On a brief sojourn to New York City, I did what people do. I took a handful of pictures. One World Trade. Radio City Music Hall in the snow. Greenwich Village at night. Seventh avenue in the sunshine. And I doctored each of them. I doctored them and posted them. I chose the right patina, took time to select the one that made my experience look a little better than it was. Shadows were brightened, light was darkened a shade, streets were brought into sharper focus, corners were blurred. And people liked them.
Not long ago, Google’s vice-president, Vint Cerf, warned that ‘bit rot’ – or “the process by which the mechanisms for accessing a digital file are lost, rending that file useless junk” – threatens to disappear much of what we place online, on local or distant servers. One day, all this stuff we post to the Internet will be irretrievable.
The fear that arises from Cerf’s warning and others like his is that there may come a time when the historical record goes somewhat blank. While there remain more official documents (though increasingly government reports and newspapers are migrating entirely online), our more personal stories, the ones that inform social histories, will be gone. E-mail has replaced letters. Word documents have replaced diaries. It is easy now to scroll through Instagram and immediately know what people are doing, wearing, and eating at any given moment, but without a preserved, physical copy of these pictures, will our grandchildren know the same things?
It’s not a completely new idea. Many have been quick to realize that the pictures we keep taking and posting to Facebook or Instagram carry little resonance and feel less permanent even if, technically, they ought to be just as privy to destruction as their paper predecessors. Few among us take the time to have our current photos printed. We no longer make room in storage for photo albums; we just hang on to the old ones, the heirlooms.
But here’s a question, one that occasionally strikes while flipping through all those digital filters: Let’s say we were to undertake the task of turning our digital prints into tangible photographs, what would we actually be preserving?
In his incisive essay over at the Guardian Thursday, Jacob Silverman states that photos have “become less about memorializing a moment than communicating the reality of that moment to others.” In this way, he argues, we fulfill the modern Cartesian mantra of “pic or it didn’t happen” – we photograph, therefore we exist. He is partly right, but for the filter.
The reality is that we are not preserving the moment, as it exists, at all. We are instead capturing a moment and immediately altering the record to fit our an instantly retrospective notion of how it should or could have looked, were we somehow in a different light, or positioned somewhat differently. So, even if we were to begin preserving our photographs for longevity's sake, they would be inaccurate preservations. In fact, whatever we do with them ultimately, they are inaccurate preservations. It’s a bizarre turn of events, really. Unlike when photos could only be produced in black and white, we have the ability and the technology to accurately show, in high definition, exactly what we’re seeing. Yet we choose not to.
Instead, we change the present. In doing so, each filtered photograph is automatically destined to conjure a falsehood of sorts – a deliberate future misremembering. This is strange, tied up as it is in our collective nostalgia for a time less in focus, with blurred edges and softer contours.
Maybe this is not a serious issue when we wonder in the future how truly blue the sky was that day above One World Trade. Picture to picture, it might not matter. Taken as a whole, though? As a record of a life lived? Whether they survive a generation or two is perhaps immaterial. Even in our own lifetime, our collection of doctored photographs leaves us all the more removed from our experiences. Rather than simply having a representation of what we saw, we – or those who follow us – will have a representation of a representation of that moment. Not a photo of life but rather a kind of weird photocopy.