We Share Our Pictures consists of ten triptychs of drawings made on a mechanical digital drawing plotter. The images are all sourced from found slide collections made in the 1970’s; several of these collections were purchased at estate sales, and one collection was made by members of the artist’s family. Each triptych depicts three versions of an archetypal image that can be found across slide collections, such as people standing in front of their new cars, or families posing with National Park “welcome” signs. The juxtaposition of personal and impersonal images flattens them to the collective plane of forgotten photographs, and yet reminds us that all of these images were once personal to someone.
This piece began when Christensen asked the question: what happens to our digital images when we die? In our contemporary image culture, we take digital photographs by the hundreds, which are then hoarded across hard drives, clouds, and online interfaces like Facebook and Flickr. According to the Instagram Engineering blog, the company has over 400 million active users, and stores over 40 billion photographs and videos across multiple data centers hosted by Facebook. What will happen to all of these digital image files––and the hardware that supports them––when we die? In our digital culture, do we take still pictures for the sake of legacy and preservation, or do we simply take images in order to fulfill an impulse to share them? Once our pictures are shared with friends, is their purpose complete?
In order to contextualize these questions, Christensen looked into how people stored their images pre-internet. She stumbled into the phenomenon of people selling their deceased loved ones’ slide collections on estate sales. The people who made these collections meticulously maintained them throughout their lifetimes, but after they passed away, the images were deemed irrelevant, and sold. In a socially-networked culture where we are used to “liking” the images of strangers, this shared pool of decades-old discarded images is re-contextualized. These images were meant to be shared with a direct audience, friends and family gathered around the slide projector. How do these slide images operate on a digital plane? How do the antiquated acts of saving and sharing these slide collections relate to our digital lives?
Christensen scanned and digitized thousands of these slides, powerfully flattening the imagery. Photographic slides (a la Kodachrome, Ektachrome) have such a rich color palette, and the luminescence of the projected image is striking. Scanning them and transferring them to a digital file viewed on-screen removes this richness, and places them all in the same color profile, driven by some software company’s algorithm. And yet there is preservation in this act: “upgrading” them to a digital file ensures their life spans for a bit longer, at least until file types or hard drives fail. We have an innate yearning to upgrade our outdated photos to new formats, a process that rarely comes to fruition. Perhaps we sense the futility.
Christensen then extracted line drawings of the human forms from the scanned digital files, flattening them even further. These line drawings allow us to view the commonalities of the human experience we capture on film: images of couples posing before grand vistas, or our families enjoying the pool. Using a digital plotter to create the drawings places them in a mechanical realm, treating them almost like data, and yet quite ironically, drawing these images with archival ink on archival paper might just be the most secure way to preserve them at all.
There is anxiety in not knowing how to properly store our digital pictures, and we assume that the ephemerality of the family photo is a contemporary digital phenomenon. But working with the slide collections of those who have died, alongside a very personal collection stored in a dusty box, illuminates how ephemeral our pictures have always been, even in the age of the hard copy. We ardently save them in the name of legacy and heritage, but is that the function that contemporary photographs actually serve?
Hard copy, digital file, Facebook page, one thing remains the same: we share our pictures. And considering their ephemerality in the long run, this might just have been the point all along.
We Share Our Pictures was created with the additional support of the MacDowell Fellowship, 2015
30 drawings (10 triptychs) produced on large-format digital ploter, 22 x 30 inches