Image Capital | Estelle Blaschke | Wednesday, 17.02.2021

In Abundance

We take photographs, we collect them. We edit, exchange, store and sell them. Sometimes they are discarded or simply forgotten. All these actions change photographs and shape the way we deal with them. They also increase their value or reduce it. While the histories of digital photography and digital image practices are only in the process of being written, when looking at the past three decades, there is a common thread that stands out and that is the relentless accumulation of photographs: from the mass of visual content gathered in the mid-1990s by commercial image banks such as Getty Images and Corbis, which disrupted the image market, to the clusters of images put on photo-sharing sites and platforms like Flickr and Facebook, both launched in 2004; from today’s image-centred social media platforms and instant-messaging services like Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp to image search engines and image boards, including Google Images, Google Maps, Pinterest and many others. On top of that, there is the ever-increasing accumulation of images on our phones, computers and servers – used for private purposes (fig. 1) or in the context of scientific research. Add to this, the countless images taken in public space. And this list could easily go on. The overabundance has been made possible by cheap means of production, increasingly potent storage capacities and the networked status of images in digital systems. Photographs, today’s dominant means of making images, are unfettered (Michelle Henning, 2018) and seemingly off the scale (Tomáš Dvorák and Jussi Parikka, 2021). They also appear to be a limitless resource.
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Of course, the metaphor of the Bilderflut, the exuberant floods of images, is a trope that is not new but has been around for as long as photography itself (and before 1 One may add that this is, of course, not restricted to images or data. Markus Krajewski, for instance, mentions the Bücherflut (book deluge), which appeared shortly after the invention of the printing press. See: Markus Krajewski, Zettelwirtschaft die Geburt der Kartei aus dem Geiste der Bibliothek, Berlin 2002, p. 16.). It was kindled with the invention of photographic reproducibility around 1850: with the calotype and collodion processes and later with the use of gelatin dry plates. Ever since then, it has carried a negative connotation, as if the production of masses of images would automatically lead to banality and randomness. But since this idea is so deeply ingrained in the technology, why not look at it as a quality instead? Or, to put it differently: What is the potential of abundance? And how can it be considered image capital?
Let’s go back to the early days of photography: on 26 June 1843, William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of the first negative-positive technique, known as calotype, signed an agreement with the French entrepreneur and self-styled “capitalist” Eugène Maret, Marquis de Bassano. The document transferred the patent for the commercial exploitation of Talbot’s groundbreaking invention to Maret for the period of fifteen years in exchange for a quarter of the profits generated by the sale of calotype paper and the finished prints as well as the extensive promotion of “the merit of Mr. Talbot’s invention” 2Letter from William Henry Fox Talbot to Hughes Antoine Joseph Eugène Maret, 1843, British Library, Manuscripts – Fox Talbot Collection, document no. 4685, in France; this would, as Talbot’s mother Lady Elisabeth Fielding marvelled, “produce more fame …, besides eventually more money”. 3Letter from Elisabeth Theresa Fielding to Talbot, 29 January 1843, British Library, Manuscripts – Fox Talbot Collection, document no. 4710. For the Marquis de Bassano, the acquisition of a photography patent was just one of his numerous investments, which were primarily focused on the thriving mining industry in Northern Africa. However, Bassano sensed the enormous potential of the calotype process, a technique that Talbot assured him “was simpler, much simpler” 4Letter from Talbot to Amélina Petit de Billier, 28 February 1843. British Library, Manuscripts – Fox Talbot Collection, document no. 4742. than the daguerreotype and capable of producing hundreds of copies of the original picture that could be kept for an indefinite period of time. Shortly thereafter, the company Société Calotype was established in Paris and since “making the copies is a merely mechanical affair”, 5Letter from Louis Truffaut to Talbot, 28 June 1843. British Library, Manuscripts – Fox Talbot Collection, document no. 4844. the production of copies could be carried out by unskilled workers, women and children. Bassano anticipated big business, a production and licensing scheme on an industrial scale with “a veritable swarm of artist-photographers at every corner of France”, 6Nancy Keeler, “Inventors and Entrepreneurs”, History of Photography 26, no. 1 (2002), 26–33, here: 27. creating a growing stock of negatives. The company was poised to embrace capitalist methods: namely, geographical expansion, the division of labour and efficient administrative structures. Together with Louis Daguerre’s previous and parallel marketing of the daguerreotype, the creation of Société Calotype was one of the first attempts to commercially exploit photography as a means of making and copying pictures mechanically. But maybe perhaps more importantly, understood as an industrial product, photography became part of an economic system determined by supply and demand, circulation, accounting and investment.
What is highlighted in many of the early tributes to the new medium is the ease and speed with which a picture could be produced. Besides the material costs, labour was cheap, which laid the ground for the rapid proliferation of photographs, portfolios and editions, as well as cameras and related materials. Photography documented the rapid growth of industrial societies – the setup of transport infrastructures or the piling up of goods in warehouses destined for global trade (figs. 2 and 3).

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It also turned out to be a powerful marketing tool. As the artist and writer Allan Sekula claimed in his seminal 1981 essay “The Traffic in Photographs”, an introduction to his materialist social history of the medium, “photography stood ready to play a central role in the development of a culture centered on the mass marketing of mass-produced commodities”. 7Allan Sekula, “The Traffic in Photographs”, Art Journal (Spring 1981): 15–25, here: 21. See also Marie Muracciole and Benjamin J. Young (eds.), editors’ introduction to “Allan Sekula and the Traffic in Photographs”, special issue, Grey Room 55 (Spring 2015). This referred to all commodities including photographs themselves, especially towards the end of the nineteenth century. Sekula also drew attention to Olivier Wendell Holmes’s 1859 essay on the future of stereoscopy, which has been picked up many times since in explorations of the notion of immateriality. Published in the magazine The Atlantic, Holmes anticipated in his article the immense sales potential of photography in its ability to substitute an object with its image – replacing the “immobile and expensive” 8Oliver Wendell Holmes, “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph,” Atlantic Monthly 3 (June 1859), reprinted in Classic Essays on Photography, ed. Alan Trachtenberg (New Haven, CT: Leete’s Island Books, 1980), 71–82, here: 81. form of an object depicted in the photograph. He foresaw nothing less than photographic advertising, when he stated that “already a workman has been travelling about the country with stereographic views of furniture, showing his employer’s patterns in this way, and taking orders for them. This is a mere hint of what is coming before long.” 9Oliver Wendell Holmes, “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph,” Atlantic Monthly 3 (June 1859), reprinted in Classic Essays on Photography, ed. Alan Trachtenberg (New Haven, CT: Leete’s Island Books, 1980), 71–82, here: 81. What followed over the ensuing years and decades was exactly this – the expansion of advertising propelled by photography and moving images, infiltrating private and public spaces alike. Advertising has been a crucial driving force in the development of the medium ever since (fig. 4).
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Fig. 4: Screenshot Getty Images, billboard advertising