December 15, 2008

Michael Shanks: Ghosts, mirrors, machines

The above image of the surface of a daguerreotype was taken by archaeologist Michael Shanks as part of his project "Ghosts in the machine." Daguerreotypes are, of course, one of a kind photographic positives--direct reflections of light that once hit particular objects. What I find particularly intriguing are his ideas about an archaeology of media (or "media archaeology" as he puts it). From his site:

Media archaeology. Tracking the traces and remains of media, old and new. There are archaeological matters at the heart of all media, involving questions like:

  • what, archaeologically, happens and has happened to the technology, apparatuses, instruments and products of media?
  • how does the material and archaeological aspect of a medium affect its operation?
  • how does the archaeological and material aspect of media help us understand them in new ways?
With our cameras we are creating a great mass of objects/artifacts. Photographs are everywhere, as are the machines that we use to create them. Old Nikons, Leicas, Canons, Koronas, Hasselblads, Brownies, Kodaks, Agfas...they are the detritus of the photographic past (distant and not so distant). Photographic history spans from the technology that NiƩpce used all the way to the newest Sony, Panasonic, Nikon, or Canon digital point and shoot.

Over a 182 year period an unbelievable number of photo-artifacts have been produced, re-produced, sold, traded, discarded, taped into albums, and disseminated in thousands of ways. Who collects them, and why? How do the products of these media machines, and the machines themselves, continue to play a role in our social and cultural lives? Why do we replace one technology with another? How do our conceptions change as our imaging capabilities shift? Is there really any effect? Did humans see the world differently or imagine it differently when twin lens Rolleiflexes were the norm? What about when glass plates were the latest technology? How does "reality" come out looking differently when you shoot with this versus this?

With Flickr and other image-sharing sites, the whole process has shifted into one in which the artifact becomes a digital image that is stored on servers, home computers, and external hard drives. Viewing those images--sitting around a computer--is a different experience than flipping through the pages of a book or album, or looking at framed photographs on walls. In what ways are the social uses of photographs changing with the advent of digital photography, image sharing, email, web sites, etc?

For archaeologists and other anthropologists, the exhaustive production of images results in an incredibly rich mine for studying not only the past, but also the very recent present. And, as Shanks points out, the very tools that we use to create all of our media--and what happens to them--also present a fascinating look into the complex image-oriented world in which we live.

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