restricted access Ordinary and Everywhere
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Ordinary and Everywhere
Martin Hand, Ubiquitous Photography, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2012, 219pp; £14.99 paperback

Martin Hand’s timely overview of the discourses, technologies and practices of digital photography draws on a range of approaches from the sociology of consumption, visual and media culture alongside science and technology studies to offer a useful introduction to the complexities of contemporary photographic debates, particularly in relation to popular practice. Hand argues that ‘the confines of photography studies, with their primary focus on the visual image, are necessarily limited in their scope for understanding the broad dynamics of digitisation’. He suggests instead that such a study ‘requires analyses that pay serious attention to the theory and history of photography but equally are able to move well beyond those boundaries’ (p4). While this assertion seems to indicate an insularity in photography studies that some would say misrepresents the broad and catholic nature of the field, in practice Hand’s primary interest in how photographs are used, rather than their ‘discursive, semiotic and material character’ (p59), means that he doesn’t actually examine images at all. There is certainly a persuasive case to be made that the camera ‘has always been a relational device’, even ‘a node’ embedded in larger social, cultural, technological and ideological networks (p132), and indeed that ‘photographies are best understood as practices’, (p97) yet what gets pictured is clearly an integral part of the process of meaning-making. Subject matter is not arbitrary. Ubiquitous photography - rather than the gargantuan abundance of photographs, in all their complex specificity - is the principal concern here.

Despite this deliberate - but perhaps convenient - omission, there is no doubt that Ubiquitous Photography will function very well as a stimulating teaching tool and as an up-to-date primer for those new to the area. The book largely serves to synthesise, debate and challenge existing knowledge about the proliferation and pervasiveness of popular photographic practice, which it does very effectively and comprehensively. To a lesser extent, it also contributes new knowledge on the subject, in the form of empirical case studies that aim to examine ‘the different and complex relationships between digital images and the material environments within which they are actually enacted and distributed’ (p95). Research conducted for this book included content analysis of the entire back catalogue of Popular Photography magazine (1937-present) to investigate ‘the emergence of digital photography as a recognizable practice’ (p20), a social biography of the digital camera itself, and ethnographic interviews with a range of digital photographic consumers, from archivists to camera club members and undergraduate students. This material, disappointingly, is not always foregrounded in the book - indeed some results are hardly visible - and what is used sometimes serves merely to add colourful quotations, by way of illustration, to points already established through theoretical discussion. When this empirical material is highlighted, however, Hand makes striking observations that can enhance understanding of the effects of multiplication and diversification on contemporary [End Page 159] photographic practices in everyday life.

For example, Hand’s archival research reveals a pertinent parallel between technological shifts from analogue to digital photography in the late twentieth century and wet-plate to dry-plate processes in the late nineteenth century. In an amusing extract from a 1900 edition of Photographic News that suggests a technological determinism all too familiar in the many inflated claims made for digital photography, it is asserted, ‘in photography, as in everything else, the fittest survives, and the fittest negative process is gelatino-bromide on glass, paper and film’ (p100). Anxieties around change are also mapped through more recent histories of popular photographic and computing literature. Here digital technology has shifted from being conceptualised as an indication of a medium in crisis (in relation to the autonomy of the photographer, for example) to a site of creative promise. Hand shows, through this archival material, how digital cameras, as a ‘predatory technology’, needed to be carefully ascribed with aspects of familiarity alongside their technical novelty in order to achieve popularity. He also links longer historical concerns about automation in photography - as a longstanding threat to art, for example - with more recent anxieties about digital automation as deskilling. Through examination of the different ways...