make out the message emblazoned on the employees’ T-shirts: ‘The best slide and movie film in history is now officially retired. Kodachrome 1935–2010. Dwayne’s Photo December 30, 2010’. Dwayne Steinle, who founded the lab in 1956, doesn’t appear in the shot because he took the picture on that day. The film’s inventors Leopold Godowsky Jr. and Leopold Mannes did not live long enough to see this humble finale. Yet Kodachrome’s history continued a bit longer since the lab received too many rolls to process on 30 December. Steinle’s group portrait ran through the processors at 1:30pm on 19 January 2011. Then, his stock of chemicals ran out, and Kodachrome died for good.
Kodachrome is but one of the many fatalities of digitization. The swift demise of film over the last decade – whether Polaroid or Super 8 – has given rise to a new genre which might be called ‘the last images’: art works that mourn and document the analogue-to-digital passage. The new genre owes a debt to Miriam Bäckström and Carsten Höller’s collaborative project ‘Den Sista Bilden’ (The Last Image, 2003–4), which began the very year that digital cameras first outsold film cameras. Bäckström and Höller sent out an international call for ‘the last photographic image of somebody or something before he, she or it changed or disappeared forever’. A selection of contributions was shown at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet in 2004 and published in the book Last Image (2004) without captions. Some pictures – like John F. Kennedy on the way to his assassination – need no explanation. But many – like the man wearing a Santa Claus hat – exist as mysterious elegies.
Did Bäckström and Höller sense that film photography itself was about to disappear? Today, it’s easy to imagine a sequel to their project, which would include not only Steinle’s shot but also a host of art projects, which fuse photography and eschatology. Like many Kodachrome fans, Robert Burley made the pilgrimage to Parsons to photograph the last lab (an image that appears on the cover of this issue). Parsons was one stop on his world tour, which traces the disappearance of an industry: from the rusting delivery trucks at the Ilford plant in Mobberley, Cheshire, UK, to the ghostly warehouse at the Agfa-Gevaert plant in Mortsel, Belgium. Martin Zellerhoff caught the demolition of the Kodak plant in Rochester, New York, in 2007 and of the Agfa high rise in Munich in 2008. Tacita Dean travelled to the Kodak-Pathé plant in Chalon-sur-Saône, France, to film her documentary Kodak (2006). FILM (2011) – her installation in the Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern – is a silent 35mm film, transformed into a 13 metre-tall projection: homage to and defence of a dying medium. Last images also come in smaller sizes. Bas Fontein has been buying old film cameras, developing the remaining pictures on the rolls forgotten inside them and publishing the images as books the same size as the camera. When Fontein began his series ‘LAST PHOTOS’ in 2003, he was paying up to €60 for old cameras at pawn shops; these days, he picks them up at flea markets for a song.
Such gestures have spread beyond artists, due to photography’s popularity. Movements to salvage disappearing and antiquated formats include The Impossible Project, a small company with 25 employees who keep producing instant film materials for traditional Polaroid cameras at a former plant in Enschede; Lomography is a movement and an Austrian brand, inspired by the Russian Lomo camera.
Since the defunct film plants are so specialized, the buildings cannot be used for other purposes; they are left to rot or are demolished in collective rituals. The Kodak plants in both Rochester and Chalon-sur-Saône were blown up before a wistful crowd: an appropriately swift end for a company that turned the instant into the Instamatic camera. As Sarah Sharkey Pearce notes in Weston Public and the Visualization of Social Processes (2010), buildings at Kodak’s complex near Toronto have been taken over by ravers, who’ve filled the walls with graffiti laments. A continent away in Berlin, nocturnal revellers crowd at the photo booths on Kastanienallee: smoking, drinking and waiting for the machine to spit out moist paper pictures.
‘From Now On’
While film aficionados lament a disappearing past, digital devotees are looking forward to endless expansion. At this year’s 42nd edition of Les Rencontres d’Arles – the annual photography festival in Arles, France – the tone was set by the manifesto exhibition ‘From Here On’, which featured works by 36 artists chosen by co-curators Clément Chéroux, Joan Fontcuberta, Erik Kessels, Martin Parr and Joachim Schmid. Their curatorial statement was celebratory and collective: ‘Now, we’re a species of editors. We all recycle, clip and cut, remix and upload. We can make images do anything. All we need is an eye, a brain, a camera, a phone, a laptop, a scanner, a point of view. And when we’re not editing, we’re making. We’re making more than ever, because our resources are limitless and the possibilities endless. We have an Internet full of inspiration…’
If the death of film photography led to ‘last images’, the growth of digital photography gave rise to the new ‘Google’ genre: found photographs, taken or collected by the search engine. In ‘From Here On’, Jenny Odell used Google Earth to create ‘Satellite Collections’ (2009–11) of swimming pools, parking lots or every basketball court in Manhattan, seen from the heavens; Aram Bartholl made a giant sculpture out of the tiny red ‘A’ marker from Google Maps and put the icon in Arles’s city centre, as defined by Google; Hermann Zschiegner collected the results of his Google image search ‘walker evans + sherrie levine’ to show Evans’s originals and Levine’s copies of his pictures; Mishka Henner amassed a book of answers to his Google search for ‘Photography is…’ There were also collaborations with web cams (Jens Sundheim) and eBay (Viktoria Binschtok), among other works.
Of course, other artists have used Google: Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys’s early Google Book I (2003) comes to mind. Google Street View produced a new breed of armchair street photographers, like Michael Wolf and Shahin Afrassiabi. Given an endless source of free, ready-made images online, many artist-cum-editors defer to a rule, like search for ‘swimming pools’. However simplistic, such formulaic accumulations recall the operating systems of computers themselves. As Luca Cerizza notes in Le Mappe di Alighiero e Boetti (The Maps of Alighiero e Boetti, 2009), rule-generated works emerged in the 1960s: consider Alighiero e Boetti’s Territori occupati (Occupied Territories, 1969), Ed Ruscha’s Nine Swimming Pools (1968), Sol LeWitt’s ‘Wall Drawings’ (1969–ongoing) or the Oulipo member Georges Perec’s La Disparition (1969; A Void, 1995), written without the letter e. Rules once followed by hand can now be executed digitally. Jay Chung & Q Takeki Maeda generated ‘Outtakes and Excerpts’ (2009) by using a camera that features a shutter release reacting to recognition software that detects smiles, thus taking pictures only of smiling passers-by. Artist duo Oliver Cieslik and Barbara Schenk are even more automated; they do away with cameras and use Strata 3-D software to generate architectural vistas and interiors that only look like photographs.
The rise of post-production – the possibility of rapid, global collection, reproduction and distribution online – turns many digital and even analogue photographs into degraded copies, orbiting miles away from their origins. As Hito Steyerl notes in her essay ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’ (2009): ‘The poor image is a copy in motion. Its quality is bad, its resolution substandard. As it accelerates, it deteriorates. It is a ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed…’
While Thomas Ruff’s series ‘jpegs’ (2003–7) makes poor images culled from the Internet look glamorous, Henner happily degraded the works of other photographers, from Nan Goldin to Seydou Keïta. For his series ‘Portraits’ (2010), Henner took several different portraits by each photographer, reduced the opacity to only three per cent and digitally superimposed the ghostly faint impressions on top of each other to produce one single composite: a prototypical Goldin or Keïta face. In his series ‘Diary of the 25th week’ (2009), Fiete Stolte makes Polaroids, only to scan the images digitally, email them to friends and then reunite the original with the degraded email copy: a testimony to a riches-to-rags itinerary. In her series, like ‘Areal I-IV’ (2009), Miriam Böhm photographs pictures within pictures, turning one image into a hall of mirrors; she impoverishes, not the image, but viewers’ confidence in their perceptions.
Despite the differences between analogue and digital followers, both groups share an affirmation of the conceptual, or sometimes narrative, turn in photography. Consider Bernd and Hilla Becher, Hans-Peter Feldmann and Christopher Williams, whose works thrive on series; or Sherrie Levine and Thomas Demand, whose works can depend upon the viewer recognizing an original. A photograph may be worth a thousand words, but, today, photographs need some extra phrases – or extra photographs – to be understood or even produced. The context of production and post- production – a photograph’s history, displacements, look-alikes, manipulations – are as significant, if not more, than what the photograph shows.
Alas, many viewers cannot tell the difference between analogue and digital prints. But the conundrum lies elsewhere: the photograph alone cannot depict its own development and demise. How can one tell that Steinle’s shot is the last Kodachrome? Even if the message on the T-shirts were in focus, the picture’s finality would remain illegible. And what happened to the world’s very first digital photograph? The last images collected by Bäckström and Höller document the same phenomenon over and over again: something, someone that has disappeared for good. Yet the images show only people and places, not their passage into obscurity. Not the fact that they will never again be photographed.
If one imagines a corresponding approach to painting, the history of this older medium would address not only what the painting depicts and how the painter worked but also where the painting has been exhibited, alongside what other works and who copied it and saw it. Individual paintings would make sense only in collections of paintings with similar motifs; the reproductions and their supports – from mugs to books – would be more important than the original. Paintings could be divided up and mixed with others. Oil and acrylic camps would emerge; people would show off brushes. Shippers, insurers, restorers and retouchers would move from cameo to starring roles. That’s where photography is heading. Perhaps it took the death of film to fully liberate the medium from the paradigms of painting.
While the analogue-to-digital shift belongs to the last decade, there were omens in the early 1980s, an era that now looks like the apogee of film before its precipitous fall. Hervé Guibert (1955–91) – a writer, photographer and journalist who dedicated part of his oeuvre to his battle with HIV – is not as well-known as the subjects of his portraits, like Michel Foucault, Orson Welles or Peter Handke. Guibert’s L’image fantôme (1981; Ghost Image, 1998) was published shortly after Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1977) and Roland Barthes’s La chambre claire (1980; Camera Lucida, 1981), which both became classics. What marks Guibert’s book – and what may have initially appeared as a weakness with respect to Sontag’s and Barthes’s efforts – is his preference for narrative over theory. Instead of presenting general principles about photography, Guibert tells stories – very personal, short tales – about specific pictures: his own efforts, those of lovers and unknown photographers as well as failed pictures (undeveloped, damaged, fantasized). In short, L’image fantôme tells stories around photographs, not about the images as such.
The book’s titular chapter traces Guibert’s frustrated attempt to make portraits of his mother in an Oedipal struggle with his father to own her image. There is advice: ‘When you arrive in a city, the first thing to do is to photograph your [hotel] room, as if to mark your territory […]. Or you occupy the room, immediately, by making love in it.’ Different genres become the protagonists of his stories: pornography, family albums, tourist shots, collections, fakes, self-portraits, x-rays, identity cards, exhibitions, studios, passports, labs, contact sheets, holographs, film posters, albums, book covers, missing persons, wanted criminals; there’s even a chapter about the theorist Volker Kahmen and an unnamed magical retoucher: ‘She can close open eyes and open closed eyes, she can make the dead walk.’ Some tales about gadgets would make analogue diehards drool: a Paillard 16mm movie camera, Polaroid SX-70, Zeiss Ikon, Leica, Instamatic, Hasselblad and Robot Royal 36, which was already a rarity in 1981 (and is stolen in Guibert’s tale).
In one passage, Guibert describes his book as ‘a negative of photography’: the film negative and everything else, except the final positive print. ‘[The book] speaks only about ghost images, about images that did not turn out or even latent ones, images that are intimate to the point of being invisible. It also becomes an attempt at biography through photography: each individual story is coupled with its photographic history, imaged, imagined. Yet by what right could I hoard these other images, others’ images, these photographic positives? They go through my story, they collide with it, and sometimes they settle there, but they will never be mine.’
A pirate before the Internet, Guibert believes that photographs are collective property. ‘As soon as I own a photograph, I don’t like it anymore […]. I don’t desire it anymore. The photograph should not belong to anyone,’ he wrote in Le mausolée des amants. Journal 1976–1991 (The Mausoleum of Lovers. Diary 1976–1991, 2001). The more a photograph circulates, the more people see it, the more it interacts with people’s lives, the more narrative it produces, the more collective it becomes. In his diary, he often describes commuters in the Métro, like a CCTV camera avant la lettre, albeit driven by desire. In his eyes, the city bus is a giant moving camera. Travels mark the book, from Elba Island back to Paris, over Brussels and Hamburg, across the border at Friedrichstraße to former East Berlin and all the way to Kraków. It’s as if Guibert used his body to give photographs and cameras a mobility that they would eventually enjoy through the Internet and digital mobile gadgets – a mobility that would make images even more collective. Many stories read like outlines for art works, like conceptual rules softened by narrative, the way that fortunes are sweetened by cookies. Guibert was close to Sophie Calle, who based several works on their exchanges; Douleur exquise (Exquisite Pain, 1984–2003) includes a 10 January 1985 letter from Guibert explaining that he and some of his friends dreamt about her during the same night.
Photographs are not just descriptive and documentary; they generate biographies and identities, both collective and individual. It’s easy to imagine another ghost image in Simon Fujiwara’s ‘The Museum of Incest’ (2007–ongoing), which includes the artist re-enacting photographs of his own father. Or in Anouk Kruithof’s A HEAD WITH WINGS (2011), a cross between a picture book and a pop-up book, dedicated to a stranger she photographed in a park. Even Kruithof’s decision to use only her own photographs – never found ones, never Photoshop – evokes all the images that could have appeared in her oeuvre.
Look – it’s me with my mother.’
– Rachael, Bladerunner
There was another omen from the early 1980s: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), which anticipates not only digital photography but also a human existence dependent on photographs. The Victoria & Albert’s show ‘Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970–1990’, which runs until 15 January 2012, presents the movie as bygone history. Yet some scenes feel closer to today, if not to the film’s fictional future of 2017: when the blade runner Deckard must find and kill human replicants on the loose in a dystopian Los Angeles.
Deckard not only ‘skypes’ with the replicant Rachael from a public phone in a bar but also uses an Esper photo analysis machine to enlarge a photograph (and to discover the replicant Zhora’s reflection in a mirror inside the picture). However reminiscent of the enlargements in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), Blade Runner’s Esper machine is an analogue-digital hybrid – imagined a decade before the JPEG was standardized. While the Esper clicks like a mechanical camera, it follows voice commands like the latest iPhone 4S and divides the picture into a pixel-like grid. When Deckard says ‘Gimme a hard copy right there’, the Esper spits out a Polaroid of Zhora’s face to the unmistakable sound that Guibert described as ‘bzzi… bzzi…’. Zhora’s portrait – which Deckard uses to hunt her down for early ‘retirement’ – is yet another poor copy: a cross between super-grainy analogue dots and over-pixelated digital boxes. What are the replicants, if not degraded human copies, which last only four years?
Beyond pixels and poor copies, Blade Runner underscores how photographs produce subjectivity in a way that recalls Guibert’s attempt to fuse photography and biography. The Tyrell Corporation outfits its replicants with memory implants and old photographs, which give them a past that they never actually experienced. ‘Look – it’s me with my mother’, says Rachael, holding out a snapshot to Deckard to prove that she is not a replicant manufactured in a lab but a human with a history, childhood and mother – a person who has lived and will live for more than four years. Deckard says her memories are artificial implants; her family album was found, bought or stolen. ‘Did you get your precious photographs?’ one replicant asks another; they fetishize pictures: the fake human’s proof of humanity, promise of longevity.
Even real humans need photographs to prove their identities. In a nation-state, every citizen ends up being photographed for IDs or passports. Yet in our society of spectacles, images – both still and moving – can produce a different kind of public subject, from the movie star to the YouTube sensation. Or even the refugee. Studying the photographs of Palestinians and Israelis, Ariella Azoulay argues in _ The Civil Contract of Photography_ (2008) that photographs constitute a civil space between the photographer, the person photographed and the viewing public. In this civic space – which runs parallel to the nation-state’s public sphere, peopled by citizens or tourists with valid passports – the refugee has a chance to gain a legitimate presence merely by appearing in a photograph. Last summer, at the conference ‘The Human Snapshot’ organized by the LUMA Foundation in Arles, Azoulay recast ‘The Family of Man’ – the landmark photography exhibition curated by Edward Steichen at the MoMA in 1955 – as ‘the first visual declaration of human rights’. If the photograph functions as an ersatz passport, the Internet allows the photographed subject to become part of a global public, with universal rights.
A certain marine incident near Australia demonstrates the power of the photograph not only to record but also to produce subjects, if not citizens. On 8 October 2001, the Olong, a boat filled with over 200 refugees, approached Australia, only to be directed back into international waters and then to sink. The Australian Navy vessel HMAS Adelaide, which intercepted the Olong, ended up rescuing the passengers. And someone photographed them: saved, grateful. But the government, under Prime Minister John Howard, prevented the pictures from being published. Photographing asylum seekers is usually forbidden in order to protect their family members still living in the home country. But in this case, officials felt it was crucial ‘not to humanize the asylum seekers’ with photographs. Australians might sympathize with them and see them as equal fellow citizens – in the same way that Deckard sees Rachael as an equal instead of a target.
Of course, replicants and refugees are not the only ones who value photographs, who can’t live without them. Is the unphotographed life worth living? A friend told me a story about more phantom images, never taken. On the subway a few years ago, she overheard two young women, dressed up to the nines, gossiping about the exclusive party they were about to attend. Then, tragedy struck: they’d forgotten their cameras. As they realized there’d be nothing to post on Facebook, no proof to show friends, one suddenly decided: ‘It’s not worth going anymore…’
First published in Issue 3