Reprint of Canberra Times article: “New Stories from Old Images”

30 Nov

Old images, new stories, old stories, new formats…

Newspapers seem to be slowly slipping into the category of paper ephemera and/or historic primary sources. Recently, while reorganising my library, I came across an article I wrote that was published in The Canberra Times back in 2008 [1], and it occurred to me that it is unlikely that any of my readers will be able to access that article, even if I were to reference it here.  So I thought I’d post the article and scans of the text and accompanying image so that it can be enshrined not just in the yellowing newspaper sitting on one of my shelves, but in digital format as well.


Scan of newspaper with caption: ‘A Canberra “mashup” by Sabrina Caldwell. Image editing software makes it easy to modify a digital image. Picture: Sabrina Caldwell”‘

“New stories from old images”

Ten years since its introduction, digital photography has pushed film photography to the brink of extinction. Nine out of 10 cameras sold today are digital. This year, Polaroid announced it would stop manufacturing instant film. In 2006 Nikon, Kyocera and Konica Minolta discontinued film cameras altogether, and the chief executive officer of Kodak stated that “film is gone.” But is our ability to rely on images as a true record of our lives and times also gone?

As the delights of tinkering with digital images seduce even the most stringent photographic purists amonst us, are family histories being re-written in altered pixels, fusions of unrelated photos and erasures of convenience? Any editing software makes it easy to modify a digital photo. We might remove a wrinkle from a loved one’s face, erase the unsightly trash can lurking behind a field of tulips, or crop out a neighbour who has inflitrated a family photo. We might go further: change a grey sky to blue, insinuate a friend into the arms of her favourite heartthrob, or layer several photographs together in a ‘mashup.’

Minor or major, these changes reduce an image’s credibility as a report of real people and events. It is these increasingly uncertain images that collectively tell the story of our families and 21st century Australia.

The question of whether photography is a means to record reality or an art form is not new. In 1959 Charles Baudelaire declared photography to be a mechanical means of recording reality, “the secretary and record-keeper of whomsoever needs absolute material accuracy for professional reasons.” But by then, Henry Peach Robinson had already published the sensational photograph Fading Away, which combined five diferent negatives to present the pathos of a dying girl and her disconsolate family. While Fading Away was a representation of truth, it was not a record of reality. It was the original photographic mashup.

The views of Baudelaire and Robinson are irreconcilable, but they illustrate that the line between truth and fiction in photography is really a grey area, bounded on one side by the use of photography as reportage, and on the other by photography as art. One hundred and fifty years later, these boundaries are mirrored in two projects at the National Library of Australia, Picture Australia and Re-Picture Australia. Picture Australia is a permanent online service that searches the representative images of 49 Australian and New Zealand cultural institutions. On the other hand, as part of Vivid, Australia’s inaugural photography festival, the National Library is currently inviting Australians to submit mashups for inclusion in Re-Picture Australia, a creative anthology of Australian photographic art.

CT_wordboxFiona Hooton, manager of both projects, believes that Re-Picture Australia will engage Australians with their photographic heritage in a fun way. At the same time, she is interested in the idea of flexible truth, specifically anti-history. She comments, “Anti-history recognises that historical truths happen in the chaos of ordinary life. We tend to think of history as fixed, but it is as serendipitous as anything else.” Importantly, Re-Picture Australia faces the dilemma of truth and fiction in photography squarely, by requiring contributors to specify what images are being used in their work.

Re-picture Australia’s mashup rule might make a good start for a wider approach to history through photography.  Every digital photographer should understand their responsibility to ensure the persistence, credibility and intelligibility of their digital photographs. For instance, the easily accessible fields associated with every digital photograph provide places where names of people and locations can be listed. This will prevent that moment when, years later, you and your family stare at the image on your computer and try to figure out who the boy in the blue hoodie is. Details of mashups can be listed in the same way. Printing, sharing and backing up the original digital photographs will help guard against their loss, and knowing the commonly agreed picture formats, and keeping up-to-date on changing technologies will keep entire collections of irreplaceable photos from leaping irrevocably over the ‘digital cliff’ like a herd of fatalistic lemmings.

Baudelaire expressed concern about the intrusion of fictive elements into photography, stating that “if once [photography] be allowed to impinge on the sphere of the intangible and the imaginary, on anything that has value solely because man adds something to it from his soul, then woe betide us!” This is unnecessarily gloomy. Many of today’s images shine precisely because photographers have added something to it from their talent, their editing software, and yes, their souls. The essential act that preserves our understanding of our histories is for photographers to annotate their photos, identifying where the reportage ends and the mashup begins.

[1] Caldwell, Sabrina. New stories from old images. Panorama. The Canberra Times p.10 2 August 2008





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