The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media

Image of Social Photo Photography & Social Media
Author(s): 
Release Date: 
April 30, 2019
Publisher/Imprint: 
Verso
Pages: 
144
Reviewed by: 

“[W]hat the author does is make a cohesive thesis here and amend, bolster, ratify it with the intelligence and findings of others. The whole is his, and his alone. The portions of the whole and of the whole thesis are well-founded and accurate.”

Nathan Jurgenson delves deeply into his connections and understanding of the visually captured real-world as seen by a qualified sociologist—reflecting his experience into piercing the importance, trivia, and above all emplacement of our need and use of photography in this new age.

Breaking our understanding of modern photography down into two basic categories—documentary vision and real life—he painstakingly maps and explains the importance of this visual manipulation—false and real, personal and abstract, posing and captured, old and new.

The level of name dropping found in this slight tome might, to many, seem overly used, pompous, or self-aggrandizing. For example, names such as Sherry Turhle, André Bazin, Roland Barthes, or Wolfgang Schivelbusch will draw, for most readers, a complete blank. Does that matter? Not a bit. What Roland Barthes offers, for example, is relevant to the discussion and illustrated by a simple quote: “once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing,’ I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.”

Jurgenson does not so much rely on other experts to convey their message and thereby make it his own, rather what the author does is make a cohesive thesis here and amend, bolster, ratify it with the intelligence and findings of others. The whole is his, and his alone. The portions of the whole and of the whole thesis are well-founded and accurate.

Sometimes, it is hard to understand photography as originally conceived—so vastly different from the painting and drawing it augmented, enhanced, and possibly replaced (to a large extent). The modern age’s need for brevity of impact coupled with a continuing reliance on veracity with that instant impact leads photography to have a greater role in our modern world than it ever has.

There is a very interesting discussion in the Documentary Vision chapter that relates to issues we all face in this modern age with privacy and information immortality. Jurgenson states, “Social media . . . is partly about turning the world into knowledge, because to make something knowable is to make it everlasting.” He doesn’t shy away from the dilemma here, recognizing that everlasting and truth may not be the same; a new reality can be enforced by the very everlasting quality.

He quotes many experts that modem phone/Internet visual communication may decrease the significance of a single image and yet the wealth of visual communication streams augments a newer reality of perception. In a way, many of the previous visual medium experts’ sayings, like this of Georges Bataille (1939), are no longer as relevant: “nothing is more desirable that what will soon disappear.” At face value, the author would like to agree, but the impermeability of the new media keeps everything intact, even if less relevant.

In the final chapter Real Life, Jurgenson argues that social photography is made nowadays primarily as a means of communication and therefore perhaps video (discussed in the addenda Coda) would be a more effective means of communication. But one is an experience (video) and one is an imprint—each with separate impact.

The argument is this: which form is the greater invitation card? Nathan Jurgenson writes, “Social photos are not primarily about making media but about sharing eyes . . .” The still image is direct, unbreakable, immutable. The video, as he quotes Roland Barthes, results in “the pose is swept away and denied by the continuous series of images.” In the end, the author comes back to “Stillness is more informative, more explicitly documentary and it invited more attention to detail.”

The reader of this small, concise, informative book would do well to set aside pleasurable hours of thinking, evaluation, and research (using the ample notes’ section). And anyone thinking about posting images online, or indeed any professional photographer about to click the shutter, would find the philosophy, history, and guidance herein invaluable.