He stands with one leg raised, a single figure in a seemingly vacant street. The figure was captured on Boulevard du Temple in Paris in 1838 by Louis Daguerre, the man whose name graced a world-changing technology. The daguerreotype required a ten-minute exposure, so anything in motion – carriages, pedestrians, animals – were invisible within the frame. A lone stranger is visible only because he stood still to get his shoes shined, long enough to burn his fuzzy outline into history.
The scene in a Paris street marked the first rendering of a human being by light quanta on silver iodide. By the end of the 19th century, the mass reproduction of images in newspapers and magazines turbocharged the consumer economy while midwiving celebrity culture. By the early part of the 20th century, most middle class consumers could afford small portable cameras. Every other working stiff now had a shot at immortality in black and white or colour.
Digital tech has moved so fast and furiously over the past 10 years that Vancouver hockey rioters were surprised when they were identified and tried by their own social media. The recent popularity of the Instagram iPhone and Android app – which gives digital shots a retro look of cheap handheld film cameras – signals the nostalgia for a time when technological advance was encouraging rather than disorienting. (By now, media guru Marshall McLuhan is spinning so rapidly in his grave he could be used as an alternative energy source.)
The blessings and curses of digital photography are one and the same: astounding quality and instant dissemination. Freed from the limitations of film cost and frame count, we can all can point and click like Margaret Bourke-White on Benzedrine.
In a variation of Gresham’s Law, bad pics crowd out good pics. Many of us have hard drives swollen with hundreds or thousands of photos we have yet to go through and cull. With smartphones and tablets doubling as cameras, and shots shuffled onto laptops and desktops, many of us aren’t even sure which devices hold what pictures.
We can also now lose photos in entirely novel ways. I once backed up a failing hard drive before replacing it. Only later did I realize I hadn’t copied over my iPhoto library, which included shots of my parents before they passed away. So I hung on to the drive with the intent to reinstall it one day and grab the shots. Stuck behind some books on a shelf, it remains a hidden memorial to my parents, their images interred as ones and zeroes on a magnetic disk.
Yet photos that end up on social networking sites can suffer the opposite fate, as social-scarring scarlet letters. “The Cloud” never forgets, as demonstrated by the tragic tale of Amanda Todd.
There is another down side to image-based overkill. Many of us with Blackberries, Android phones and iPhones have the tourist’s habit of compulsively snapping pictures without much reflective thought. The camera lens inserts itself between the viewer and the world, putting him or her at a further remove from lived experience. We’re increasingly tourists of our own lives, with Facebook the new form of the once-dreaded home projector.
In comparison to digital slide shows, old-school photo albums with their cellophane inserts and binder rings are bulky, space-consuming burdens. Yet they still have a peculiar, retro charm – hence the online services for turning digital photos into real-world books. One of the few photo albums I ever made followed a six-week trip in Europe in 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. (I wince when I see the fashion crimes I committed back in the waning days of the Cold War. A handlebar mustache and muscle pants?)
My photo album included scenes from the Parisian neighbourhood where Louis Daguerre took the world’s first photograph of a human being. The mystery man on Boulevard du Temple never knew he was the target of this remarkable distinction, and we’ll never know the particulars of his life. The shoe-shine flaneur is frozen in time in a ghostly urban landscape, a cipher in silver emulsion from an era before CCTV cameras and geotagged pictures. He is a fragment from a slower-moving world that still had the capacity to forget.