Most recent photos on Flickr tagged with post-photography.

Post what?

Definitions of post-photography

“If the nineteenth century invented photography, the late-twentieth-century began to disinvent it.” — Alan Trachtenberg (115)

A technological definition

Most early definitions of post-photography focused on the technological shift that ushered in the post-photographic period. According to these definitions, digital cameras have killed traditional photography. Because it is based on pixels rather than a chemical reaction, digital photography is a completely new medium with its own characteristics. Advocates of this type of definition hold that anyone who uses a digital camera is participating in post-photography regardless of the practices he or she uses. In effect, technology drives the medium.

One of the early proponents of this technological definition was William J. Mitchell. In 1992, Mitchell published a book entitled The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era. In it, he suggested that the “post-photographic era” began in the 1990s with the advent of digital photography. He also predicted that digital technology would produce social and cultural changes that would render traditional photography obsolete (Murray 152). Still, Mitchell’s was a definition based primarily on technology; any cultural or behavioral shifts were merely the logical consequences of this technological change.

A cultural-behavioral definition

I would like to propose a definition of post-photography that inverts—or at least alters—this relationship. Some scholars, like Susan Murray, José van Dijck, and Nancy Van House have laid the groundwork for this new definition, but they have not described their ideas in terms of post-photography. Under this new definition, post-photography relates primarily to the practices and attitudes of the photographer rather than the technology that he or she uses. As a result, post-photography intersects with—but does not encompass—digital photography. To be sure, some people who use digital cameras are practicing post-photography. Others, however, are simply using digital technology to practice traditional photography.

Unlike the technological definition, the cultural-behavioral model suggests that post-photography can only be observed in patterns of photo taking and sharing—never in an individual photograph. Saying “my, what a post-photographic image!” is like saying “my, what a baroque brushstroke!” or “my, what a classical note!” We can talk about a baroque painting, a classical symphony, or a post-photographic portfolio, but these designations lose their meaning when they are applied too narrowly.

At present, photography and post-photography coexist, but this probably will not be the case forever. Eventually, as the “photographic generation” ages and the “post-photographic generation”—which has grown up with digital photography and photo-sharing Web sites—comes of age, post-photography will begin to replace photography as the dominant mode of image production and consumption.