Mama, Don’t Take My Kodachrome Away How digital photography has given us the power to reshape reality as it has reshaped us.

Deco Stairwell, Havana(2010) (left) and Deco Stairwell # 2, Havana(2014). One is digital and one is analog. Can you tell which? (Photos by Michael Eastman)

Behind Michael Eastman hangs the rotting elegance of an abandoned palace in Havana. Enlarged to seventy-two by ninety-three inches, it becomes his dining room wall. You do not look at its smudgy darkness, you enter it, getting lost in the room’s mystery.

The photograph on the opposite wall, another huge Havana interior, was shot digitally a few years later. Its deep, lush greens are so sharp, I taste spearmint. The image glows.

It took a series of nudges for Eastman—whose exquisitely composed, texturally rich work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the International Center Photography—to make the transition to digital. Long after other shooters switched, he was still lugging twenty heavy film holders through Barcelona, Rome, or Montana, risking exposure every time he changed a roll and disaster every time he went through the airport scanners. When he wanted a shot printed even bigger than usual—by which he meant that it should be as tall as he was—the photo lab’s owner pointed the enlarger up, stuck white photographic paper on the wall with magnets, and projected the image. Unable to dodge in extra light, burn in darkness, and color-correct in the traditional way, Eastman stood in front of the projected image and waved his hands like he was signaling a plane.

Unlike film grain, pixels hold their perimeter, so the image would not fall apart.

It worked. But there was no way to cut a mat big enough. To get a crisp line, he masked the edges, and for the first twelve tries, he was off by maybe a sixty-fourth of an inch—which was unnoticeable—until you blew it up—and then the image printed crooked enough to drive him insane.

“The only way you’re going to be able to do this,” the weary lab owner told him, “is to do it digitally.” He could crop in Photoshop, color corrections would be easy—no shadow puppetry required, none of this colossal waste—and he could go as big as he wanted with no loss of clarity. Unlike film grain, pixels hold their perimeter, so the image would not fall apart.

That shifted him to digital printing. It would take a while longer for digital cameras to reach the quality he wanted, but he was already using Photoshop. He had seen a demonstration of its powers in 1995 and come home so jacked up, his wife urged him to buy an Apple Quadra computer and dive in.

They had $11,000 in the bank. The system cost $9,500.

If wine is especially good, I snap a photo of the label. A friend sends a scarf as a present, so to thank her, I send back a photo of the scarf around my neck. While we waited for the sun’s eclipse, I posted a photo of us not photographing it.

Today, Eastman combines and interweaves 1850s technology with twenty-first-century technology, layering and toning and collaging, producing work that is as painterly and meticulous as ever, but contains a million more possibilities. “It’s a portal,” he says almost dreamily. “It makes transformations possible that would be impossible or incredibly tedious any other way.”

In an artist’s hands, digital technology is a toolkit whose wands and transformations grant almost magical powers. But what about the rest of us, holding up our phones everywhere we go? Now we, too, live as Photographers. Even when a pandemic locked the world down, we took more than one trillion photos, most of them with phones. The shift to digital photography has changed how we see, how we communicate, how we remember, how we approach and experience reality.

If wine is especially good, I snap a photo of the label. A friend sends a scarf as a present, so to thank her, I send back a photo of the scarf around my neck. While we waited for the sun’s eclipse, I posted a photo of us not photographing it. “It is said that since 2012, more photographs have been made, more snapshots taken, in each year than in the entire history of photography,” notes photography curator Urs Stahel. Instantly sharable, accessible in a single gulp, these quotidian images are readily abandoned or lost in the computer, because while we all know how to alter an image, few of us have found an efficient way to archive it.

Culturally, we are “aswim in an ocean of zettapixels” (the word for 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 of them), says Pixar cofounder Alvy Ray Smith. Never before have images been so pervasive—or so slippery. The technology dazzles, letting us create and manipulate in unprecedented ways.

But there is also a chance we could drown.

 

Reduced to Pixels

Photography paints with light. Today, that light hits a sensor instead of a strip of film, and nature’s constraints are lifted. Photographers who used to drive everybody around them crazy waiting for just the right cloud-diffused translucence will snap a thousand shots and do the rest at home in Photoshop.

How did this happen? Around the year 2000, every medium I care about—ink and paper and film—turned into pixels. Then the pixels started to shrink. Defined as the smallest possible unit, they grow ever smaller, able, like the points on Zeno’s straight line, to continue halving themselves well into infinity. Today, millions of these little points of light glow from just one picture. Unlike film grain, each pixel is a bit of data that can be squeezed, blown up, subtracted, altered.

(Photo by Isaac Benhesed via Unsplash)

Mathematician Ingrid Daubechies, whose work helped make the JPG compression system possible, calls the exaggerated simplifications of digital images a “mathematical caricature.” Film was reductive, too; it just had more physicality to it—salt and water and carbon, cellulose and gelatin and silver halide crystals. Electricity exists unbound, letting us snatch back resolution and speed our caricature of reality around the internet.

“There’s a real difference, and it changes the way we work with the material,” says Constance Vale, an architect on the faculty of the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts. “If you google an image of anything, you will see thousands of copies of that image, all slightly distorted. There is this multiplying of discrete objects, deforming them in some way. That thing gains a new life as a low-quality version of itself and is now able to reach new audiences”—because as it loses matter, it gains speed.

Photography paints with light. Today, that light hits a sensor instead of a strip of film, and nature’s constraints are lifted.

“The poor image is a copy in motion,” writes Hito Steyerl. “As it accelerates, it deteriorates. It is a ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution.”

Photographs are how we learn the world. Yet in their new existence as data, they keep moving farther from reality.

And we never know what we are missing.

 

Light Speeds

To make a daguerreotype, you had to sit motionless for long minutes, your back straighter than nature ever intended. Your expression had to remain composed, offering no hint of the nervous giggle bubbling inside, the whalebone stay poking soft flesh, the sweat trickling between your breasts and sticking your chemise to your skin. The eyes in the portrait blurred dark because you had to blink.

Instamatic cameras sped us up, and the Polaroid gave us a near-instant reveal. Poses relaxed. Photographers learned to capture unexpected distillations, gestures, poignant exchanges that happened along the way, enigmatic as Virginia Woolf’s moments of being. The wedding photo I framed? Us seated at the side of the altar, deluded into the romantic notion that no one could see us, Andrew leaning close to whisper something irreverent through the tulle of my veil.

Today, a portrait photographer shoots off hundreds of images in the studio, adjusting and tweaking as you change your position, angle, expression, outfit. You both know that most of the fiddling will come later, and you joke about it: “You want green eyes? We can do that.” “Only keep one chin, okay?” The undercurrent of tension remains—a soul, after all, is being captured. But the chase is faster and more fluid, and the resulting portrait has an ease that lay outside early photography’s reach.

Photographs are how we learn the world. Yet in their new existence as data, they keep moving farther from reality.

Amateurs seize and share moments every day. Hold up a phone, and you collapse experience into a single click, a burst of kinetic energy. Grabbing an image in midair and lobbing it to someone else, you know that they will know this is happening almost now, and smile at the immediacy, and then delete or scroll on, the moment already gone.

How many of the photos we share would make it online if we took a month to think about it?

 

•  •  •

 

Curious how other pros made the transition, I quiz a close friend. Patti Gabriel can transform a digital photo so skillfully, I fall into a trance state when I watch—yet she freely admits missing film. “I loved the process of the darkroom,” she says. “It seems in hindsight to have been much more contemplative. My brain worked very differently than it does with digital post-production.” When technique happened in camera, she adds, “you looked at the edges, at the quality of the light. You took your time instead of reacting.”

How many of us have regretted a similar acceleration in the way we work? I write more thoughtfully in longhand, I know this. But it feels like running through glue.

I romanticize darkroom photography too, just as I romanticize black enameled typewriters and love letters inked on parchment thin enough to mail from France. Old tech is nearly always slower and more sensuous.

Another friend, Jennifer Silverberg, describes “something very pure in the darkroom process—” then catches herself, laughing. “It’s easily romanticized these days. Wait until you have to do it on deadline at four in the morning.”

A man and woman closeted in the dark, their shoulders touching as they watch an image emerge. . . .  I romanticize darkroom photography too, just as I romanticize black enameled typewriters and love letters inked on parchment thin enough to mail from France. Old tech is nearly always slower and more sensuous. But Jenn has freed herself from nostalgia for that carcinogenic tedium; she wins accolades for her digital photography and raves about its incredible color range, how forgiving it is.  . . .

Then, abruptly, she says, “I will never sell my Hasselblad. It’s a little piece of magic for me. I loved the size of it—it was square before Instagram, and that forced me to think about my composition more deliberately. And I only had twelve frames on a roll of film, so I couldn’t just shoot off a thousand frames the way I do now. Everything about the process slowed me down, and it was good to be thinking more quietly and deliberately.” She sounds as wistful as someone recalling a lost love. “Everything else is just gear, but I will never sell my Hasselblad.”

 

Barraged

What would be more noticeable than the trillions of vivid images saturating our surroundings? Their absence. Imagine, for a second, a world stripped of pictures. Blank walls, empty billboards, quiet little text ads, tiny type to scroll through on your phone, solid-color backgrounds, an empty circle next to your name, social media that looks like an old-fashioned phone book.

Now open your eyes and count images. The sheer quantity is so overwhelming, one photography student almost gave up. He had a project due, but what could he possibly contribute to this torrent?

He made a box. It fit into a corner. Following his instructions, his professor at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts, photographer Jennifer Colten, knelt, as though in prayer, on a pad in front of the box. Leaning forward, she placed her eye at the box’s only opening and watched hundreds of images roll across a computer screen. Kneeling there, facing the corner, she felt what he had felt: trapped in an endless loop.

We all are. Yet the younger we are, the more eager we are to produce and consume images. “It’s a voracious appetite I’m almost kind of impressed by,” Jenn says. “I watch my students and think wow, that’s exhausting, but kudos to them.”

Picture-taking used to mark special occasions; we framed a few photos and stuck the rest in albums, sliding them under triangles or fighting with magnetized sheets, knowing that someday we would, maudlin, flip through those pages again. Now we need extra computer storage and an organizational system worthy of the CIA . . .

The downside? Fragmented attention. Endless scrolling, knowing all the while that you cannot possibly process all these images, let alone analyze their authenticity. Unprecedented capabilities for mass surveillance. Exploitation of social media by marketers. Vast databases of images that are teaching AI to think for us, with sometimes ominous results.

A good photo used to stop us cold. Only the best jump out at us that way now. Picture-taking used to mark special occasions; we framed a few photos and stuck the rest in albums, sliding them under triangles or fighting with magnetized sheets, knowing that someday we would, maudlin, flip through those pages again. Now we need extra computer storage and an organizational system worthy of the CIA, not to mention a Facebook page and an Instagram account.

We are capturing our lives for strangers.

 

Fooled

My mother swore the movers lost all her photo albums. I suspect she threw them away in a rage of grief, because my father had dropped dead on the golf course and left her alone with an eight-month-old daughter. Either way, I grew up with no picture of him, and in my melodramatic teens, I began to wonder if he had even existed.

In senior year of college, a friend descended with me into the bowels of the Wash.U. library and led me by the hand to the yearbooks. “What year would he have graduated?”

I froze, not sure I wanted to do this. Wondering leaves hope some room. But Stephen was already pulling down volumes. I did some quick math, told him the year.

My father was not there.

We went through all four classes, checked the following year and the previous year. No Earl Batz. Clammy, fighting for air in the musty basement, I said, “Let’s get out of here.”

Stephen pulled down three more volumes. And there was Earl. He had gone to night school, for God’s sake, and finished older. And he looked like me. Short, fair enough to burn, ten pounds over already, probably loved his German beer and cheese as much as I did. I saw my happy smile and my sorry excuse for a chin. My dad.

No heartthrob, he looked like the guy who would console you after the dangerous one broke your heart. Suddenly, I liked him, in a way that felt real and not just dutiful, and my heart lightened.

Those were the years when photographs felt like proof. “Look!” we would say, pulling out a photo album to win an argument. They were also keepsakes (unless they fell into my mother’s hands). Family photos documented rites of passage and the passage of time, though it grew unnerving when their color began to fade and we watched our childhoods dissolve before our eyes. At least the old black-and-whites stayed sharp; we dig them out to remember the ties that bind us.

. . . by splitting the image into a million pixels, you break it wide open, and it can be manipulated in so many ways, by so many people, at so many stages of its existence, that it loses its sense of place and origin, its authenticity as an original artifact.

Still keepsakes, photos are a little wobbly as proof, because we all know how easy they are to fake. They have a new role instead: immediate, wordless communication. We flirt by exchanging photos of our private parts; we photograph our food, hobbies, gardens, parties. Photography is our newest language, and it lets us live more lightly. The fluidity of images—how often have you changed your avatar?—allows “continuous self-remodelling and instant communication,” says media scholar José van Dijck. But these uses also “lessen our grip on our images’ future repurposing and reframing.”

Photographers always messed. They dodged and burned in darkrooms, added a little chemical pixie dust, used oil paint to touch up, airbrushed a model’s skin flawless. But by splitting the image into a million pixels, you break it wide open, and it can be manipulated in so many ways, by so many people, at so many stages of its existence, that it loses its sense of place and origin, its authenticity as an original artifact. Size it down, blow it up to billboard size, erase any problematic bits, filter it to look like Sixties Kodachrome or Victorian sepia, slap it on a pillow or a mug.

In the Seventies, people got a little witch-craze hysterical about subliminal messages—“Eat popcorn” flashed during a movie; satanic references audible only when you played a rock album backwards; erotic images hidden in ads, like those old Seek & Find puzzles for kids. Most of it was bullshit. But today’s deep fakes are that sophisticated, and that slippery. Upload a photo of your next-door neighbor, fully clothed, to the DeepNude app, and it will strip her, returning an image of Mrs. Willoughby stark naked.

At least DeepNude lacks subtlety; other manipulations are harder to spot. The Council on American-Islamic Relations Photoshopped the hijab onto women in an event photo, newspaper photojournalists have submitted doctored images for awards, and researchers now pretty up the organisms they study. Nicolas Chevassus-au-Louis found that one-quarter of manuscripts submitted to the Journal of Cell Biology had in some way been “fudged, beautified, or manipulated.”

We need new rules—and a new habit of suspicion. “What’s true and what’s not true,” Colten asks, “when everything can be untrue?”

 

•  •  •

 

Photoshop is as democratic as digital photography itself. With a quick primer, anyone can delete ugly extraneous details, age an image, create a deep fake, or just let a misleading crop distort a photograph’s message.

Yet we so want to believe our eyes.

“What a beautiful photo of you,” someone comments, and I blush—even though I know, and they know, that the beauty was layered in via Photoshop. Do I feel prettier because of what Photoshop can do to my face? Or ashamed to have someone see me in person and register the discrepancy?

A little of both.

Images are weakly coded, scholars say, and thus more ambiguous than words. But because they require little interpretation, they take a shortcut to emotion, which might be one reason we trust them instinctively.

Photographs lend us their perspective. If you crop an ex out of a party pic, some of the bitterness might drain from your memory of that evening. And if you rip him up or delete him? The act carries a power akin to voudou.

Images are weakly coded, scholars say, and thus more ambiguous than words. But because they require little interpretation, they take a shortcut to emotion, which might be one reason we trust them instinctively. One of my happiest childhood memories is the day we spent zooming up and down the Mississippi River in a speedboat. It was my first taste of pure freedom, and I can still feel the wind blowing my hair into my face, the boat slapping down on the water and then shooting forward.  . . .

Who else was there? Where did we dock? No idea. My memory is framed by a single photo of me, six years old, windblown, and elated. All you can see is a kid in a red sweater, the edge of the boat’s stern, and improbably blue water. Any detail outside that photo is lost to me, but because the proof and the emotion are stuck to the page, I will swear I remember the experience.

 

 

The Selfie Schtick

News blast: Photographing someone does steal their soul. The head of paranormal sciences at Arakab University says the human mind and soul connect to form an aura, and when a camera is gathering all the available light of its subject, it is snatching part of that aura. “This is why people who are constantly being photographed end up living empty and aimless lives.”

There is no Arakab University; nonetheless, its expert (who conveniently and appropriately refused to be photographed) has a point. We do lose a little of our inner light when we are hyperconscious of our appearance and desperate to be seen.

Is that what selfies are?

One Urban Dictionary contributor defines them as “stupid photos that 14-year-old girls take of themselves.” But for anyone who is trying to become, selfies can document the process. More postcard than portrait, they are all about exchange, never taken for oneself alone. They capture a life in motion, and they are meant to be shared instantly, then forgotten. “One’s ‘here’ and another’s ‘there’ are mutually connected but perpetually shifting.”

Selfie-shooters have fallen into a crater in Indonesia, fallen from a cliff on the coast of Bali, gotten gored to death by a bull in Pamplona, fallen off the Taj Mahal, gotten electrocuted climbing on top of a train, played with a live grenade, and shot themselves in the neck in Texas.

Harold Cazneaux took his own photograph in a mirror in 1910, but that was not a selfie; it did not propel itself from his camera into the ether. Nor can a selfie be what we used to call a candid. Self-conscious by definition, it does not allow for spontaneity. People have tried, God knows. “Caught Me Sleeping/Bae Caught Me Slipping” captioned an instant meme: a young woman pretending to be asleep as she photographs herself the way she wishes her partner had.

Such artifice gets dissed—then elaborated. The selfie morphs into the plandid, in which a setting is elaborately choreographed and someone else takes the shot. The presence of the outstretched arm now seems awkward, the stick ridiculous. Besides, a selfie shot a foot away widens the nose by thirty percent (hence the surge in demand for nose jobs).

After the photo comes Photoshop. “It’s super ironic because I posted a selfie on Instagram,” a study participant tells researchers, “and the caption was like ‘baby keep it simple’ but the funny thing was that I edited the shit out of it.” For more than two hours.

“Sometimes I’ll take a photo on Snapchat that will have my face filter,” another participant confides, “and then I’ll add a filter on top of that and then I’ll take a screenshot of that and put it on Instagram and then put an Instagram filter on that.”

The selfie that started the biggest copyright battle was taken by Naruto, a macaque who borrowed a guy’s camera.

The first selfie was taken by a drunk Australian. By 2013, “selfie” was the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year. Since then, we have learned the duck face and the fish gape. The filters, some worthy of Magritte. The software that automatically lightens skin (what century is this?), lengthens necks, thins bodies, removes wrinkles. The paradox of easing loneliness by dipping into self-consciousness, or of bravely living out loud by tying ourselves into knots as we wait for reaction.

We have also learned the danger of obsession: Selfie-shooters have fallen into a crater in Indonesia, fallen from a cliff on the coast of Bali, gotten gored to death by a bull in Pamplona, fallen off the Taj Mahal, gotten electrocuted climbing on top of a train, played with a live grenade, and shot themselves in the neck in Texas.

The book Selfie warns kids of smaller, psychological dangers by describing the plight of Sylvie, a squirrel so obsessed with taking pictures of herself that she forsakes her friends and misses what is going on around her. And if you want to learn more, Sylvie, who has apparently learned nothing, has her own Instagram page.

So does a friend who takes a selfie (I draw the line at “wefie” or “usie”) every time a group of us gather. Invariably I am sweaty, not made up, or bundled into ten nonmatching layers (because we are outside, because COVID). It feels so highschool, and I grumble to myself and hate every minute of the pose. But I always look afterwards, secretly happy to have this tiny proof that I have friends and fun.

That is middle-aged silliness. Real harm is done, though, when young women spend hours on Instagram, its filtered images dramatically increasing their anxiety and depression.

How can selfies be simultaneously narcissistic and anxiety-producing, self-indulgent and sociable? The same way our entire culture manages.

 

 

Changing How We See

Perched on a rocky cliff in Newfoundland, I stayed for hours, shifting my numbed bottom on the hard rock but otherwise conscious only of the puffins. Who could not fly. I wanted a shot in midair, and I sat poised, motionless, camera set and ready, and every time one flew across in front of me, it lost its balance or its nerve and dipped low, back to the cliffside to try again. Oblivious to the wind’s chill or the setting sun, I tracked each flight lesson, rooting for the clumsy little bright-beaked birds. With each miss, I grew more stubborn, determined to capture a bit of their adorableness to take home with me.

Real photographers make a picture, transforming what they see into art. The rest of us just take pictures, prying off a bit of the world as a souvenir. You can dull your experience by snapping shots instead of savoring your surroundings. But if you take careful photographs, zooming in tight and paying close attention, you can intensify your experience. Two variables make the difference: the close attention and the motive. If you are snapping pics to share, wondering how people will react lessens your engagement in the moment. But if you focus only on what you are shooting, photography can immerse you.

Either way, photographing the world changes how we see it. Sitting on a stone wall outside Wash.U’s school of architecture, I imagine sketching the building and notice the shadows I would cross-hatch with charcoal, the Beaux Arts ornament I would sharpen my pencil to render. What if I painted it? Now I see color, and I puzzle out how to mix the pale grayish beige of the limestone. Shooting oldschool? I would reach for a wide-angle lens and plan to show up just when the sun warmed the sky, but with enough cloud cover to soften the light.

Two variables make the difference: the close attention and the motive. If you are snapping pics to share, wondering how people will react lessens your engagement in the moment. But if you focus only on what you are shooting, photography can immerse you.

When I think about shooting with my iPhone, I see whatever my eye falls upon, and all I think about is where I would stand. Technique will come later, in which image I pick, how I crop it, how I brighten or warm or sharpen.

The universe no longer has to meet me halfway.

 

•  •  •

 

Baby pictures and wedding pictures and senior-year pictures whipped through the air, spun into the eye of Joplin’s 2011 tornado, then rained to the ground, ripped and filthy. Kind strangers gathered them up, cleaned and scanned them, and managed to return more than eighteen thousand to their bereft owners. I found the Lost Photos of Joplin project deeply moving, but every year, such efforts become less urgent. Rescued from earthly fragility, our photos live in the cloud.

The new photos are prettier, too. Digital cameras compensate for low light, capture fine detail, forgive goofs. Yet it was my old Pentax K-1000 that obsessed me. I happily blew money on lenses and filters my skill level did not merit, and I made my husband carry my heavy camera bag on every trip or hike. Now I can achieve almost the same results with a phone as thin as a banana peel, avoiding catastrophes of accidentally exposed film, film tangled on the sprockets, backlit shots with their backgrounds blown out. My banana-peel phone is magical—yet I do not use it as eagerly. I miss needing the light and the weather and every other variable to align; it feels cheap to make it happen afterward at home. Is this just masochism? Did I need the slot machine reward of waiting for an envelope of photos in which, every once in a while, one was fantastic?

Now I take photos if the dog amuses me, or to show someone something, or to remember to buy that particular pinot noir. The first time I saw someone using a camera as a notebook, I was almost startled by the genius of it, the workaday efficiency. We have become the forensic photographers of our own lives, recording and documenting any detail we might need.

But that is a long way from art.

 

Images Rule Us

Earlier cultures emphasized sound, immersing themselves in stories and trusting their ears. Once writing tugged us toward the visual, we began to say “I see” to mean we understood. Once books could be printed, we saved our highest praise for “imagination,” “insight,” and “vision.”

Now we “get the picture”; we worry about “image” rather than reputation and demand “transparency” instead of mere “honesty.” Instead of using a few photos to illustrate dense text, we add a few words to contextualize a photo. The coolest novels are graphic, the blockbuster films use CGI. Photo-driven Instagram has one billion monthly users, and Twitter quickly reconfigured its feed to show photos (which take up way more space than that haiku word count).

Photos are more narrative than ever before; they have to be, because we are relying on them to tell our stories. Yet our images are often ahistorical, coming to us from all directions, plucked from wherever they were embedded and pulled up willy-nilly on a search engine.

Digital technology is reanimating our exchanges, mixing the casualness of oral culture with the speed and fluidity of the hypervisual. The combination makes us a little lazy, perhaps? We can consume an image and its information in a single gulp. (The human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text.) Hypnotized, we scroll, like, scroll, love, scroll, scroll, like, scroll…. I write two thousand hard-researched words on a surprising source of COVID disinformation and receive a flicker of interest; I post a picture of Willie, our standard poodle, and a hundred hearts and thumbs fly onto the page.

Photos are more narrative than ever before; they have to be, because we are relying on them to tell our stories. Yet our images are often ahistorical, coming to us from all directions, plucked from wherever they were embedded and pulled up willy-nilly on a search engine. All eras present themselves at once, flattened into immediacy and stripped of context. We are lucky to get a caption.

The beauty of this random abundance, Vale points out, is that historical bias falls away and unexpected relationships emerge. Collage is redefining itself as the quintessential digital form. But the responsibility to take all that apart again, to contextualize, to understand how something came to be and where it fits in human history and whether it is even real, falls on us—and how often will we bother?

 

•  •  •

 

Some images are intended to be permanent but slip into the sea; others are intended to be ephemeral but will stick for eternity, like the photographs taken at Abu Ghraib. Those casual images of cruelty were taken and shared in “fun,” passed around, used as screensavers by some of the guards, sent home to prove an exciting proximity and power over the enemy. No doubt they were meant to be seen, laughed at, and discarded. But they documented atrocity in a way that could not be ignored.

They also showed the central role photography plays in young people’s lives. “Today,” Susan Sontag wrote just ahead of the digital explosion, “everything exists to end in a photograph.” She also said the practice would lead to emotional detachment.

Years later, she was asked to comment on Abu Ghraib. “There would be something missing,” she pointed out, acerbic as ever, “if, after stacking the naked men, you couldn’t take a picture of them.”

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