Beyond composition: critiquing social network imaging whilst reconsidering our digital future
Sylvia Grace Borda MFA
Intersections: Analog and digital photography
Photography at its advent in the early 19th century was criticized as a technological hand maiden. It was considered to distance the practitioner from real processes and representation. Where was the technique if the photographer only had to expose a sensitized plate to light? Where was the skill of the photographer in arranging and composing the subject. The distance between the intimacy, representation, and knowledge of the photographer seemed problematic historically. It was after all based on technology unlike other arts in which practitioners modeled and observed their subjects with a likeness and realism through skills associated with painting, sculpture, and drawing arts. Photography, thus, remained distant in terms of such skills and process as defined by fine artists of the time.
Photography evolved substantially from the 19th to early 20th century through adoption, exhibition and technical processes, as well as skillful compositional forms. During this timeframe, photography became slowly accepted as its own artform through the formation of active clubs, exhibitions, journals dedicated to this emergent form. The Pictorialist movement in particular also attempted to separate out the hobbyist photographers from those who defined themselves as artist photographers. Pictorialist photographers (1880s-1910s) adopted labour intensive darkroom and hand based processes to create unique images. The aesthetic approach utilised by the early pictorialist photographers was an attempt to bring artistic photography into the realm of the Fine arts, rather than associating it with a method of mechanical reproduction. The style of the pictorialists was often characterized by the use of soft focusing, mute tones and a focus on a quality of light being captured in order to produce images that appeared similar in compositional treatment to Impresssionist paintings.
Today we can manipulate digital images with the use of ‘creative filters’ such as vignetting and colour effects which are to a certain extent recreating Pictorialist effects. This manipulation is a type of retro digital authorship mimicking effects from earlier photographic histories. These effects can commonly be applied with imaging apps on mobile phone devices – sometimes referred to as the Instagram effect. Instagram, which was originally available only for iOS devices, but available on Android allows users to apply a variety of imaging effects to images. The application was adopted extensively by the public to edit images so that Facebook bought Instagram in April 2012 for $1billion.
As such many of today’s digital photographers are less likely to know how to ‘process’ an image in the traditional sense of darkroom techniques. The concept of chemical processing of film to form a negative, from which to produce a print with a darkroom enlarger may seem particularly time consuming and overly technical, whilst also needing a dedicated amount of space in order to complete the tasks. Darkroom photography is not geared to the general consumer in terms of offering speed or quick imagery. Indeed analog photography involves a long sequence of steps in order to produce a final image.
By contrast, digital cameras can provide instantaneously and cheaply multiple images with ‘darkroom’ effects digitally manipulated at a touch. An on-going number of digital cameras and personal imaging devices are now being sold with creative art filters which allow images to be shot with filters or edited post-capture in-camera. Originally the preserve of compact cameras and phones, such filters are also now also gaining popularity in compact system cameras and DSLRs. Equally images are often going beyond what the eye and hand are capable of rendering with the application of enhanced infrared to high definition rendered (HDR) images, for instance.
Digital imaging is moving us, like its predecessor, beyond the limits of our vision but in the process can also remove us from the actual subject by providing a multitude of options to enhace the image or shift its likeness, or add notations, without need for high level skills or labour. The hidden consumption throughout this process remains unseen and incalculable.
The rise of image consumption
One can argue that digital photography has always been hovering at a dynamic juncture of socio-technological developments. Similar to the age of silver print photography, digital photography is also critiqued for removing skills that allow the photographer to relate more intimately to the subject. In fact, digital imaging is constantly collapsing the photographer and the camera subject into a single captured instance of a second, such as the advent of the ubiquitous selfie.
A second and sharper delineation from analog photography is the rise of digital photography in social media, and the ability for consumers to circulate and share images instantaneously beyond immediate social circles and to a wider community of viewers. This capability is beyond what analog photography could ever achieve – being reliant on paper based media, and exhibition.
There are in fact 300 million images posted daily to Facebook alone, and 6 million to twitter. Interestingly, Canada in 2013 was listed as the most active Facebook country. As such digital imagery is entering a critical stage in its full life-cycle and aggregation.
For the most part, these millions of images are digitally generated, uploaded and hosted. The physical handling of the image is direct from machine to machine and removed from the individual. As a result we may consider our authorship ‘lighter’ in terms of the environment and more free in terms of the multiples images we can take and click to post on the go anytime anyplace….
If the social network image is representative of what digital photography has become – we may want to question what this critical mass means to a greater interconnected system. In an age of a sharing economy, the social network image is foundational to this – but are there other repercussions that we might not perceive?
What is often missed in the movement and distribution of the social network image is the energy consumption needed at different times and places to enable these millions of images to be created, posted and viewed. The mobile phone, tablet, notebook, computer, digital camera, wireless internet hub are all power hungry devices… These are consuming energy quietly in the background.
Green implications: Click, think, and share
The forerunner arguments about digital photography fostering new ways of sharing also has ‘green’ implications every time we click the shutter. Rather than questioning between what is a good or a bad photograph, we need to consider how the processes adopted by photographers are being used poorly or well .
There are several areas which we need to explore in order to reconsider how our everyday lives might come closer to achieving a greener position in our own going pursuit to produce social imaging and digital photography.
1. Energy Consumption.
In digital photography the energy from turning on and powering cameras to running laptops, mobile phones, or using applications such as Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, to Twitter to house, share and distribute images – all draw on power. The more we look, gaze, comment, and edit photographs using wireless chip driven devices – the more we draw on the energy grid, and equally the more we rely on data centres to house our digital imagery.
Data centre energy, it is a massive overhead. Energy operating costs already sit at a third of an average centre’s operating budgets, and are second in costs to its human operators. Data centers equally are notoriously energy inefficient, generating substantial heat. Initial design and implementation of cooling cells, chambers, and airflow channels in the past cost as much as running the servers. Today passive heat cooling operations are being adopted, with data centres being placed in, for example, mine shafts or located in industrial parts within the cooler climes of Scandinavia.
Data centers touch our digital photography lives indirectly, since we rely on instant cloud services to store, file and house imagery. These multi-petabyte storage systems that run and store our online image files occupy multiplex warehouses, and require energy far beyond what we can anticipate.
Most data storage centres have complex cooling systems integrated that also draw on engery. What we often are neglect of is, that these digital file data centres are situated in locations where cheap energy is considered plentiful. For example, IBM operates eight million square feet of data center spaces across six continents in order to keep up with digital processing and storage needs of its hundreds of millions of clients.
In 2010, Facebook’s data centres stored more than 40 billion photos, and users were uploading 40 million new photos each day – about 2,000 photos every second. In a data center era, winning or losing our digital histories and equally our green values increasingly depends upon performance capabilities and operational efficiencies.
In analog photography, ‘latency’ of an image was a term used to describe the potential of the unexposed silver nitrate plate, film or paper to produce a developed picture. The latent image came to life through chemical processing. Small batch photography techniques to develop one’s own photographic film at home was possible and required access beyond the chemicals to running water. The inherent energy in the system (operator processing time ~ approximately at 25min) and its waste water and diluted chemistry to develop up to 2 or 3 rolls of film seemed achievable. Waste systems to recover grey water and recycling of exhausted fixer to recover silver was often adopted at institutions such as photography departments in schools and at professional photography studios.
Getting digital data from storage systems without lag time (or latency) so that it can be processed and analyzed is part of a data centre design. Companies are attempting to conquer latency by buying more equipment than needed so that work can be performed in parallel or more rapidly. As such data center redundancy is also a prime cause of energy over-consumption. A few experiments are being conducted to recycle heat waste with data centres supporting adjoining greenhouses and gardens as a means to reduce the plant’s carbon footprint.
Although overall storage and demand of large batch image retrieval from the cloud continues to be a factor that data centre companies are attempting to continually improve. As image consumers and producers we need to ask what is an acceptable lag time or latency from linking one’s device to local wireless services, parallel servers, and data distribution. Can we reduce our expectations of digital latency in favour of better energy efficiencies?
In analog photography there was a type of ‘affordance’ associated with image making and production. For example, in black and white photography if a negative was faint a photographer could select to use multigrade paper and the addition of filtration in order to extend the negative’s tonal range thereby creating a resulting print with image depth. A skill of processing and manual analyzing was required by the photographer to create a customized print.
At present, there are a number of software applications that ‘afford’ images with tonal and colour depth preferences to express the photographer’s aesthetic palette. Each of these applications require access to computing whether it is on a handheld device, laptop or computer. Data centers use ‘virtualization’ as a way to house large data on different servers in different places which appear as one location to the consumer and which allow the user to perform various transactions on the data so there is minimal downtime or lag. Consequently, a number of computer systems are necessary to reduce this latency time. Peak usage will vary depending on the size of the enterprise centers. Amazon and eBay, for example, will have nearly continuous peak times 24/7 because they serve an international consumer base in many countries in many time zones. Smaller and localized enterprises may have peak usage at different times in the day, and servers may lie idle with only 15% of their time being called onto be active at certain points to assist in image visualization .
The attempts of early analog photographers to become portable to produce and process images outside of the studio were revolutionary at the time. Accounts of British photographer, Roger Fenton (1819-1869), who appeared part strongman and alchemist is an early pioneer of mobility. He is associated with the large negative plate period of black and white photography in the mid 19th century. In the case of Fenton, a dedicated wagon of production tools were essential, comprising tripods, plate holders, unexposed glass negatives and chemicals, to create an ‘instant’ darkroom the size of the caravan.
Through a rapid evolution in producing more manageable or faster (latent image) plates and then negative films, the photographer could become more adept to produce images in the rural and urban landscapes; as well as developing and processing images in one’s own dedicated or commercial service darkrooms.
Digital photography does not need to occupy a set of constructed spaces like its analog counterpart – it can migrate across any digital display device and any digtal network. From mobile phones to flat screens and projection – the scale and duration of the image viewing experience can be altered at will. Similarly, the digital image can be rapidly distributed, ‘liked’, exhibited, commented on, stored and/or forgotten within seconds.
To accomplish such distribution of images a robust broadband infrastructure is vital. Outside of South Korea and Japan, most nations are facing more image data being generated than bandwidth to store or accommodate the pictures generated. A dependence on outside cloud providers to share our images or an evolution of data center operations more locally and in house is yet to be decided by the next technologies – to what extent will local consumer clouds be in the picture.
We already use 50% more energy to move bytes than we do to fly planes in global aviation. It is no surpise then that our mobile phone’s battery constantly seems on the verge of running out. As our lives migrate to the digital cloud — and as more and more wireless devices of all sorts become part of our lives — the electrons follow. And that shift underscores how challenging it will be to reduce carbon emissions.
Whatever arises our image clicking in the future will likely change further the digital infrastructure from the perimeters of our lives to inside our home and device in order that data can be delivered more rapidly, and bandwidth opened up.
5. Training and skills
Up until 1990, most people associated with photography were specialists in the sense they had either undergone an apprenticeship or more formally trainined within a professional or academic context. The ‘photographer’ as a job title denoted a set of inherent and long acquired set of skills.
Today every consumer is a photographer. One could argue, that with the advent of affordable and easy to use digital cameras, there is an instant democratization of image-making. Everybody has the means to make digital images, to create, post, distribute, and receive images instantaneously and in multiples.
In this way digital photography has become more closely aligned with an experience rather than a process. Photography no longer occupies a mere state of being as an image, artifact, or record of an event – it has moved away from the private or intimate photo-album to become part of a wider public image engine. Image creation is increasingly less about aesthetic agency and more about gaining meaningfulness by being ‘networked,’ linked to social media platforms and/or by ‘being experienced.’
A future for conscious consumers
Associating between the different photographic contexts of analog and digital should become a default process, understanding the resource differences between the two media should also become de facto. How willing are we to associate the difference between digital versus analog photography in terms of green values or energy use?
Without a doubt, digital photography has spawned a new era associated with digital data and energy consumption needs. As such clicking and posting is having a slow accumulative effect on greening attempts than analog photography ever achieved in its 170 plus years.
How long can the rising consumption levels persist then? That depends on trends and what we want our own role in the future to be in terms of our physical and imaging environments.
We are faced with other developments such as faster microchips which will allow for the wide-scale application of the Internet of Things to be applied and rolled out particularly in developed countries, where every product, camera, building, space and device in one’s home will be connected. As a consquence, for instance, your personal e-device (whatever that may be) will be able to alert you or show you a list of photos posted by family or can generate remote snap shots to give you an overview to the state of your home or an image to show you when your fridge has run out of milk. Our next imaging world will become much more effortless and will require even further engery needs.
Through this acceleration of next generation microchips, a new artificially intelligent imaged world is starting to function. As such through remote and/or socially (un)self-aware image computing has the potential to start to shift how we picture, experience, and remember the world. Our digital imaging world in the future may become as banal as a store receipt.
Our pictorial future is no longer dependent on family albums, archives of negatives, slides or other film and print based content – instead our digital image future lives and breathes where data is stored and through interfaces that enable us to show, categorize, and comment on our image productions.
Our imaging histories are thus dependent on the communities who use and see their need and future posterity. In the end, it’s up to us to open up dialogue —consumers, makers, scholars, artists, image producers and photographers — to consider what a photographic image is and what it is becoming and what are the implications of instantaneous consumption. Incredibly our on-going appetite for photographic digital images may also need to be critiqued in terms of consumption versus composition. How much social imaging is excessive, how much is just click bait? Are we verging at a moment where we are moving beyond a sustainable imaging culture.
It has been proposed that ‘if art does not effect culture it is not worth anything.’ The same can be asked along the lines of what is the effect of our digital image culture on how we pictures ourselves and our lifestyle and now also to our health and well-being.
It is therefore critically important that we consider digital imaging beyond its successes as a pervasive social media product. Digital photography as a hand maiden of current technologies is heavily energy dependent, how we address this challenge ultimately lies with us.
We need to ask ourselves therefore what are the higher standards of personal and community consciousness that our and future generations of social network image makers can aspire to. If we do this well, we can support not only positive global environmental change, but enable us to be better image makers.
- Whilst Pictorialist photographers attempted to separate themselves from hobbyist photographers – one could argue a second Pictorialist wave has arisen. While digital applications are promoting creative ‘hand inspired’ processes emulating soft focus, mute colours, etc – in response many art photographers are returning to labour intensive production, but through atypical means. The rise of the photo artist book, the use of low tech film cameras, and cameraless techniques, are making a comeback.
- The on-going development of data centres to store digital image and media files is creating the need for storage facilities and industrial parks in low density areas. It is proposed that within the next 3-5 years, the next data centres will be integrated into urban city plans.
200 Facebook stats
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Sylvia Grace Borda received a Masters of Fine Art from the University of British Columbia in 2001. She is an artist- lecturer, and currently a visiting Research Associate at the University of Stirling, Scotland. She has held positions as Senior Photography Lecturer (Salford Unviersity), MA Convenor in Photography and Imaging (Queen’s University Belfast), Associate Researcher in New Media (University of British Columbia), and Assistant Professor in Digital Visual Arts (Emily Carr University of Art and Design.)
Sylvia is the author of “The Artist’s Photographic Book: Towards a Definition” in Photography and the Artist’s Book, MuseumsEtc Publishers, Edinburgh (2012) and “Comments on Skinning our Tools (2003)“ in Banff New Media Institute Dialogues Euphoria and Dystopia, Banff Centre Press and Riverside Architectural Press (2012). She continues to lecture widely on photography, new media, and imaging in Canada, USA, and the UK.
Borda has exhibited and lectured over the last 15 years, and for 2008-2010, she held Culture Capital Artist of Canada status. Currently, she is completing a series of artworks about photography and ecology as part of an EU Arts Award ‘Frontiers in Retreat’ sponsored by the Helsinki International Arts Programme.