Before Social Media, Photography Was a Social Medium

On Kawara: I Got Up . . . , 1975, stamped ink on postcards, 3½ by 5½ inches each. Shimshack Collection. Courtesy David Zwirner Gallery. © One Million Years Foundation.


In 1974 photographer Ken Ohara started a chain letter. It came with a loaded camera and instructions for its use: recipients were to shoot portraits of family, friends, and themselves, then send the roll to Ohara. In return, they would receive a contact sheet and an eight-by-ten-inch print of one of their pictures. Contacts (1974–76), the resulting work, was the collection of contact sheets from all participants. “I am presenting these contacts which represent one photograph,” Ohara wrote in a statement accompanying the project. “This photograph is my work.”

“Photograph” is a word of broad application. It can refer to tintypes, Polaroids, and cell phone pics; to images seen on screens, in albums, in magazines, or framed and hung on museum walls. It doesn’t convey anything precise about the technical process by which an image was produced or the context in which it’s encountered. But Ohara insisted on expanding the definition of photography in another dimension, to understand it as not a single image but a set of them that collectively depict the infrastructures and interpersonal connections that made their creation possible. Contacts was included in “snap + share: transmitting photographs from mail art to social networks,” on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art this past spring and summer, along with works by twenty other artists who see snapping and sharing, photography and its transmission, as inseparable aspects of one communicative act.

There were many types of images in “snap + share”: stock photos, snapshots, digital composites, photograms; images that artists made themselves, bought, found, or asked others to make. There were postcards of New York that On Kawara stamped with the date and time he awoke and sent to friends and colleagues. There were postcards with generic views of Amarillo, Texas, that could be from Anytown, USA, which Stephen Shore printed and surreptitiously slipped into racks at souvenir shops around the country. (Like the postcards Kawara bought, these have the lurid aqua skies of 1970s offset printing.) A glass partition displayed mail art ca. 1975–2015 from the collection of San Francisco−based artist and archivist John Held Jr., so that viewers could see both sides of each specimen: the collages of photos cut from books or magazines and the stamps and addresses that marked their passage. The flexible form and purpose of the images included suits the credo of SFMOMA curator Clément Chéroux as it appears on the website of the museum’s photography department: “Photography is an extraordinary tool to create, document, communicate, earn a living, or have fun. It is all this at once and much more.”

Ohara’s Contacts was hung in the same gallery as Thomas Bachler’s Reiseerinnerungen (Souvenirs), 1985, ghostly images he made by shipping a dozen packages with built-in pinhole cameras. Jagged lines emerge from foggy contours of warehouses, tracing the cameras’ movement from darkness to light. On the far wall hung Moyra Davey’s Subway Writers I (2011), photos the artist took of people writing with pen and paper on the New York subway. She folded her prints to use as envelopes. They were displayed unfolded, with squares of brightly colored tape that Davey affixed to secure the edges enlivening the wan underground lighting. Her unsuspecting subjects made marks while riding the train, and their images acquired postal markings as they traveled—a strange and satisfying rhyme of expressive acts accompanying movement through anonymizing systems.

The gallery past the one with Ohara, Bachler, and Davey’s works was heaped with thousands of photos, leaving a narrow, snaking path for viewers to pass through. For 24HRS in Photos (2011), Erik Kessels printed all the images uploaded to Flickr in the span of one day, to impress audiences with the amount of digital imagery in circulation by giving tangibility and heft to what seems so weightless. Jeff Guess’s Addressability (2011), in the next room, was a projection in the dark, powered by custom software. The work scrapes a selfie recently uploaded to a social network and, over the next five minutes, slowly pulls it apart, enlarging each pixel into a floating block of color. It’s a reminder that the picture is not an integral object but a set of data that has to be reconstructed every time it appears on a screen, more diffuse and unstable than the sense of self we might want to project when sharing it.

Most of the works in “snap + share” are subtle and mischievous, opening complex perspectives on the systems they circulate in. Kessels’s and Guess’s works are gimmicky and blunt. The artists don’t implicate themselves in the systems they address. Their messaging is aggressive, and it can be read only one way. But I liked that these two works were there. There’s no point in fussing over questions of artistic quality in an exhibition that gives so much space to mail art, a genre rife with anti-establishment attitudes and dumb jokes; exhibitions of mail art were usually announced by open call, and organizers would show whatever was sent in, displaying the reach of their network rather than the rigor of their taste. In the loosely chronological layout of “snap + share,” the Kessels and Guess installations marked a major technological shift, from postal networks to digital ones. The directness and scale of these room-size works—so different from the modest postcards and camera-size boxes in the preceding galleries—drove home the point about the exponential increase of images, the speed and pervasiveness of new technologies. Chéroux’s goal in organizing “snap + share” was not just to gather significant works that explore forms of transmission as venues for art but to dramatize the corresponding technical history.

In other words, “snap + share” was not, strictly speaking, an art historical exhibition. It flouted that genre’s conventions. Its design borrowed tactics from museums of science and history. There was a timeline at the end listing facts and milestones: Édouard Bellin’s 1913 invention of a machine that could transmit a photograph over telephone lines, Nokia’s 1996 release of an internet-compatible cell phone, the 2007 launch of the iPhone. Another timeline at the entrance presented artifacts. There was an 1889 postcard—one of the earliest illustrated postcards made from a photograph—of the Eiffel Tower, which visitors could mail from a post office inside the monument. There was a 1907 issue of Scientific American with a portrait of the German crown prince on the cover—the first image electrically transmitted over a thousand miles. The prince’s face is ribbed, as if seen through a glass brick. There was a photo of the newborn daughter of engineer Philippe Kahn, who put it online via mobile phone in 1997. It was the first image to be shared in this way. Beside it, the chunky Toshiba laptop, Casio digital camera, and Motorola flip phone Kahn used for this feat were displayed on a plinth under glass.

The fun of “snap + share” was in finding correspondences between art, facts, and artifacts. Lynn Hershman Leeson’s choice to print custom stamps bearing her likeness for Face Stamps (1972) might seem a quirky innovation, if it didn’t echo the sheet of stamp-size adhesive portraits from the nineteenth century—a common offering from photo studios then—included among the historical objects at the entrance. Corinne Vionnet’s series “Photo Opportunities” (2006–07) compresses hundreds of tourist photos taken from slightly different positions at the same sites to produce blurry but still recognizable images of famous monuments. They’re like stereoscopic images that haven’t been brought into focus. One shows the Eiffel Tower—a reminder at the exhibition’s end of that nineteenth-century postcard seen at the very beginning. That postcard was to be sent from a centralized point in the tower; the images Vionnet uses to make her composites are sent from many devices, stored on many servers, sourced using location tags and search keywords. Both images of the tower, the offset print and the composite of digitally layered snapshots, speak to a persistent urge to share remarkable experiences of travel. But their differences measure out profound technical changes.

These parallels and intersections made “snap + share” more than it could have been as a standard group show. Chéroux has experimented with exhibition formats before. “Shoot! Existential Photography,” which he organized for the Rencontres d’Arles photo festival in 2010, was inspired by an old carnival attraction where visitors could shoot a gun and, if they hit the bull’s eye, win a portrait of themselves shooting, snapped at the moment of impact. The show included artistic and vernacular photos on the theme of surprise, as well as a working reconstruction of a photographic shooting gallery. His promiscuous approach is markedly different from that of other curators of photography, who champion one way of understanding the medium and organize their presentations to reinforce it. 1

In a 2001 essay, Douglas R. Nickel, a predecessor of Chéroux as a photography curator at SFMOMA, traces shifts in critical discourse from one historical period to another, as certain properties of photography—chemical, aesthetic, documentary—succeeded each other as the primary preoccupation of curators, scholars, and the general public. “Is photography, in the last analysis, a medium?” Nickel asks. “A set of social practices? A technology with its own identity, unique in its imagistic capacities?”2 It is all this at once, and much more, says Chéroux. The focus on transmission in “snap + share,” rather than on any particular historical trajectory of photography as art or technology, offers a view on the essential intermingling of these currents. The show locates art in photography, and photography in art, as collateral ways of sharing experiences of the world.

NATHAN JURGENSON’S NEW BOOK The Social Photo (Verso, 2019) describes the place of photography in everyday life today by distinguishing “social photography”—shot, shared, and viewed with networked, often portable, computers—from the artistic, journalistic, and vernacular print forms that have occupied theorists in the past. As a sociologist, Jurgenson is less interested in what images look like than the habits that govern their use. He approaches photography as a technology that shapes the “ways people make themselves visible to the world, and make the world visible to them.”3

Jacket blurbs and promotional copy for The Social Photo compare it to Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1977) and Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (1980), the two books that have stood at the center of the canon of photography writing for several decades. The scale of Jurgenson’s ambition is indeed similar. But the differences are more instructive. For one thing, Barthes and Sontag have a quasi-Freudian obsession with the photograph as an embalmment of memory, its preservation of the past as a harbinger of death. Jurgenson offers an updated conception of photography as existing in a constant, vibrant flow; compared to its printed ancestor, the social photo is “more like life and less like its collection.”4

Differences of style and structure are telling as well. Sontag is aphoristic, even gnomic, as she doles out wisdom gleaned from careful observation; Barthes is lyrical and introspective, describing photography by citing his own responses and experiences of it. Jurgenson has a limpid way of writing, with some lovely metaphors, but he comes to the matter from social science. He is committed to rigor and a semblance of impartiality. Sontag finds examples in the way photos are treated by characters in Godard films. She examines the work of Diane Arbus and Walker Evans. Barthes analyzes particular images: of violence in Nicaragua caused by US intervention, of his late mother. Jurgenson does not discuss any one image, preferring gauzy descriptions of phenomena and events, like the barrage of photos of snow, filtered to look like Polaroids, that filled Instagram and Hipstamatic feeds after a blizzard slammed the northeast at the end of 2010. He strings together citations from academic articles and books. It’s less an extended philosophical essay than an overview of all the interesting new thinking about photography and technology published in the last decade, including Jurgenson’s own, reinforced with quotes from canonical social theorists and philosophers. His method suits his purpose: he builds knowledge by tracing its networks.

Perhaps even more than photography, Jurgenson is concerned with taking on what he calls “digital dualism,” the mind set that pathologizes internet use as leeching authenticity from life. He writes with the neutrality of sociologists who avoid moralizing about the norms they study, though he could also be seen as a proselytizer; Jurgenson is employed by Snapchat, and his writing tends to skirt questions of privacy and commercial surveillance. Either way, in his urgency to normalize internet use, he sometimes glosses over its strangeness. “There was and is no offline,” he writes, insisting that life is always mediated by thought, language, and the many technologies of communicating them.5 But he does not dispute the existence of online. What makes it special?

David Horvitz’s 241543903 (2009–), included in “snap + share,” offers one answer to that question. The ongoing work began when Horvitz put out a call online: “Take a photograph of your head inside a freezer. Upload this photo to the internet (like Flickr). Tag the file with: 241543903. The idea is that if you search for this cryptic tag, all the photos of heads in freezers will appear.” It was an inversion of the bizarre experience of entering a random four-digit number in Google Image search and getting all the pictures assigned that number by the computers used to take them. It was a viral hashtag when hashtags were still in their infancy. At SFMOMA, dozens of images made in response to Horvitz’s call were printed and hung on two walls, around a fridge that visitors could stick their own heads in to take part in the work. This was displayed near Vionnet’s collectively blurred monuments, a juxtaposition that suggested 241543903 has a monumentality of its own: these images of a weird act that can be performed in any home become remarkable through their accumulation. The Eiffel Tower is special because of its singularity; online, things become special through replication. This doesn’t refute Jurgenson’s descriptions of the interconnected nature of online and offline, though it does trouble his engagement with photography as a mediation of experiences rather than a medium for the creation of new ones.

As art, photography does not just produce images of things but proposes ways of seeing and thinking. It’s unfortunate that in his analysis of social photography Jurgenson ignores art altogether. This seems a deliberate choice to set himself apart from his theoretical forebears, to avoid treating any one image or body of images as special in his account of a condition where photography matters so much to communication that the value of individual photographs has decreased. “To treat social photography solely in the terms of its aesthetic quality is analogous to judging all written language on its poetic merits,” he writes.6 But the incredible thing about language is that any utterance can be judged on the same terms as poetry, even ones made without literary intent. That’s why there are so many photographs—social photos and art ones—that frame combinations of words in print or on signs that serve banal purposes but hold an accident of humor or song.

My bias as an art critic is showing here, but I think Jurgenson’s account would have been richer if he had explored the social photo’s potential as art and artists’ use of the social photo. The coincidence of the release of The Social Photo and the run of “snap + share” suggests that we are in a new paradigm of photographic discourse. If in the past specialists in photography tended to concern themselves with its pictorial or chemical properties, then today they have to talk about its exponential proliferation, its widespread use as an everyday means of communication. But as “snap + share” shows, the social quality of photography can be seen more vividly when its technological and aesthetic aspects are also in the picture.