Friday, August 19, 2011

The Half-Life of Photographs

Jet Trail, 2006

I was thinking the other day of what I jokingly refer to as the half-life of photographs. Half-life usually refers to the amount of time it takes something to completely decompose. It’s usually used to describe scary things that don’t go away quickly, like uranium. I’m actually thinking, though, about how long a photograph lives, so maybe I should come up with a better term.
Either way, every one of us can probably bring several iconic photographs to mind without thinking too hard. If pressed, we can probably come up with a dozen or more. When I do this, I see Matthew Brady’s Civil War images, tintypes of the ballooning Montgolfier brothers, Steichen, Walker Evans, Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Frances Johnston, the Capas, Kertesz, The Family of Man and so on.
But in the big scheme of things, those iconic photographs are but an infinitesimal percentage of all the photographs ever taken, and even a tiny proportion of the photographs taken by even the photographers who took the iconic photographs.
These days we’re exposed to more visual imagery than ever. I can’t begin to imagine how many photographs are taken each day around the world. It’s got to be in the hundreds of millions, if not billions. Some of these images—a very few—will become acknowledged as great for one reason or another and ascend to iconic status. The rest…well, those are the ones I wonder about.
Most people who take pictures will likely never share them with more than a few people. Negatives will fill up closets full of old shoeboxes. Hard drives will harbor thousands of digital images.
Those of us who post photographs daily to sites like Flickr know that we have not only an archive, but also a daily audience that can range from the dozens to the thousands, depending on the number of “contacts” we have and the eye appeal of our thumbnail photos.  Some of us wish we had more traditional gallery followings. But in truth we have the opportunity to share our photographs with more people in more places in just one day using Flickr than we would if we were in the most prestigious gallery in the world. 
But that’s just it. You get a day, if you’re lucky. But it’s probably more like a few seconds, no better than a common ad, before the viewer moves on to the next image. My challenge to myself—which, by the way, I don’t think I achieve often—is to post images that will hold someone’s attention for three seconds. That’s a painfully brief amount of time. But in today’s visual clutter, that might be all you get.
Every now and then I go back through my photo archive and find images that gave me great pleasure. But once shown they went to the archives, where they will likely remain until after I’m gone. This seems awfully wasteful. I think it’s possible that some of these images might give other people pleasure, too. 
Until I figure out how to do that, though, I’ll be happy with three seconds. Web site consultants tell me three seconds can be an eternity.


  1. You got my three seconds... and then some! I think the viewing context can really make a difference as well - we flip dismissively through things on the web but will grant an image hanging on a gallery wall or ensconced within a book more of our care and attention. Selective busy bees, we are.

  2. Hey--I've gone back to some of your photos again and again--three seconds might be the initial glance, but remember, too, on flickr, people save favorites, and then, if they're like me, they return to them over and over again, and more than likely, they browse the others in the site as well.