Monday, 18 August 2014

The transience of photographs.

I haven't written for a while and I already fear that my brain is not what it used to be. This post was not light and whimsical to write: it was mucilaginous, viscous, the words forced from my fingers rather than flowing. It's also piecemeal and bitty, strung together from patchwork thoughts I've had over the week rather than a narrative stream-of-consciousness which I am using to hash out my ideas.

I want to talk about photographs. I don't even know what I want to say about them. I just want to say something.

The problem with photographs is that they take something as fleeting, as transient as a moment, and attempt to immortalise it forever. In the past, you had to live in the second: you reminisced with your mental faculties, not your Facebook app, and everything happened once and only once.

But cameras appeared in the world, and photographs had to be staged, stock-still, for hours on end in order to create an image to last forever. Victorian women decked up in finery clutched their babies in chokeholds, staring sternly at modern technology, and the resulting sepia prints were monuments to their patience and wealth.

Those days have passed too, and now I take Snapchats of my laptop to let friends know I'm at work (and hardly working). Stay gold, pony boy, even though nothing gold can stay.

In Physics, it is an accepted fact that by observing something you change it. The Observer Effect, as it is appropriately called, says that the very act of measuring something will alter it. This is true of photographs. Taking a photograph of something changes it, because it no longer exists in its unobserved state. By viewing it - by giving it the audience of a lens - it is changed. You are not taking photos of things as you see them; you are taking photos of things as your camera sees them. Do the subject of photos even really exist outside of your aperture?

I digress.

Transience. I am a big fan of transience.

I have a tattoo on my hip of cherry blossom, which is traditionally associated with transience in Japanese culture, and the need not to fight time - instead, you let it pass, flow over you like a river you cannot change the course of. (I think of photos as leaves, floating on this river: they are buoyed along, in the same inexorable forward motion, separate from the water but carried by it.) There is a permanent reminder on my skin that nothing is permanent. I am a big fan of this irony, too.

Nothing can last forever, and few things last beyond their own moment. Photographs take that moment, distill it, capture it in proverbial amber and preserve it. A moment, cut forever from its contexts of movement and chronology: a moment, caught forever with less-than-flattering lighting and slightly wonky framing.

But photographs create another situation whereby, divorced from their context, they become irrelevant to their time. I know people who still fancy Heath Ledger, despite the fact he is dead. He is dead, and buried, and rotting - and yet we have photographs and films that depict him as young and attractive and as the hero in teen films, so fancying him doesn't seem weird. This also explains why we are still struck by photos of beauty from our previous millennium. It is not because beauty is timeless. The people in photographs, who were beauties at 21 in 1955, are probably no longer beautiful now. It is because we can make that moment timeless. Photographs turn us into time travellers, showing us things as we could never experience them because the world simply is not like that. They're lying to us. They are self-demonstrative proof that the world used to be like that, and yet the only proof is that image itself. Photographs are duplicitous.

(This is true of any static rendering of a sense, I suppose - so sound recordings are privy to this too; but I think there's something so much more intense about photographs. An image gnaws at my nerves far more viscerally than a sound.)

All this thinking was prompted by something a while ago. A friend of mine sent me a photograph of himself as a teenager, in order to prove he had once had hair. The photo was a candid shot, of a Welsh 16-year-old holding a cat, looking slightly surprised by the proceedings. His hair was blond, and as New Romantic as any Spandau Ballet tribute act. I have only ever known my friend as an adult: he is, to my young eyes, old and wise and sensible (and almost certainly reading this). To think he was once my age - that he was younger - is inconceivable. He was 26 when I was born, and I'm closer his age in this photo from 1984 than I am to him now.

But in that photo, there isn't much to mark it as being defiantly 80's fare. The clothes are rather generic. It could have been taken in 2011, when I was 16 and had rainbow hair. The boy in the photo could have gone to the same Cardiff Uni open day as me, passed me on a crowded train, smiled at my chronic clumsiness.

What a shame he stopped existing the moment after the shutter clicked.

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