Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern. Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.
– Susan Sontag, On Photography
Recently, I was packing up, getting ready for a move to a new apartment. Going through boxes of old stuff, I found a few photos from when I was young. Sixth grade talent show, things like that. Besides the flash of memory that ensued, the recollection of time and place, the instant taken-back-ness of seeing myself as myself, less 30 or so years, I was struck by just how far our digital lives have taken us from yesterday’s analog world.
I haven’t even held a photograph for some time. Everything is on my computer, and then at least some of it ends up on Flickr. It’s become a lost ritual: going to the development lab, getting the pictures days later, flipping through them one by one.
But what’s more striking is how an *old* photo has, in Walter Benjamin’s sense of the word, “aura.” For Benjamin, aura was, in part, rooted in the uniqueness, physicality, and tactility of a media object. With the advent of photography, art was now aura-less, as the reproducibility of the medium cast aside the historical nature of that form for the “nearness” of it, enabling “the original to meet the beholder halfway.”
In this sense, the photos I found had aura. They are completely unique; no negatives exist to reproduce the images. They are, in Sontag’s words, “experience captured.” A slice of life that’s passed, not only in the temporal sense, but, had I never found the photos, perhaps from memory, as well.
And that’s something that is lost in the Age of Digital Reproducibility. There’s no finding of photos in a box; the serendipitous nature of photography is gone, perhaps forever. I’ll never “stumble across” a picture on my hard drive — it’s all labelled, and categorized.
I don’t miss those pain in the ass trips to the photomat, but I wonder if, many years from now, I’ll regret giving up the annoyances of film for the convenience of digital…?