Ephemera

June 14, 2017


Ephemera – pl. n., things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time.

Whereas many companies advertise their products as durable or long lasting, the purveyors of Snatchat happily tout theirs as an “ephemeral” photo messaging service.  By ephemeral, they mean photos and videos sent from their social media app disappear forever within ten seconds of being opened – a critical selling point for young users seeking to shield their messages from the prying eyes of grownups.  The idea has caught on.  On its first day of trading, Snap Inc.’s stock opened at $24 per share, putting its market capitalization at $33 billion, roughly the same size as Marriot or Target.  This despite the fact that the firm lost more than half a billion dollars the year before, exceeding its revenues by a substantial margin.  Although the company duly warned investors that it “may never achieve or maintain profitability,” the market clearly saw huge upside potential in a product that comes and goes in the time it takes to tie your shoes.  

Ephemeral photos are a disheartening development for photographers like me who can spend hours working on a single image with the hope that it will one day hang in a gallery or a museum.  To those who embrace the latest technology, such notions no doubt seem quaint.  But, of course, there is nothing new about “instant” photography as such, although up until now the emphasis has been on the speed of photo processing rather than the speedy disposal of the finished product.

We do well to remember that the old technology wasn’t always old, and when it was new the critical selling point wasn’t its perishability but something more nearly the opposite. On the eve of the Civil War, when photography was still a novelty, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a series of prescient essays in The Atlantic about its impact on civilization. Until then, portraiture was a costly adornment of the privileged few.  Now, Holmes marveled, this “mirror with a memory” enabled even the common man to achieve a kind of immortality.  “It is hardly too much to say, that those whom we love no longer leave us in dying, as they did of old,” he wrote.  “They remain with us just as they appeared in life; they look down upon us from our walls; they lie upon our tables; they rest upon our bosoms; nay, if we will, we may wear their portraits, like signet-rings, upon our fingers….How these shadows last, and how their originals fade away!”

Death was an omnipresent fact of life in the Victorian era, when women often died in childbirth and many children did not live to adulthood.  Three of Abraham Lincoln’s four sons died an early death, a tragic -- but by no means unheard of -- circumstance when Holmes wrote that “those we love no longer leave us in dying.” Until the late 19th century, post-mortem photographs were a popular way to memorialize the recently deceased, particularly infants and small children.  Many commercial photographers specialized in them.  Photographers went to great lengths to capture life-like poses of the dead: infants ostensibly asleep in their cribs, children cradled in their mothers’ arms, adults propped up in bed or even sitting in chairs. 

Yet even when photography was still in its infancy, Holmes complained that too many people took it for granted, preferring novelty to immortality.  This may be the single through-line from that time until this, with glass-plate negatives giving way to film cameras, thence to digital cameras and smart phones.  The movement was always in the direction of instant gratification: faster shutter speeds, faster film, quicker photo processing, instantaneous uploads and downloads – all culminating in those self-immolating Snapchat messages, known in the trade as “snaps.”  Snapchat is photography without a frame.  It is not meant for a gallery wall or a photo album or even a photo file on your smart phone.  One entrepreneur explained Snapchat’s appeal this way: “…instead of trying to freeze the moment and capturing the experience shouldn’t you focus on the moment itself?”  

Moments, by definition, have no duration, so Snapchat has a way to go before disappearing entirely into the now.  Still, it is not hard to see why Snapchat’s target market is 18-to-34-year-olds who have grown up on an exclusive diet of TV sound bites and social media.  According to a Microsoft study, the average human attention span shrank by roughly a third between 2000 to 2015, from about 12 seconds to 8 seconds (less than a goldfish’s nine-second attention span).  Admittedly, there is a certain chicken-and-egg problem here: it is not entirely clear whether electronic media are to blame or are merely responding to the fact that people can’t pay attention anymore.  We certainly have our suspicions. Technology writer Nicholas Carr has warned that “media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought.” So what is taking shape out of all this? Hard to say when it comes and goes in under 10 seconds.