And Contemporary Anxieties over Too many Photographs
Have you noticed the fashion of iconoclastic postings repeating reservations on the escalation of photographic production? In a few centuries such concerns will be viewed as particularly primitive in their implicit assumption that fewer photographs or no photographs are in any way an option.
Happy Camera, cast concrete bordering the art walk along the Museum Mile in Rochester, NY.
It is legitimate, however, to wonder at the ways photography’s existence in society may have diminished us, and there is a long-standing philosophical tradition in the critique of emerging media technology. Take, for example, the initial encoding technologies for spoken language – the method that provided means for storing knowledge outside our skulls, writing. Welcomed as an assistive technology, writing could outsource irksome mental toil much as the cooking of food had outsourced digestion. But Plato records a Socratic dialog in his Phaedrus, expressing concern for the increasing dependence on writing that may erode human knowledge. The use of writing would “introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it; they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing.” The warning was valid. Yet the technology that cheated the established system of knowledge would build our entire world of science and literature.
The young media of photography do not recapitulate the rise of literacy in history. For one thing, photography came into a world that knew industrial printing and publication. So cultural transitions from orality to literacy offer no easy analogies to the explosive adoption of photographic practice in the medium’s brief history. But I believe we may take comfort from our contemplation of Plato’s warning. While Socrates imagined dire outcomes from the threat to his model of knowledge, he could not have imagined the power of all that sharable writing piling up outside the human skull. Likewise current cautions and admonitions in the face of photo omnipresence may point to actual cultural and societal loss, I don’t doubt it. But keep in mind that photography is not bound by these anxieties – it does many jobs and will do more than we can now dream of. Nor are the men and women who make photographs constrained any flood of imagery; all they need do is learn something from the pictures they make.
Plato’s Warning is the title of my wife’s dissertation for her doctorate in philosophy. This remarkable work has been foundational in my thinking about the accretion and evolution of technology in culture.