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From early photography to the Instagram age

In our contemporary moment, as our digital spaces are saturated with feeds and streams of images, it’s clearer than ever that photography is a medium poised between arresting singularity and ambiguous plurality. Art historians have conventionally focused on the singularity of the photograph and its instant of capture. But the digital turn has prompted many scholars—myself included—to reconsider photography in its many serialized incarnations.

Whether for artistic or scientific purposes, the photograph has always been enrolled in larger bodies of imagery. In the nineteenth century, for instance, families collaged together portraits of loved ones and famous figures in private albums. Meanwhile, the French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon pioneered the collation of police mugshots into vast archives, and inventors such as Eadweard Muybridge used chronophotography to trace the contours of human movement.

Image credit: Sitting down on chair and opening fan, ca. 1884–1887. By Eadweard J. Muybridge, From the series Animal Locomotion. Collotype. George Eastman Museum, gift of Ansco. Reproduced with permission from the George Eastman Museum.

Image credit: Zeitreisende: f1vbg23ock.jpg, 2012. By Lilly Lulay. Photocollage (gelatin silver print and inkjet print). George Eastman Museum, gift of Joseph Cunningham in honor of Lisa Hostetler. Reproduced courtesy of the George Eastman Museum.

Such practices only increased in the twentieth century, with the growth of mass media photography. In 1927, the cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer described his age in ways that speak uncannily to our own: “The world has taken on a photographic face,” he wrote. Everyday life was now subsumed beneath a “blizzard of photographs.”

Kracauer was worried that the visual culture of modern had (paradoxically) hidden the world from us. For him, the blizzard of photographs clouds our view, preventing us from seeing the social and historical realities behind the world’s photographic face.

Something of this same concern shapes Zeitreisende, a 2012 photographic series by Lilly Lulay that considers how modern-day hypervisibility can mean anonymity, an evacuation of human individuality and specificity. Zeitreisende means time traveler, and Lulay’s series envisages the modern woman as a pixelated figure making scenic pit stops along the feeds of contemporary media.

Lulay’s photographs parody the vacation shots we share on social media: the evidence of the self in specific temporal and geographical locations. But vacation shots, like Lulay’s traveling women, sit uneasily in time and space. They tell our friends and followers, “I am here” or “I am there”—but also, as the present tense of the photograph slips seamlessly into the past, “I was here,” “I was there.”

Lulay’s time travelers are anonymous and unidentifiable; they are assembled in and as visual data. What happens to the individual, Lulay seems to ask, in a world in which all private selves face, or might face, a mass audience? If nothing is private, can anyone really be individual?

In repurposing found photographs, Lulay draws from and works against the overproduction of images in our time. She also responds to the age of memes and selfies, in which the individual photograph is inserted into endless Instagram and Facebook feeds. In these guises—as with the many serialized forms of photography from the earliest days of the medium—the individual photograph comes to look less individual, less isolated than we might imagine it to be. It comes to look like a time traveler, always shifting from one sequenced context to another.

Image credit: Zeitreisende: f0po1ab5gr9w.jpg, 2012. By Lilly Lulay. Photocollage (gelatin silver print and inkjet print). Reproduced courtesy of Lilly Lulay.

Picturing women in postdigital space
To some extent, Lulay’s images can be seen to represent a common complaint about the image culture of the internet age: that it saps meaning and flattens individual difference, producing slick, superficial visions of too-perfect lives.

Perhaps the exemplar of this phenomenon is the Instagram influencer, usually, a young, thin, white woman employed by advertisers to hawk fashion or other products online—but always with a mask of authenticity, the crucial currency in the social media economy. The Instagram influencer—along with all selfie-snapping millennials—is the object of much of our culture’s anxieties about Internet-age narcissism and homogeneity.

Indeed, there’s no doubt that social media provides a context for the assertion and maintenance of gendered social norms. It’s hardly a coincidence that Instagram influencers tend to replicate the same conventionalized standards of beauty that Naomi Wolf railed against in The Beauty Myth almost thirty years ago.

Yet, scholarly literature on selfie culture is divided. Selfies are recognized as a mechanism of social control, one that reproduces the objectification of women’s bodies in the history of art and of popular culture. But selfie culture can also be seen to support empowering acts of self-expression, as is evident in #MyStory, a campaign launched a few years ago to expand the range of representations of women on Instagram.

Image credit: African American woman wearing white gloves, ca. 1855. By Unidentified maker. Daguerreotype with applied color. George Eastman Museum, gift of Eaton Lothrop. Reproduced courtesy of the George Eastman Museum.

The long history of women in photography
Social media pushes us to exist in the moment; through its time stamps and reverse chronological design, it accelerates away from a sense of history or context. As our feeds constantly refresh with new content, we’re moored in a perpetual present of smashed-avocado brunches, fitsperational bodies, and cat videos.

But throughout the history of the photographic medium, the photograph in sequence—in predigital feeds, as it were—has not only served to occlude the underlying power structures of culture and society, as Kracauer once claimed. It has also served to unveil those structures.

For example, the growing archive of portrait photography in the nineteenth century made it possible to identify, in newly precise ways, the delimiting and codifying of femininity and masculinity as a series of visual cues connected to fashion, gesture, and gait. Apprehended as a tradition and a genre, portrait photography reveals how ideas about gender emerge through shifting social conventions.

So, in a new digital project, I’m using Instagram to test how this serialized medium might be used to create, not diminish, a sense of history in relation to representations of women. “Object Women” seeks to give a complex backstory to both high art representations, as in Lulay’s photography, and the vernacular self-portrayals published by women every minute on social media.

Just as Instagram functions simultaneously as a means for objectifying women and as a site for resisting objectification, so too the longer history of women under the camera’s gaze is configured through these two competing impulses. If depictions of women have long been central to photography’s feeds and streams, then postdigital platforms offer a unique opportunity to uncover how these depictions have—and haven’t—turned women into objects of sight.

Featured image credit: “Iphone photo” by Dariusz Sankowski. CC0 Creative Commons via Pixabay.

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