Friday, May 13, 2005

Maps and memory

IHT: We simply can't stop shooting
"Many new photographers - and the newly prolific - extol a new category they call ephemera. It might include a picture of an interesting glove on the sidewalk. Seen through the lens of a camera that never requires its owner to pay for film, the mundane takes on new meaning...

Lewis compared mushrooming digital photography to a map of the world that grows in detail 'until every point in reality has a counterpoint on paper, the twist being that such a map is at once ideally accurate and entirely useless, since it's the same size as the thing it's meant to represent'..."

You know, I'm guilty of making statements like "X takes on new meaning" but unless one can explain what those new meanings are, I suspect the statement itself has little meaning. More interesting perhaps are Lewis' comments above, taken from this 2003 Wired piece on memory overload, in which we begin to see what is at stake. I'm reminded of conversations with Matt where we discussed the pleasures and perils of fetishising the mundane, including the idea that perhaps ephemera should not be rendered with so much precision. As Lewis writes:

"Mechanical memory - to its unexpected advantage - degrades. Colors fade, negatives crack, manuscripts grow brittle, grooves get scratched. What emerges from these depredations is a crucial sense of both the pastness of the past, and its presence. Time takes just enough out of acetate and celluloid to remind us of the distance between now and then, while leaving just enough to remind us of the nearness of our own history. But digital memory - ubiquitous, fathomless, and literally gratuitous - serves neither idea: The past is always here and always perfect; everything can be represented, no moment need be lost. Moreover, all of it is as good as new, and every copy identical to the original. What's missing is a cadence, a play of values, or a respect for the way loss informs our experience of time. Like the map that's as big as the world itself, it's useless precisely because it's too good."

What's relevant here are the politics and ethics of collecting and representation. I recall the role of images in ordering the Indian world and wonder how we are ordering ours. I wonder how we are now collecting the universe. We continue to be seduced by decay and ruin, while simultaneously representing those desires in beautifully immortal ways. And still, computer code becomes unreadable, memory devices fail or degrade. Without our material scrapbooks and albums, what will persist as long as Harappan pottery or even as long as Andean textiles? Is the only way to keep the digital alive to use it, to keep it in motion?

The first article above writes that Caterina Fake "argues that people just have to get used to a new way of interacting with photographs", that

"The nature of photography now is it's in motion. It doesn't stop time anymore, and maybe that's a loss. But there's a kind of beauty to that, too."

But what's in motion? And what's this about not stopping time? Digital photos not only capture moments, they date-stamp them; similarly GPS gives precise geographical coordinates at a particular moment in time. Does she mean it just goes on and on and on?

Mobility is only total(ising) when it's forced, and even then we rest, remember and forget.

(original story via


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