Social Media took the large known world of photo images and expanded it from a few planets in a solar system to multiple galaxies.
The torrential impact of digital smart phone cameras in particular is measured in the millions of new pictures generated per minute. The vast majority of these pictures will also have a life span of a minute or less, although interestingly they now routinely and instantly have multiple (and often simultaneous) lives.
Yet one of the largest single repositories of great images already exists in a place of incredible expanse that few people ordinarily think to look. Namely, traditional broadcast media: the very vague collective memory of trillions of hours watching television – now increasingly rescued from that vagueness by recovered and rebroadcast shows along with the infinite persistence of new show productions.
The notion of art history has steadfastly imposed a curatorial (which is to say strategic) preciousness on the idea of both importance and authority in the evaluation and promotion of photography. For most images, it is necessary there to survive the vetting process by representing some intentionality or innovation that either proves or transforms how we notice, recognize, and accept visual experience as an influence on events, not just as a consequence of them.
Conventionally, it is said that we will either accumulate visual stimuli as an experience formed by motion, or we will accumulate the stimuli as an experience formed by composition. While the two are not mutually exclusive, the former is usually tied into some notion of “narrative” while the latter is referred to as a “representation”.
Watching tv shows usually has us in a predisposition that pictures are consumable units of fuel for the action of the show. They are — at least most of them — transitional and have little else responsibility except when it is time for punctuation to be used. That is, their “influence” is fairly mundane most of the time.
But the magic of freeze frame – aka remote control pause — means that a lot of stuff that used to escape our special attention is now retrievable at our convenience. And the results are amazing.
Even before COVID made re-photographing television a more obvious thing to do while indoors, the convenience of stepping into the cameraman’s shoes has been only increased by large-screen devices. The sense of being inside the world of the show’s camerawork is very strong, yet the ability to see the whole screen at once is not diminished at all. Together, they nicely amplify any moment on the screen if you’re looking and waiting for them.
Early 60s black and white shows are particularly rich with incidental shots that, separated from the narrative, have all of the compositional adventurousness that any teacher or art student might try to take in at some serious theoretical level. The tension between what they were “about” originally, and what they might be about in our own minds, is easily equivalent to — for example — any Friedlander or Eggleston effort, or likewise Sherman, Goldin, or what have you.
The obvious assumption should be that the camerawork in these shows was done by photographers who knew what they were doing even if the rest of the crew didn’t, but their job responsibility was simply more industrial.
This has been a lot of text about something that ought to be seen, so from here on the subject will be treated mostly with examples. But nothing here will prevent you from just doing it yourself: turn on a show, get your remote, and hunt for stills during the show.
Meanwhile, in some amount of time, I expect the collected discoveries of transient photographs in television work would effectively rewrite the “art history” — or at least repopulate the pantheon — of “important” photographers. This would be all the more interesting since the average tv show has orders of magnitude greater exposure than even the most typically celebrated “important” still photographers. The practical effect, then, would be a radical democratization of the critique of photography.