- Transient Images: Personal Media in Public Frameworks
In September 2010, the photo-sharing website Flickr surpassed five billion photographs. Facebook claims that two and a half billion photographs are uploaded to its site every month. These digital photographs are dematerialized and cut free from their physical context, circulating in cyberspace in a seemingly endless array of recombinatory possibilities. Their sheer numbers boggle the mind. As scholars of film and media, what are we to make of this explosion of vernacular imagery in the online realm? While long-valued treatises on the photograph by Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag remain relevant today, they are insufficient to our present moment. They cannot speak to the photograph's new immateriality or to its current forms of circulation. Luckily, we have Eric Freedman's elegant new book, Transient Images: Personal Media in Public Frameworks, to help us grapple with this emerging terrain.
Transient Images is lyrically written, meditative, and palpably intelligent. Rather than mechanically applying a theory or forcing a structural typology, Freedman offers us instead a series of rich excursions that place the digital photograph within a context of various illuminating frames and dynamic flows. Chapters trace the personal photograph as it appears in a diverse array of places and practices: on the missing-child flier and on the milk carton; in digital memorials to national trauma; in reality TV's electronic photo albums; and on various social networking and online dating sites. These lively explorations are not held together by a single through line. Rather, Freedman attends carefully to the precise desires, pleasures, and risks that unfold in each example. The work is enriched by its strategic selection of a broad range of everyday cultural artifacts and practices, as well as by a richly interdisciplinary methodology.
Across the chapters, a new model emerges for understanding the circulation and function of the image in the digital era. The book profits from a nuanced and flexible understanding of "the digital" that, while attentive to the specificity of the computer itself, shifts our focus to images in context, be those contexts technological or social (or, more accurately, both). Freedman is very much aware of (and resistant to) the pitfalls of an [End Page 179] easy technological determinism, but is also inclined to offer careful, formal analyses. Thus, he provides a much-needed challenge to the core assumptions and oversights of the more structuralist approaches of early digital media theory and moves us toward a more contextualized understanding of the difference that a medium makes. At the same time, the work stages significant interventions into a certain formalist turn within Art History and Visual Studies circles. While informed by theoretical and art historical work on the status of the image, the author's analysis relies more fully on the social and political intent, not just on mapping the ontological claims that images make, but also on marking their effects on the subject and in the lived world, however transient. Context is emphasized even while the readings of form are rigorous and convincing.
In fact, a central contribution of the book is its careful twining of a scholarly tradition intent on examining the ontological and ideological status of the photograph with other disciplinary arcs, including most especially a broadly framed understanding of Media Studies. By paying careful attention to images' forms and contexts, Freedman maps the many ways in which the image moves us still, even while he interrogates the limits of both real and imagined mobility. He respects the myriad ways—technological, cultural, ideological—through which images (and their networked contexts) powerfully shape our sense of self, other, family, community, and nation. The book also breaks free of the tired old binary of technophilia versus technophobia, challenging popular assumptions that digital media are, on the one hand, empowering and transparent or, on the other hand, obedient handmaidens of neoliberalism and instrumental rationality.
Significantly, the book offers a fresh take on thinking through the privileged role that networked and digital images play in relation to trauma. While Marianne Hirsch and Marita...