Wednesday, February 02, 2005

when does record keeping start keeping a record of you?

Chatting with the sociologist (about photo-blogging and its effect on personal history-making) and the musician (about sound art and wanting to hold onto transient sounds) left me wondering about ordinary things and nostalgie de la boue.

I'm drawn to the pictures (thoughts, entries, projects) about small, incidental things -- the accidental juxtposition of a telegraph wire and a house, the sound of water slapping against a bridge, a red biscuit wrapper in the gutter -- transient, fleeting moments. Step by and it's gone. Unless you make the choice to record it.

One of the threads in blogging (and photo-blogging especially) seems to be an attempt to lift this transient joy out of the moment -- pickle it. Put it in aspic. Digital aspic.

But is this a healthy urge? Does it encourage you to take more joy in your surroundings or does it turn you into camera-eyes, always looking for the "right" moment? Do you end up weighed down with ordinary beautiful things? Or is it a sort of dirty street nostalgia -- not just, "I was happy at that moment" but also, "life was ordinary at that moment, and I was happy".

Nostalgie de la boue means unexpressed longing towards grubbing around in the dirt and fantasising that contentment can be found there. It's the middle class urge to get back to the ground, buy the farm, work the land. I don't like it; the word boue means mud, and I don't beleive that truth can be found in the mud.

Or rather, I do; but the only truth that you will find is that mud is mud*.

So where does that leave those photographs of posters, streets, buildings, shoes, benches, graffiti and gutters that I take, that I look at? Am I using them to indulge this urge to wallow in muck?

In a way that probably annoys people who take the craft more seriously, I take photographs to relax, largely without plan or reflection, and usually because I simply see a pattern that I can intercept, steal a 2-dimensional slice to keep.

But now this supposedly relaxing action suddenly become suspect. Are the photos infected with this gutter nostalgia? Or is there something even worse going on?

What if this mosaic of superficially random photos is actually, through my refusal to take or make to a plan, simply turning out something which is faddish, fashionable; that just accepts an emergent, socially-received pattern of the correct photoblogging behaviour ... and, like the couple who later discover they gave their kid the exact same picked-at-random name as every other damn kid born that year, I'll look back in six month's time and realise that everyone was doing gutter nostalgia?

But wait, is that a bad thing? It is worse to be wallowing in waste and trivia (undisciplined, nostalgic, weak) or to be swayed by approval and fashion, weakly shaping your images to the prevailing acceptable photoblog pattern? -- wait, that's a bit judgemental, isn't it? How about "influenced by popular and infectious themes and memes, fluidly selecting the images presented to reflect the ebb and flow of online image presentation" ... and then, suddenly this ties in tidily with the work I'm doing with random generation, spam, google and the selector/receptor position which the internet persuades the browser into ... and all of a sudden, taking the photos, far from being relaxation, suddenly becomes part of the work.

So what now? Go looking for something a little more extraordinary? Snap my fingers and dismiss it all entirely?

I'm probably overanalysing quite an ordinary, currently fashionable, urge toward saving the disposable, celebrating the ordinary, just as fly-on-the-wall and webcam thrills, repeats of Big Brother, and films like Lost in Translation (a strikingly bloggish film) do in popular culture. The culture and history of ordinary life (we file it under "local history" at the bookshop -- where "local" I suppose is defined as personal/home/everyday) is perhaps still underrepresented in studies of the internet, whose history had been largely written from a business/technological/guru perspective, with the the unimportant, ordinary users of the internet, the chatters, journallers, photobloggers, sidelined as irrelevant. Maybe.

Or maybe there are photobloggers who are writing a history of the internet, of ordinary life, of photoblogging, but the internet gives back not one history but a forest of them, and all partial, inconsistent, chance as much as any refining process deciding what gets listened to -- although places on the internet with a powerful sense of their own importance would doubtless disagree.

Even on a very tight topic (yourself, for example) what makes it into the written/visual record is very random; odd and personal selections, inconsistent scraps of information, misleading or fictional elements, and all the refining, sorting and revising (and people do revise blogs) which writing your story of you makes possible.

But then my blog (journal, photolog) is not my life.

Occasionally I slip my camera into my pocket and think, "no, I'll keep that for myself." I don't think I'm alone in this, either; I've seen others saying similar things, or doing things like keeping a boyfriend/dream/project quiet on their blog. Sometimes it reflects insecurity or superstition, but I also see the idea of preserving, reserving, a private space.

Putting something into an open public arena can change what it means. As more people see an image, its reality becomes louder, but not necessarily more focussed. Is the ubiquitous kitten photo meaningless and easily dismissed, or actually increasing in importance with every referrer? It's a trade-off ... and it's not easily controlled, either. When I was boing-boing-ed I'm fairly sure my name was never mentioned. I was just "that barbie porn thing". Ironically, for a page that didn't even contain any barbies.

But then my blog (journal, photolog) isn't about public recognition.

It's for socialising, for entertainment, sharing out the fun stuff , and keeping it all to hand. Not just as a record, but using the act of repitition and recording to "fold over" a memory -- make the experience more fixed in your own and others' histories.

But is there a flipside of anticipating that later fold-back? From taking a photograph for putting online later, to planning a night out as a potential photo-story, to thinking about an experience, "well, this is shit, but at least it'll make a good LJ entry" there's a slow but steady transform being applied to the life of a blogger/journaller. The online fictional performance is beginning to exert an authorial pressure on the life of the individual; and given how much of Livejournal's interaction is approval-based, is this healthy? Are you running to a broader, more diverse and/or sympathetic group for approval?

Or are you just crawling back into a different schoolyard?

* and a variety of other similarly obvious breakthroughs.

While I was thinking through some of this a photojournaller (who values his privacy so I will not refer) made the comment, "a lot of the time we record what is in front of us without adding anything" and I replied:
I'm not sure that's actually possible, really -- and I'm also not sure whether "good" and "bad" -- especially when related to comments gathered (in a very short period of time!) are useful terms.

Take your blog as if it were a magazine job -- who's your audience and what do they want? They're urban, literate -- like London, words and self expression -- of course the graffiti shot is going to appeal. So what about the pub shot? It's London, there are words, the way the arches and the railings and the lines of the building pick up on each other gives that sense of place ...

But there's a bit of confusion about it -- what are you trying to say? What's your story? Where's the route for the viewer through the picture into what it means to them? Even visually, the simple vanishing point vs. the more complex zigzag makes for a composition that's harder to follow quickly.

That it's less obvious doesn't make it a "bad" picture, however. What it might make it is less likely to gain instant approval from an audience of blog-readers with many demands on their attention.

At A4 size, in a magazine spread, the graffiti shot might look obvious and crass, the pub shot compelling and involving.

Which again, isn't to say you shouldn't put certain types of pictures into a blog -- as you say, experimenting is how you find these things out -- but I think it's a mistake to jump from "nobody commented" to "it's bad".

Those pictures above, for example -- you say you've not added anything -- you're missing the most fundamental thing you've done, which is to freeze that perfect gig moment when the light falls on the singer and the emotion seems to leave from their face, their body outwards.

And it's true you can do that yourself, but, hey. I wasn't there.

Now, let's see if I can follow my own advice.


kc said...

This is just such good thinking. Thanks Jeremy.

One small point: from the point of view that "real life" happens out there and the internet merely comments on or is parasitic to that, then blogs lift "transient joy out of the moment...". But from another perspective, blogs insert those transient moments into the stream(s) of a whole other set of transient and not transient and rich and interesting moments. Which is different from nostalgie de la boue in at least one important sense: nostalgia is a rejection of the present, while blogs are not only a celebration of it, but a reincarnation, a creative re-use. This is what McKenzie Wark (The Hacker Manifesto) uses the word "hacking" to mean. -kris

Jeremy Dennis said...

Spreading the joy through celebration of the sublime ordinary, hmmm? Yes, that makes for a valid counter-argument. The reinsertion of a past moment into the continuous present of an indexed blog-post presents the original image with a new point where it can influence its author or others, change or develop its own meaning -- which again, fits in with my thinking on comics/cartooning. Whether this is an active position of creative re-use (Wark's "hacking") or something more passive (more akin to the gradually changing relationship you might have with the image on a billboard as you pass it on the way into work every morning) is open to question, for me at least. The dissemination of other people's graffiti might meet the "hacking" criteria, but what about dirt in the gutter, paint on a kitchen wall?

I think the question of whether I'm privileging the right images remains; and whether the "ordinary" pictures represent some sort of nostalgic fumbling for a simpler, aesthetic, less cluttered by narrative intent than the comics is a legitimate anxiety.

Jeremy Dennis said...

However, I've stumbled across a couple of models of photography-taking which return a slightly better result. One goes back to how I (and, if the popularity of Flickr's favourites tool is anything to go by, a lot of other people) react to other people's photographs -- as a pleasant mass containing one or two brilliant shots. If you take it as given that you can't have every single shot being a favourite (either you'd up your criteria or suffer fabulousness fatigue and loss of interest) then the ordinary images become necessary, like sand in a stone-polisher, to surround, support and shine the really good ones.

The other one's a psychological justification for taking photos I stumbled across in Mark Z Danielewski's bizarre novel-object House of Leaves which hypothesises that there is an element of compensation about surrounding yourself with positive images of fleeting joy.