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snap+share: A short history of image transmission

snap+share: A short history of image transmission

Until August 4, the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco is presenting an exhibition that revisits the way photography has been shared since its invention to the present day. It highlights a little-known facet of one of the most popular mediums of the twenty-first century.

How many photographs circulate every day on the Internet? At the office, on holidays, at a restaurant, among friends or on our own, every single day we share photos of our daily lives with our closest friends and family, and our community at large. But how long has this practice been around? Is it the result of our addiction to social networks, or has it always existed?

David Horvitz, 241543903, 2009–ongoing; courtesy the artist and ChertLüdde, Berlin; © David Horvitz

This is the question raised by the exhibition snap+share: Transmitting Photographs from Mail Art to Social Networks at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco (SFMOMA), on view until August 4.

A brainchild of Clément Chéroux, Senior Curator of Photography at the SFMOMA, the exhibition traces the history of the circulation of both amateur and art photography. It highlights a little-known facet of one of the most popular mediums of the twenty-first century.

On Kawara, I Got Up…, 1975; Robert Harshorn Shimshak & Marion Brenner; © One Million Years Foundation, courtesy One Million Years Foundation and David Zwirner

Photography as self-assertion

As soon as it became reproducible, photography was shared and exchanged: first as a cabinet card, then as a carte de visite, and, shortly thereafter, thanks to the modernization of the postal system in the nineteenth century, as a postcard. A testimony to the present as well as to the passage of time, the photographic image is by nature something to be shared. We feel the urge to revisit our experiences, relive our memories… Long hailed as a reliable record of reality, photography has radically changed our relationship to images: a reflection of the real world, it is above all a snippet of the past to be preserved and circulated. It is a proof of what we’ve done and where we’ve been.

The exhibition showcases the amazing collection of Peter J. Cohen who assembled a large number of amateur photos on which people scribbled “me” next to their faces. In the same vein, the exhibition features the Japanese artist On Kawara’s postcards sent daily to his friends, noting the time he got up that day. “By sending cards in the 1970s with the message ‘I got up at 8:15’ or ‘I got up at 8:22,’ the artist asserts, ‘I am here, I exist, I am a real person.’ And that’s essentially what we’re doing today with Snapchat and Instagram,” notes Clément Chéroux. Whatever the period and the method of dissemination, the photographs in the exhibition highlight a self-evident truth: we use photographs to affirm our existence and define our place in the world.

 Unknown, Untitled, ca. 1920–60; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, gift of Peter J. Cohen

Photography as self-expression

While the exhibition reminds us that what we photograph hasn’t changed — as seen, for example, in Corinne Vionnet’s layering of sightseeing snapshots — and that the practice of amateur photography has remained the same, it also highlights the decisive passage from analog to digital photography in the circulation of images.

On June 11, 1997, the software engineer Philippe Kahn sent a color photograph of his newborn daughter Sophie to his friends and family by using his mobile phone, a digital camera, and a laptop connected to the web. This was a historic moment: the snapshot is considered the first image shared via cellular phone with a large network of people (over 2000).

Philippe Kahn, Sophie Lee Kahn birth picture, first photograph shared instantly through a digital camera, cellphone, and server with 2,000 people, June 11th, 1997, 1997; courtesy The Lee-Kahn Foundation; © Philippe Kahn

The advent of the Internet marks a before and an after in the way we use and disseminate photographs. Images are no longer printed out; they have been dematerialized. The image isn’t mailed from point A to point B; instead, it is sent instantaneously to multiple recipients located anywhere around the world. The image isn’t accessible to just one person; it is available to any number of people at the same time. But above all, the image is no longer just a testimony or a proof, it is a new language: it has become conversational.

Although the exhibition presents this transformation as an evolution, rather than a revolution, this process has been a source of inspiration and stimulation for artists. One exhibition room is devoted to an installation by Erik Kessel who printed out every single photo uploaded to Flickr over a period of 24 hours. The images pile up to fill nearly all available space. The installation brings home the mass nature of the phenomenon and our insatiable appetite for visual novelty. This is epitomized by the famous Ceiling Cat meme, shared and modified countless times, turned into an Internet icon, and reprised here in the form of a sculpture attached to the ceiling.

Welcome to the era of post-photography!


Erik Kessels, 24HRS in Photos, 2011; courtesy the artist; © Erik Kessels  

Eva and Franco Mattes, Ceiling Cat, 2016; courtesy Postmasters Gallery, New York, and Team Gallery, Los Angeles; © Eva and Franco Mattes 
Corinne Vionnet, San Francisco, 2006, from the series Photo Opportunities, 2005–14; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, John Caldwell, Curator of Painting and Sculpture (1989–93), Fund for Contemporary Art purchase; © Corinne Vionnet 
Thomas Bachler, Untitled, from the series Reiseerinnerungen (Souvenirs), 1985; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund purchase; © Thomas Bachler 
Moyra Davey, Subway Writers I, 2011; collection of Nion McEvoy; © Moyra Davey; photo: Marcus Leith, courtesy greengrassi, London

By Coline Olsina

snap+share : transmitting photographs from mail art to social networks

From March 30 to August 4, 2019

SFMOMA, 151 3rd St, San Francisco, CA 94103, USA

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