From Medusa to the Hamster Wheel

Presented at the Pacific and Modern Languages Conference at Western Washington University on November 11, 2018. For the Teaching for the Anthropocene panel.

 An Alternative History of Photography,

 and a new Philosophy for the Lens in the Digital Age

by Stafford H. Smith


            Without a doubt, the first photographer was the ancient Greek gorgon, Medusa. Her power to freeze living subjects into mineralized form granted, according to some accounts, by the goddess Athena, represents the earliest attempt of transforming a living and moving subject into an object that could be gazed upon at leisure. These decisive moments in the centuries B.C. did not just remind one of death, they were death, and they inspired a fear so deep that it lingers even today in the form of camera-shy behavior. To protect oneself from modern day descendants of Medusa we have learned to drop a mask in place, known as the camera face, a thin but effective defense against the penetrating gaze. And it is the mask that gets frozen for all eternity allowing us to escape and pose again another day.

            Medusa's descendants, today’s shutterbugs, have learned to satisfy themselves with just representations of their victims. While less dramatic, it does allow for the same subject to be photographed over and over again, sort of like catch-and-release fishing. It also makes self-portraiture a viable pastime, without which, postmodernism would have sorely been compromised.

            After Medusa was tricked into taking a selfie, photography went dormant for a few thousand years. It wasn't until the 1830's when a Frenchman, by the name of Louis Daguerre, through a cocktail of science and luck, managed to resurrect this secret of the Gods. His discovery, however, was much reduced in power. Subjects could easily flee from the chilling embrace of his camera, leaving behind pictures of buildings and streets devoid of people. Portraiture was initially deemed impossible as no one would be able to hold absolutely still for the length of exposure time required. Daguerre solved the problem by first immobilizing his subjects with iron clamps and strapping ­them in place, then taking their picture.  In a sense, he turned them into statues before collecting their likenesses. Some photographers waited until people actually died before taking their picture to get a more naturalistic look. This look became so popular, living people emulated the dead with expressionless stares, that it became synonymous with 19th century photography.  How Medusa would've laughed at these clumsy efforts. What was the point of turning people to stone if they had to be dead first?!

            But while enormous strides were made in science, photography had not completely left the ancient ways of alchemy and magic. In the 1800's, cameras were still able to part the misty veils of death and see into the spirit world. Brave Ulysses wouldn’t have had to descend into Hades had he embarked on his odyssey in the late 19th century. He need not have ventured further than William Mumler's studio in New York to see the shades of his slain comrades. Mumler's ability to call forth spirits, like that of Abe Lincoln, with his camera was well known. Of course, that would have turned the hero of the Odyssey into the wretched refuse of an immigrant washing up on America's shore yearning to breathe free. Ulysses would've ended up in hell alright, but it would've been the hell of the five points district of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Is that him perhaps, lurking in the background of a Jacob Riis photo? Is he one of the lodgers who has ponied up the crucial nickel only to be rudely awakened by a camera's flash? How would our intrepid hero have ever gotten back to rescue the fair Penelope from the gaze of her lusty suitors? Perhaps Athena would have plagued him with consumption so he would be sent back to the old country.

            But ghosts and specters could not keep pace with the modern world. Photography’s baby steps soon turned into strides and then leaps and bounds. Faster shutter speeds turned our obsessions to freezing things that moved faster than the eye could see. From galloping horses to exploding balloons we thrilled as seconds were split into hundredths, then thousandths and even ten thousandths and beyond. As impressive as those technical advances were, it took until the digital age for photography to completely catch up to where Medusa left off. There was always a lag, even with Polaroids - of at least a minute before you got your image back. If one shot with regular film it would be at least an hour, which was considered fast back in the 1970's and 80's. But often cameras would languish in drawers for months before anyone bothered developing the film. Impatient philosophers, waiting for their prints, began to make the analogy between photography and death, noticing that by the time they got their photos back they no longer resembled their subjects. The moment, so carefully recorded in the snapshot, was over and would have to be filed under "this has been." Perhaps, while standing still in line at the Fotomat, as others streamed by, they were reminded of time's relentless march and how they were a whole hour closer to dying. "All photos are memento mori," intoned Susan Sontag, thereby ensuring that she would never be shown another cute photo of a niece or nephew again. (Sontag, 1973) This idea of photography as a medium rooted deeply in the past is the underpinning of much of the critical thought on the subject. But is this still true? Has photography's parasitical relationship with death gone the way of Kodachrome and the darkroom?

            Medusa would be pleased with the technological advancements of the digital age. At last we get our results instantaneously. But is that fast enough to outpace death? We are in a new era and the question must be asked: Is it time for a new philosophy of photography?

            The life span of most photographs is now anywhere from a few seconds to a single day depending on your choice of social media. Who cares about the selfie you took yesterday? You need to take several more in the next hour just to keep up. This digital hamster wheel of perpetual empowerment and self-actualization puts a new spin on Herman Melville's wry comment on photos of people in the nineteenth century: "instead of, as in old times, immortalizing a genius, a portrait now only dayalized a dunce." (Melville, 1852) Time has shrunk since then, and one must wonder if a portrait must last only seconds on Snapchat, what status below "dunce," are we reduced to? There is an illusion of empowerment reinforced by the accumulation of worthless currency. We stay in the hamster wheel because it feels like we are making progress as the counter racks up likes on our posts. This constant turnover of selfies and other records of daily activities gives no time for the photo to fade into the past. Once described as a mirror with a memory, the photograph now disappears so quickly that there is nothing to remember, and we are trapped in a perpetual present.

             So if photography is no longer about the past, photographs no longer about things that have been, how are we to think of them? Back in the 1980’s, the postmodernists were already afraid that everything had been photographed and that there was no need to take any more pictures. Which they used as a convenient excuse to go around appropriating everything. But they were only half right about the redundancy of photography. Yes, everything has been photographed, but what is possible is to take photos with which to create new worlds. It seems the purpose of photography today is not to record the real world but to create a simulated existence in the virtual one. Photography has become the amplifier of the persona and social media is a carte blanche gallery without curators. A man's home may be his castle, but a person's phone is their universe. This is the gift and curse of the digital age. What the postmodernists feared is our reality and let’s admit it, we love it. The Matrix is here and we've gone down the rabbit hole.

            Give any group of young people a break from a meeting or a class and instead of talking with each other they immediately dive into their phones to assuage their fears of missing out on what their friends have been up to. I watch my teenage daughter plan out her wardrobe in accordance with the backdrops she will likely pose in front of that day. An obsession with crafting perfect façades of success, happiness and achievement has created an ever growing discontentment with one’s own situation. The effort involved in making a casual and effortless looking selfie has increased dramatically to the point where we now spend our time making it appear we are doing enviable things rather than just doing them.

            In Manhattan, the hand-selfie has become the bane of brides to be.  Scrutiny of the flaws of flesh on social media has led many to resort to cosmetic lifts of their left hands. It’s no longer enough to impress your friends in a private gathering, your wrinkly sun spotted hand must undergo the high resolution 12 megapixel gaze of the iPhone and be laid bare for judgment on social media. It’s not the 2 carat princess-cut diamond ring that your friends will be talking about.(Ellin, 2014) When I heard that people were paying $3000 for this treatment I thought I’d offer my Photoshopping skills for half that. This toxic twist on keeping up with the Joneses is so much the worse because there is no escape from it. The only solution would be to disconnect entirely, but that’s not a decision to be made lightly if one is integrated into a social media environment.

            Living with the simulacrum presents new challenges and requires new skill sets .  One must effortlessly step in and out of it, transitioning seamlessly between the real and the virtual. To ignore one world or the other is to risk irrelevancy. If we perceive each photograph posted online as a building block in a meticulously crafted alternate reality we can at last begin to appreciate how digital technology has changed the medium of photography in its latest step of development.

            But what about the future? What about the Post-Anthropocene? More photographs are taken today in 2 minutes than were taken in the entire 19th century and you can bet the vast majority are selfies. Why the need to generate so many pictures of ourselves? Is it just the peer pressure and the gratification of latent narcissism? Or is there a deeper purpose or an instinct that has been activated by factors in the era we live in?

            What is true is that whenever concerns arise that something is about to disappear, becomes imperiled, or go extinct, people get obsessed with photographing it. From Edward Curtis’ 30 year project to photograph Native American tribes before they vanished, to enshrining in pixels the last polar bears and glaciers in the Artic, people make it their mission to take pictures. Could that be why selfies are being jammed down our throats like a goose being prepped for foie gras? Has some biological impulse been triggered? Like rats that know a ship is going to sink, do young people sense our impending doom and have begun scattering their representations across the datascape? Certainly Hollywood, the modern day Oracle at Delphi, has been catering to these fears with an onslaught of end of times scenarios from the zombie apocalypse to alien invasions, to A.I. revolutions. 

            Is there another scenario afoot?  Is it that the act of photographing things actually causes them to disappear? Could there be some truth in the superstition that photographs steal your soul? We all know that documentation is more important than the event, but what about representation? Once a photo exists does the real thing become irrelevant and/or redundant? That was all fine and well when photos represented us in the past, we had moved on, that child or awkward teen no longer existed anyway. But now, trapped in the perpetual present we don’t disappear. Can representations co-exist with the real? Are we upsetting the balance of the time space continuum? Are we crossing the streams?

            What is true, is that our photographs and videos, as we upload them in greater and greater numbers, are being used to create synthesized replicants that can be mapped on to existing templates and can perform online functions such as shopping, maintaining friendships, being entertained and most critically being recorded doing things that we didn’t actually do. The idea of a photograph being true is so much in doubt that a new service called TruePic verifies that a photograph is an unmanipulated original and puts it in a cryptographic lockbox. (Rothman 2018) But we’re near the point that we can’t even be sure that what we’re taking photos of is real. Already A.I. is replacing real life-partners and television personalities in China (Kennedy), and threatening to put prostitutes out of work in Houston.

            So, once the last selfie is taken will the human race disappear? When will the first driverless Uber come to pick up a non-existent passenger? Our legacy be a vast virtual simulacrum of ourselves in a digital garden; flesh replaced with inorganic molecules and data? Masks with no original to shield: Somewhere Medusa will be laughing but we won’t be around to hear it.