Certifying Experience. Refusing Experience

Newsletter on 17 March 2023

Last weekend, we went hiking in the pretty forests of Mont-Tremblant. Sometimes you reach a designated viewpoint, with a guardrail so you can safely enjoy the view. To take a photo here makes me feel like a cog.

I think of Susan Sontag, writing in the 1970s and more relevant than ever: “A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it—by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs.”

I do it anyway though.

An out-of-focus photograph showing a snowy valley, taken by Tim Murray-Browne

Or I try. I’ve borrowed a fancy camera to test out if this is what I need in life. I struggle to get it to focus.

Now that photos come mostly from phones, out-of-focus photos carry an instant nostalgia effect for me. When technology automates, what was previously technical incompetence becomes a sound of the past. It’s also a mark of authenticity. The human leaks in.

In my head, there’s still a distinction between the real and the computer generated. Photos are real. AI images are generated. But the more advance the camera gets, the more opinions it has about how the world should look. And so the more it “corrects” its images to look like that. In digital life, the real and the generated are converging.

I learnt photography with a film camera as a teenager. I remember getting some photos back from the developer. On the out-of-focus images, they had put a little sticker on describing what I’d done wrong. I thought, who are you to tell me what my photo should look like? But at least they still printed them.

This nostalgic completely-out-of-focus look is probably already a filter on one platform or another. Once marks of authenticity become automated, they stop being marks of authenticity. Then we have to find new ways to let ourselves leak through. The game of cat and mouse continues.

Montreal, 17 March 2023

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