John McCann

Communicating with photographs

In Uncategorized on March 23, 2006 at 3:18 pm

An article in USA Today tells the story of the formation of Flickr by Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield. The passage that struck me the most was about how the couple tapped into the Internet community’s interest in sharing.

Butterfield says Flickr’s biggest innovation came from recognizing the social nature of photography. “It’s meant to be shared, talked about, pointed to, saved, archived and available by as many means as possible,” he says.

A photograph is a form of art and a form of communication. A photograph is a composition of what you saw and what you thought was interesting enough to capture in a camera. Historically you would print it, put it in an album or a box, pass it around for others to see, and perhaps revisit it every now and then when you dig out old albums or boxes. Looking through your pictures, you can recall the occasions when they were taken. They “jog your memory” so that you can relive your past for a brief moment.

I have two of those boxes in the bottom of one of my closets, boxes that I acquired when my mother died. They are full of pictures, some pasted into albums, many just loose in the boxes. I look through them every few years and I always, always wish that there was more to each picture than the picture itself. Who are those women with my mother? When was the picture taken? One picture shows my mother as a young woman riding a horse; where was it taken? Why did she never mention horses to me? Several of the pictures show my half-brother with his grandparents, the Easleys. What were their first names?

These photographs are not very good communications, at least not for someone who wants to know the story behind the photograph. Or even the basic data about each picture: who, what, where, why, when. They do not “jog my memory” because I have no memory of them. A picture without a story is an art form, but not an effective communication to anyone who does not know its story. A photograph without a story is only an effective communication to someone who knows its history. When such people are the intended audience, then the picture is an effective communication; to all others, it is ineffective.

Additionally, these photographs are not communicating because they are buried in a box in the bottom of my closet. But that’s another issue for another day.

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