Most recent photos on Flickr tagged with egg.

The photographic chicken and the digital egg

Flickr, photography, and culture

Flickr and post-photography clearly share some family resemblance. The question, then, becomes, which came first? Which is the chicken and which the egg? Or, perhaps more importantly, does it matter?

Old readings made digital technology the cause of post-photography.

As I have suggested, most scholarly treatments have equated post-photography with the advent of digital technology. (If this sounds unfamiliar, take a moment to review the technological definition of post-photography.) They have assumed that digital cameras brought on the “post-photographic era” or, at the very least, caused it to blossom. As a result, post-photography largely has been reduced to a technological phenomenon that hinges on the inherent malleability of digital images.

This interpretation has some truth. Digital technology surely has played a significant role in the transition from photography to post-photography. Yet making it the only factor is problematic. Above all, it produces a picture of photographic history that is not altogether satisfactory.

Old readings made digital technology the cause of post-photography.

For one, this model fails to explain the complex interaction between technology and culture. It assumes that cultural practices remain relatively static until a technological advance emerges, at which point consumers change their behavior to accommodate the new technology. Yet scholarship has demonstrated that this is at best a gross oversimplification and at worst an outright lie. José van Dijck has been so bold as to speculate that the digital camera got its function from culture, not the other way around (70).

Van Dijck has summarized the situation as follows:

“Digitization is not the cause of this trend; instead, the tendency to fuse photography with daily experience and communication is part of a broader cultural transformation that involves individualization and intensification of experience. The emphasis on individualism and personhood at the expense of family is a social pattern with roots that can be traced back as far as the late 1960s and early 1970s” (62).

Unsurprisingly, the 1960s and 1970s also saw the birth of postmodernism, which, as I have suggested, is closely linked to post-photography.

In a new reading, cause and effect are replaced by dialogue.

I would like to propose alternative to the model of photographic history depicted above. This new model envisions post-photography as the convergence of two streams: one cultural and one technological. At the juncture of these streams, there has formed a sort of whirlpool, the center of which is post-photography. Around the perimeter—the area with the most activity—are certain techno-cultural forces such as Flickr and cameraphones. These forces have helped to shape what post-photography is becoming while also being shaped by its tides and currents.

In a new reading, cause and effect are replaced by dialogue.

In a strange way, then, Flickr is both the cause and the effect, both the chicken and the egg. One might say that, since its inception in 2004, it has been in a sort of dialogue with post-photography. In this sense, neither one has caused the other, but both have been changed in the process.

As the model suggests, the future of the post-photographic stream remains to be seen. Doubtless its course is changing already, fed by the tributaries of technology and culture. As it molds itself to the contours of a shifting social landscape, it will surely flow into yet-undiscovered territory, perhaps converging with the streams of other media or perhaps diverging from them entirely.

Change, it would seem, is on the photographic horizon. Perhaps the photos themselves will tell the story, or perhaps they will not. After all, this is not, in the end, a story about photos.