The first law of thermodynamics that states that matter cannot be created nor destroyed. As Hollis Frampton’s film nostalgia reminds us, images themselves are composed of matter. Frampton shows us in this piece repeated shots of photographs he has taken as they slowly burn on a stove grill. As they burn he tells the story of the next photo, forcing the viewer (once the viewer understands what is happening) to create a mental image of the next photo before seeing it. The viewer is left with dissonance when Frampton reveals the actual photograph is much different than what he describes.
Benjamin’s concept of the aura of an object and how that becomes lost in the photograph as an outcome of mechanical reproduction comes into question here. Benjamin’s definition of the aura is a loose one but is best defined when he writes, “The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history it has experienced” (Benjamin 221). In this way, the aura deals with sensory experience and personal perception of the object itself as well as the historical context of the object.
Benjamin then also believes that the aura is lost in the reproduction of the object as an image. He writes, “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (Benjamin 220).
In the last photograph shown in nostalgia, Frampton describes a moment in the photo where a truck drives into the shot of a photograph he has taken and creates an interesting glare in a window of the truck. He then explains that he blew up this moment extremely large to the point where all that is visible is the photographic grain of the photo. He then describes an overwhelming fear that accompanied this process and then continues to not show us the photograph that he is describing. In a way, this last photo resembles what happens as each photo burns on the stove. As each slowly burns, there is a moment where the photograph remains a photograph until it reaches a threshold where it then just becomes ash. The materiality of the photograph overtakes the contents of the photograph. This moment of seeing the grain of the last photo is where Frampton realizes the materiality of the photograph and that that is ultimately what the photograph is since the described aura doesn’t translate through the photographic reproduction.
Hito Stereyl’s continues the conversation of the loss of the aura through reproduction in her essay In Defense of The Poor Image where digital technology allows for mass reproduction to occur. The Internet creates a circulation of images that contain little to none of the aural information of the subject of the picture. This dissociation of the aura of these images and the speed at which they are circulated creates new methods of interpreting these images. Stereyl writes, “The poor image is no longer about the real thing—the originary original. Instead, it is about its own real conditions of existence: about swarm circulation, digital dispersion, fractured and flexible temporalities. It is about defiance and appropriation just as it is about conformism and exploitation” (Stereyl). There are both positive and negative consequences from the aura being displaced. The positive being that the reproduction facilitates an easy means of rapid dispersion of information. For example, local music scenes have started using cassette tapes again to share their music. Though the music quality is worse, more people can listen to the music because it’s easier to produce more copies of cassette tapes. The negative, however, is the swarm mentality that Stereyl describes where the image becomes a rally point for shared social and political views. An example of this is the Pepe the Frog meme where an innocent cartoon frog character in a 2005 comic called “Boy’s Life” made by artist and illustrator Matt Furie became a declared hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League because of its circulation on the Internet and its overuse in relation to neo-Nazi mentalities and racist remarks.
There are those that feel, because of the mass circulation of images from technology, that there is an overload of imagery now. In a way, this is true but in a way it is also false. In the section of Susan Sontag’s On Photography, entitled “The Heroism of Vision”, she talks about the effects photography has on how we view the world and ourselves. She writes, “Instead of just recording reality, photographs have become the norm for the way things appear to us, thereby changing the very idea of reality, and of realism” (Sontag 87). It’s through the invention of the camera and its mass circulation that the world has become a photograph waiting to be taken. There is now a potential for anything one sees visually to be rendered mentally and literally as a photograph. There aren’t more images being visually consumed by the viewer’s eye, but there are different images being consumed. Instead of having a mental library of multiple images of real world experiences, they are replaced by the images of the screen. It merely seems like more images are flooding our brains when in actuality it is more variety of images that are flooding our brains. The world is still a photograph waiting to be taken. It is just our world that is being replaced by reproductions.