The Impermanence of Photography

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Ryan L Moule, ‘White Noise’, unfixed silver gelatin print, 127 x 152 cm

Ryan L Moule’s exhibition Deviated Light depicts the decay of buildings as a visual and conceptual analogy for the impermanence of photography. For this project Moule traveled to the peripheries of the British Isles, photographing buildings that have been abandoned due to the ongoing erosion of the coast. Inasmuch as the work alludes to the impermanence of material objects – buildings and photographs in this case – it also provides evidence for the forces of nature, the rising oceans and the realities of a rapid change in climate. The work purposefully questions a rigid dichotomy between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ so strongly manifested in Western thought since ancient Greece.

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Ryan L Moule, ‘Monolith’, unfixed silver gelatin print, 127 x 152 cm

Crucially in this work, Moule photographed abandoned buildings with analogue black and white film – a now outdated technology seen against the rise of digital photography in the new millennium. Like the buildings depicted in a number of his photographs, the technology used to represent the buildings is generally perceived as obsolete and redundant. Moule emphasizes the impermanence of both the subject matter and the method of representation by forgoing the chemical fixing of the image in the dark room. The caption under the photographs explains that these are ‘Chemically Unfixed Silver Gelatine Photographic Prints’. As a consequence of this methodology, Moule’s prints transform over a period of time into pitch-black rectangular shapes: they become the antithesis of an image as they imitate neither fiction nor reality. Rather, they imitate the process by which the coast is slowly eroding away. Just as the buildings succumb to the power of the sea, the UV rays of the sun penetrate the surface of the unfixed print and eventually cause the image to be lost.

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Ryan L Moule, ‘House and Universe’, unfixed silver gelatin print, 127 x 152 cm

The power of Moule’s work partially hinges on the assumption that photographs, as material objects that store visual information, last forever. We have adapted this assumption into our everyday language as we speak of a photograph ‘capturing’ a subject. The commonly used term ‘indexicality’ similarly assumes a linear relationship between a subject out there in the real world and that subject forever depicted in a photograph. Moule’s project alludes to the notion that these assumptions reveal themselves as myths. Photographs are always subjective representations that often bear little relation to the ‘real’ object depicted in them.

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Ryan L Moule, ‘Night’, unfixed silver gelatin print, 127 x 152 cm

While Moule utilizes an outdated technology to make this point, his photographs also address a very contemporary phenomenon in today’s advanced digital economies. In digital form, the photograph is also not safe from ‘erosion’. For instance, every time a JPEG image is opened and closed it looses a tiny fraction of information. Once this process is repeated tens of thousands of times, the image simply fades into obscurity. Digital images are also prone to computer viruses and damage caused by malware. There is of course also the very real possibility that digital images are lost on external hard drives. Even if images are stored in a cloud storage system provided by a multinational corporation, can it be assumed that these images are safe in every sense of the word?

Moule’s photographs raise very real questions about the permanence, and also the impermanence of photography. By the same token, his work also raises the more fundamental question, which gained a lot of traction in recent years, ‘what is a photograph?’. Is it an image that can be physically held, displayed and framed? Or is it an image that can be virtually uploaded, tagged and shared online? Or can it be both? These appear to be questions that would be answered very differently depending which generation is asked. The questions are interrogated with more vigor in recent years because the very definition of a photograph is in the process of changing.

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Ryan L Moule, ‘Open Surface’, unfixed silver gelatin print, 127 x 152 cm

The title of Moule’s exhibition Deviated Light can be read as a commentary on the changing definition of photography since his photographs are quite literally in the process of changing. When images such as ‘Open Surface’ come out of the dark room, the black and white prints represent abandoned buildings on the shores of Britain. Yet the longer they are exposed to the sun, the more they turn into blackness. Moule’s work thus also questions the notion of a ‘still’ photograph since the representation of abandoned buildings (just like the buildings themselves) transforms in the image over a period of time. In this case, it is not the subject of the image that is ‘moving’, but the very method with which the image was taken is in a process of transformation.

This body of work also appears to question the relationship between the photograph as a material object and the commodity value of art. The price of an artwork partially hinges on the permanence of the materials used to create the work. It is for this reason that photographers are usually keen to use photographic paper that can withstand the test of time. Similarly, anything that could come close to the photograph such as mounting boards, passepartouts or tape must be free of aggressive chemicals to avoid the print deteriorating in quality. Moule’s work appears to inverse this paradigm since the actual photograph itself is presented in a state of deterioration.

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Ryan L Moule, ‘Two Forms’, unfixed silver gelatin print, 127 x 152 cm

Moule’s work is deeply self-referential: it is photography partially about photography. One might want to call it metaphotography. This can also be observed by the fact that Moule appears to focus on dark interior spaces and therefore mirroring the notion of a camera obscura. It is quite clear that in this work the role of photography in our society is put into question. For instance, does the decay of a building only exist once it can be photographically documented? This question can then be extrapolated to other far more pressing geopolitical issues in an increasingly unstable world today: does the suffering of a people only exist when it can be represented through images?

In spite of its various references to the impermanence of the image, Moule’s work also provokes questions about the role of photography in the construction of a collective memory. Are events that have been photographed better ‘remembered’ in comparison to events that have not been photographed? This might appear like a naïve question yet at the same time it goes to the very heart of the complex relationship between the media and global politics in late capitalist society. In a world where the power of images can shift public opinion, government policies, economic sanctions and so forth, those that control which images are seen (and which ones are not seen) wield tremendous power. In this context, images are not simply a document or a form of representation, but they truly affect the course of history.

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Text co-commissioned by Ffotogallery and Photomonitor as part of Wish You Were Here 2014 – Ffotogallery’s season of exhibitions and events foregrounding early career photography and critical writing.

Ffotogallery is the national development agency for photography and lens-based media in Wales. www.ffotogallery.org For further viewing: www.ryanmoule.com

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One thought on “The Impermanence of Photography

  1. Thanks. Also, the kind of photography that does not reproduce well on the web. However, I question your accuracy regarding the degradation of JPEG files. Every time a file is open and _re-written_ it could lose information. Just closing it, would not change it. Only updates (and of course deletes) can do that.

    If I read a JPEG and re-write it unchanged, there will be some degradation. I believe this is because of various compression algorithms.

    Anyway, such is my understanding.

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