Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Where is the Universal, and What is its Scale?

A lot of people told me that for a photograph to deserve public viewing (publicity), it had to address itself to "universal themes." Conventionally, the "universal," referred to this way, means sunsets (signifying time, endings, transitions) or an old man's wrinkled hands (signifying age or time or passage). In theory, the "universal" could be anything. In practice, it tends to gather around images which give themselve easily to an available symbolism and which (thereby) erase any trace of the personal.

One thing being said, when someone equates "universal" themes with the right to exist in public, is that images defined as personal (because we haven't known what else to call them? because they embarrass us with their intimacy?) do not deserve publics, or public viewing. Pictures of cats online bear the brunt of this prohibition now. But only slightly less vehemently prohibited are images of birthday parties or holidays in the Grand Canyon or friends out drinking. Of course, Art always redeems the image which is too personal to exist in public; if the tourist image is artful enough, we can forgive its presence before us, in our flickr stream or wherever. We say that the photograph's Artfulness gives us access to it, where, by contrast, the personal blocks this access, bars the way.

But flickr (for instance) does something interesting in this regard. It does not envelop the image as Art does, excusing its publicity by effacing its intimacy. Flickr, it seems to me, strips an image of none of its intimacy. Just the opposite: all images stay embedded within a single person's—the photographer's—narrative, or life, or "photo stream." They may escape into groups or the horizontal vector of a tag, but you can always and easily get back to the individual who took the photo and to whom, presumably, it means something (or, to whom it meant something first). But something else happens at the same time as this intimacy is preserved: through various vectors like tags and groups and memes, photographs escape into a public. Which is to say, I suppose (if we're far more liberal with our definition of "universal" than most uses tend to be), that these images, these minor, intimate, sometimes banal, sometimes ordinary, sometimes humblingly poignant images become universal. Publicly meaningful. Or just: public. And we, as a result, gain more points of entree to intimacy. The intimacy of an image or a life we don't know.
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