A Literal Girl

Leaf

On time, photography, technology, and proof

1.

“[An image] is an appearance, or a set of appearances, which has been detached from the place and time in which it first made its appearance and preserved – for a few moments or a few centuries.” (John Berger, Ways of Seeing)

I’ve been sifting through the paper record of my existence. I’m in the process of renewing my visa to live in the UK and am required to prove various things – that my partner and I live, for instance, in “a relationship akin to marriage”, that we have lived together for at least two years, that the marriage our relationship is akin to is a genuine one – “not like a marriage of convenience”. These are trickier things to prove, as it turns out, than they sound. There’s plenty of evidence that I exist – bank statements, letters, a birth certificate. There’s evidence that he exists. But how much documentation is not here, has no corporeal form! Somewhere I read that it can help to include photographs of yourself and your partner with your application – proof, of a sort, that you’ve been in the same place at the same time many times. But the hard-copy photograph has been a casualty, at least for me, of convenience. I spent $900 shipping books across the Atlantic when I moved here, but felt fortunate that I had no photo albums to fret over. My pictures are on laptops or online; all of the images of the two of us together are in iPhoto, mostly unseen and thus forgotten; or else on Facebook, tagged, organized into neat albums, depicting holidays and long summer nights.

I do have a handful of hard-copy photographs, accumulated over the years, residing in a small envelope. Now I see them in a strange light: I consider each one, ask myself, what does this photo prove? I realize that none of them prove anything. None of them mean anything except what they mean to me. I dig through drawers, excavating my own study. There is a photograph of my partner holding a friend’s (then) newborn baby. That baby is now a wild-haired creature of two and a half, who leads his parents by the hands out of a café, proclaiming, “let’s go for a walk!” The photograph is a record, but seems not to represent a real thing: I can remember my amazement at holding such a small human, but that amazement has been replaced by my amazement at how that small human is bigger now, can express himself. Is the photograph of the baby or the evolution of our amazement?

On my computer are hundreds, maybe thousands, of photographs. These photographs, suspended as they are in a kind of virtual space, have no narrative other than the one that context can suggest: you see what, chronologically, came before, and what came after. You see the photo you took hours or days before and the one you took hours or days or perhaps only seconds after. But each captured moment is whole without these dubious clues, too; each image is self-sufficient – like what you would see if you were to walk around with your eyes closed and then, at irregular, distanced intervals, open them, for just an instant.

“The camera relieves us of the burden of memory,” writes John Berger in About Looking. “It surveys us like God, and it surveys for us. Yet no other god has been so cynical, for the camera records in order to forget.”

2.

Facebook bought Instagram. I don’t know what this says or what it will mean, least of all from a business or industry perspective. And I don’t think I need to speculate on it, because everyone with a brain and a blog has already done so – a perfect illustration of how difficult it is to keep up these days. Already what I’m writing about is old news, even if it’s something still ongoing; everything moves too quickly; it’s impossible to settle into one moment or one issue.

So you may already be sick of reading about how Facebook bought Instagram, sick of reading about any associated topics. But it seems to me (right now, in this moment) that technology – or, rather, our conversations about technology, our thoughts about it as a subject – is all about time. In fact it seems to me that our conversations and our thoughts in general – whatever subject we land on – are all about time these days. Manipulating time, prolonging the present, connecting with the past or the future or both, “viewing the present as increasingly a potentially documented past“, as Nathan Jurgenson writes in his essay on “The Faux-Vintage Photo”:

The momentary popularity of the Hipstamatic-style photo serves to highlight the larger trend of our viewing the present as increasingly a potentially documented past. In fact, the phrase “nostalgia for the present” is borrowed from the great philosopher of postmodernism, Fredric Jameson, who states that “we draw back from our immersion in the here and now […] and grasp it as a kind of thing.”

In a recent essay on “techno, dancing, and the augmented self,” Cheri Lucas writes:

In Generation Ecstasy, music critic Simon Reynolds writes that while techno can be performed live, it is seldom born in real time. Instead, it is programmed and assembled sequence by sequence and layer by layer, using synthesizers, drum machines, and other electronic instruments. Later, it’s the dancer who actualizes the sound in physical space, who translates electronic into corporeal and sensual. “Techno is an immediacy machine,” writes Reynolds, “stretching time into a continuous present.” The beats that drove us were quick and constant—a hypnotizing measure of time itself—and dancing was an intimate, often carnal, yet largely public interpretation of what now looked like.

When I started to write this post I thought it was going to be about photography, about the faux-vintage aesthetic and what it means. But as I began to write and read, I realized it was not about that at all, or at least, not all of it was about that. It was an essay on time, of course, and it was reading Lucas’ piece that convinced me of this. The quest or compulsion to interpret “what now looked like” is increasingly complicated. We can now reside in a “now” padded as heavily with what has been and what might someday be as we want, and yet in a sense “now” itself is obsolete. Already we’re moving on, even as we arrive. We’re nostalgic but not really looking backwards; we’re manufacturing the impression or representation of nostalgia, aware that we should or do feel it, but unable to pause long enough for breath to transform that awareness into anything constructive (or destructive), to let it sink in, pull us down or lift us up.

3.

So what about the faux-vintage aesthetic? “The cosmic significance of Hipsta/gram is not physical,” writes Matt Pearce in his excellent piece “Shoot Hip or Die”:

It ages digital photos for distribution in a digital world. But nothing really gets older online; the only aging of things here comes from the erosive force of changing human sensibilities. The black of that North Face jacket looks just as black, but the point of wearing it has faded a little. Here there is only the appearance of getting older because everything else has gotten much newer. The pixels do not outwardly become worn. They are like grains of sand. If one is destroyed, it’s too small for us to know it’s been annihilated. And there is so much sand.

Interestingly, both Pearce and Jurgenson allude to a supposition that “Hipsta/gram” (Pearce’s amalgamation of Hipstamatic and Instagram) is transient, a temporary aesthetic – a fashion, perhaps. Maybe they’re right; Instagram users, irked by Goliath’s purchase, are already lamenting the inevitable decline of the service – but maybe this resentment is really a mask for a more general change of heart. As my friend Ben Walker put it, “I was starting to get bored of the faux-retro photo style anyway (real retro photos are another thing entirely), and the new iPhone camera takes higher quality photos that don’t need retro filters to look good.”

Walker goes on to write of his own impending fatherhood, and of a corresponding attitudinal shift. “There’s so much great stuff on the internet, but very little of it is to do with what’s going on right now,” he writes. “These days […] I’m less and less worried about missing out on new stuff (new gadgets, apps, social networks, bands, memes) and more excited by finding and maintaining old stuff (organs, pianos, old gadgets, piles of wood). All of which sounds suspiciously like I’m getting old.”

Even to acknowledge that “I’m getting old,” as we all are, is to slip out of the rope-binds of the constant present, to evade the lure of online perpetuity. Nothing gets older online; the North Face jacket, as Pearce points out, never fades. But meanwhile I see wrinkles under my eyes that were not there when I first moved here, and a part of me is pleased when the Instagram filter obscures such details, casts a weathered sheen over a new image, makes it (by projecting it simultaneously into the past and the future) timeless. Why are we drawn to the evocative falseness of “Hipsta/gram”? For the same reason we may be about to reject it: because I am getting old, and you are getting old, too.

4.

“During the course of the play the table collects this and that, and where an object from one scene would be an anachronism in another (say a coffee mug) it is simply deemed to have become invisible. By the end of the play the table has collected an inventory of objects.” (Stage directions for Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia).

One of the photographs I encounter on my journey through the small envelope in my study is of my 12th grade English class in 2004, just before graduation. There are five of us, including our teacher; one student is missing, so in his stead we have written his name on a roll of paper towels and placed it in the center of the table. We lean forward slightly, to fit into frame. The photo was taken on my old Minolta; I know this because I can see the lens cap on the table in front of me, and because it’s in black and white. I used to use only black and white film – partly because it meant I could develop photos myself in the dark room and partly because the incongruity of it appealed to me, in the same way, perhaps, that now I tint my photographs with Instagram filters or manipulate them with HDR software.

I think of the tension between the accumulative nature of memory – the inventory of objects that collect on the metaphorical table – and the way an image seems to isolate a moment even as it binds it to either what is being represented or who is viewing it (or both). In another photo – one of my favorites – a good friend, wearing a formal black dress, empties bath salts into a tub at midnight in an expensive hotel. It was taken just after we had graduated from high school, and my memory of that evening is composed of linked-but-isolated episodes: sitting on the night-blackened beach with a few friends, gulping red wine from a lone bottle that had miraculously materialized just as we were about to give up any hope of finding something to drink; eating apples next to a swimming pool; watching a few disconcerting minutes of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. And yet the photographic evidence of the evening reflects none of this; it reflects only the spaces in between the memories.

The photos I have from that evening are, in a sense, the frame or foundation for a structure of memory built to evoke nostalgia; I took them knowing full well that someday I’d be sentimental, and I knew this because part of me was already sentimental. As soon as you remove yourself from a situation, even if for an almost-unmeasurable instant, just to press a button, you give yourself the opportunity to see what “now” looks like from a different vantage point. What if I’d had the option to pre-fade the photos, create them with the scars and scratches that time has now given them? “Instagram enhances the narratives we weave by mimicking the materiality and randomness of old photographs,” writes Laura Fettig:

The hike you took, the latte you drank, the sunset you saw, that day at the park with your friends – these events become subtle markers for the kind of life you lead. Instagram isn’t just about sharing photos or networking: it’s about starring in your own movie. It’s about making sure your life looks beautiful, and not leaving it up to chance.

At the end of her essay, Fettig describes finding “fistfuls of crumpled and faded photographs” at her grandmother’s house. “I laid them out in good light and took a picture of each of them with my phone,” she writes. “50 years from now, or 100, or 200 – who will be able to tell the difference?”

5.

In Croydon, after a long period of waiting on glistening red chairs while children, in various states of hysteria, run screaming or laughing past us and a disembodied voice calls ticket number after ticket number to counter after counter, I’m invited to submit my application for further leave to remain in the UK. I have curated a large selection of documents that I hope prove all of the things I need to prove; I slide folder after folder across to the woman on the other side of the glass.

“Are these personal photos?” she asks me, holding up a folder that says, “personal photos”.

“Yes,” I tell her. I have gone through the special trouble of having them printed out, directly from Facebook, with URLs, dates, comments from friends and family members, still visible. I worry maybe it looks like I’m trying too hard, but in a sense, this is all the real proof I have to offer, even after five years of co-habitation. I know what a farce it makes of proof, but I also know that in all the implied moments between these photographs is everything they could possibly need to know.

“Oh,” she says, smiling soothingly. “You can take these back. We don’t look at photos.”

6.

Berger again:

Images were first made to conjure up the appearances of something that was absent. Gradually it became evident that an image could outlast what it represented; it then showed how something or somebody had once looked – and thus by implication how the subject had once been seen by other people.

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3 Responses

  1. Cheri Lucas says:

    Oh, this is wonderful. You should see the mess of a draft of my version tackling some of this: mainly faux-nostalgia, which then morphed into a musing on past-present-future in which I got lost. After a month, I stopped — as we agreed on Twitter, it’s hard to keep up with the brains and the blogs, and “what I want to say” is a moving target, depending on what I read. But this piece convinces me that yes, there is room for “slow writing” — it’s gorgeous and probably my favorite post of yours so far.

    I love that you’ve zoomed in here on your visa process to stay longer in the UK (congratulations by the way!). You’ve brought up interesting things about how we view a photograph, and what a photograph *is*. And what any sort of capturing or recording truly is, especially today, when time (and anything) is manufactured — and when “now” seems ignored. (That’s definitely an aspect about techno/electronic dance music I absolutely love — even though it conjures memories in its own way, as all genres of music do, it’s first and foremost been a sound of “now” to my ears.)

    (Did you read ever read that Vanity Fair piece from the beginning of the year on stylistic paralysis? http://vnty.fr/HL5e7q It’s a big, swirling piece on our culture’s paralysis in general — on how what’s “now” is not now at all — and I was reminded of it when I read this.)

  2. Miranda Ward says:

    Thanks, Cheri! Really appreciate your reading and commenting on this. Love the idea that “‘what I want to say’ is a moving target” – very true. And yes – definitely room for slow writing, though it’s easy to forget that at times. I forget, also, though, that sometimes a draft – or even a series of notes – is okay to post, on my own blog at least: nothing I write here is ever “my final verdict” on something.

    Would love to read your thoughts on faux-nostalgia and past-present-future if/when you wrestle them into a publishable form. Sometimes (of course!) all it takes is a little more time…

    Thanks also for reminding me about that Vanity Fair piece – I’d made a note of it, but hadn’t read it yet. Some interesting stuff…not sure I agree wholeheartedly with all of it but it definitely chimes with the sense I have that the present is as much about “then” as it is “now”…

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California-born, UK-based author and PhD student. Read more...
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