Monday, May 23, 2005

What's the Question

The question I'm asking myself a lot lately is: how are photographs public (or, how do photographs uniquely form and circulate within publics, or, is there anything unique about the way photographs operate within publics or are they just one cultural text among many, including tv, books, comics, films, newspapers, speeches, etc.)?

I'm reading a lot of Habermas and Arendt. I'm not sure that's helping.

Warner gives these characteristics of publics:

-things (text or speech or performance or etc.) must *circulate* within a public (circulation is probably the key feature in Warner's terms; also, incidentally or not, one of the key features of internet-based photography)

-they must circulate among strangers within a public

-public things, to be public, cannot exist solely within preexisting frameworks (e.g. political parties, identity groups)

-as members of publics, we have to understand ourselves as both individually addressed _and_ part of the anonymous public whole (cf. sermons and lyric poems are meant to be apprehended privately, even if this voice is only a fiction perpetuated by the text; the goal and defining characteristic of public discourse is circulation)

-membership in a public is based on activity not on classificatory schemas (what we do, not who we are)

-public discourse is contemporaneous and oriented towards the future (by addressing contemporary events, it opens up possibilities for change)

-no single text (radio show, puppet theatre, photograph) constitutes a public; a public must put texts in relation to other texts; there must be a history and an implied future

-publics must be aware of themselves as publics

I think the more interesting and more specific question for my project is probably: how has the relationship between publics and photographs changed? How has the way that a photograph addresses a public changed? How have new practices of photography (e.g. blogs, flickr) changed the nature of publics—the publics of photographs themselves, but also, perhaps, publics more broadly.

Let me just give one example of what I mean. Think about the circulation of photographs before photographs started to appear online in significant numbers. Consider a paper photograph. When I am holding a paper photograph, I might be looking at the only printed copy of that photograph in the world. Or, maybe it's been printed and re-printed and given as a gift and hung on a wall and.... The point is, under normal conditions, I just won't know. So, where is the public for any given photograph, under these conditions? One of the important characteristics of publics is that they must be aware of themselves as public, i.e. as a collection of strangers, among whom certain texts circulate, referencing contemporary events, etc.—otherwise, there is very little potential for them to act. [For now, I'm bracketing a conversation about photographs which circulate as art, in galleries and collector's homes and etc.] Can we talk about a public for paper photographs in the same way we can talk about a public for digital, internet-based photographs? Of course, even the lowliest snapshot taken 60 years ago circulated within families and among a families' set of close friends. But this is public in neither Warner's, Arendt's nor Habermas' senses. Bourdieu's sociology of photography (a study conducted in the 50's and 60's) considered the circulation of photography as class and class difference, but this is different than the circulation of photographs. Bourdieu et al do not discuss at all the circulation of photographs—as if there was no such circulation at the time, or as if it wasn't important, if there was.

In contrast: when I look at a photograph on flickr, I know that there are potentially as many reproductions of that photograph as there are users of flickr. There is massive circulation (not just through users, but through groups and tags as well). There is what Warner calls "stranger relationality" (more than most people know what to do with). There is contemporaneity and an eye towards future uses (future viewings, new tags, new groups, etc.).

The idea here is not to check off Warner's list in order to identify what does and does not qualify as public on his terms. The idea is to notice (if only by one set of criteria, although I find Warner's a powerful set) quite specifically how photography is changing, and what kinds of changes, in turn, photography is effecting.

To gesture at a few more examples, it also strikes me that online photography significantly alters a photograph's mode of address (who it addresses and how—something Barthes writes a lot about); the temporality of a photography (how it exists in time: how it calls up the past, how it evokes or implies death, etc.—something else Barthes' writes about, but also Benjamin); and a photograph's relationships to other photographs (this one seems obvious, but is an important point vis a vis publics).
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