A few years ago, a student of mine told me about a phenomenon that was happening on the internet. Apparently people were finding abandoned Photobucket sites (remember those?), mining their images, and re-posting them on other websites. The student emailed me a list of some of these latter sites, and I took a look. It was exactly what you would expect: random photos of random people, places, and things, all of which apparently meant something to someone at some point in time, but meant nothing to me at that time. However, it was odd viewing these images from that dislocated secondary position. It was as if I was peering through the window of someone’s living room, looking at family photographs hanging on the wall, and sitting on end tables. There was a distance manifest that I could not transcend, but only fill with speculation. While I have not thought about that for some time, after viewing the Austin Center for Photography’s BLOG REBLOG exhibition at Big Medium, those ideas of virtual viewership: what it entails for both the viewed and the viewer, resurfaced.
BLOG REPLOG presents a collection of image pairings resulting from a group of two hundred photographers being randomly matched, and given the task of choosing one image from the other’s online portfolio. Projected simultaneously, these couplings solicit comparisons predicated on the formal and/or thematic attributes of the photographs. For example, both may compare by way of depicting an isolated focal point against a largely neutral background, or perhaps both photographs are portraits, or landscapes. In either occurrence, the images create an uncanny dialogue between each other that subsequently illustrate the underlying like mindedness of the photographers as the two projections simultaneously defer to and differ from one another. While another instance of Derridan différence operates here, I find myself more compelled to write about the distance created by the exhibition’s technique of re-blogging, and what its larger implications for the circulation of imagery are.
It is important for the viewer to remember that he or she is not seeing the original photograph the photographer took insofar as there is no such original with photography. Ontologically, a photograph is plural, always being a copy (or copies) of something, and always, at the same time, not being that thing it copies. The photograph of the old man striding into the ocean is not the old man himself striding into the actual ocean, nor is it the original indexical imprint made by light, onto, or into, the lens of the camera and subsequent recording medium (which historically would be film, but in the contemporary, we can assume is a digital interface of some kind). Instead, it is a vantage several spaces removed from the instance that cast the photographer in the role of taking the picture, and the old man in the role of being the object of the photograph. Subsequently, it positions its viewer at a non-recoverable distance from this originary moment, leaving him or her to speculate about the majority of the circumstances pervading the image while giving him or her very little to go on. Yet, as this exhibition demonstrates, these originary circumstances mean very little in the long run.
This idea of a non-recoverable distance grounds BLOG REBLOG in that a viewer does not behold a material print of the image, but a projection of it that is running continuously on a loop with the other images. The parings appear and disappear as the projectors cycle through them, not allowing for more than a few brief seconds to notice the similarities and differences they possess. Yet, as projections, these images create another-originary moment of casting an image by light into, or onto, the lens of the gallery-goer. Taking this into consideration, the original intentions of the photographer become drastically lessoned, if not outright removed so as to give way to the viewer’s casting of his or her role as interpreter, unencumbered by the history of the photograph. This role becomes significantly bolstered when remembering the way in which the images are exhibited, and the responses they provoke. Their meanings emerge from their juxtapositions which are constantly set anew at each rotation of the projector. Ultimately, this exhibition works to remind the viewer of several things all at once: that any distance is unrecoverable, that meaning comes about from plays of difference, and that imagery cycles and recycles itself endlessly, allowing for the changing of meaning predicated on the changing of viewership. Just like those metaphoric family photos meant something to me, they probably meant something very different to my friend who was peering in the window next to me.
Posted 28th May 2014 by Arnold, H.C.