Photographic Memory

We have thousands of photos on our cellphones, hard drives, Facebook and Flickr - but the old fashioned family photo is making a comeback. Professional photographers tell why

The Chetewy Ungar family from Adanim, a cooperative village near Kfar Sava, is about to have its picture taken at the Farag Photo Studio in nearby Neve Yarak. It's their second time, and the whole family is here: Ossi, the mother, who manages a business; Avi, the father, a company vice president for finance; and their four children: Gili, 12, Tali, 10, Ben, 4 and Ray, 18 months. They are all wearing similar sporting attire.

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"When we were little, we were taken to Farag, forbidden to move and forced to smile - everyone was well trained," Ossi recalls. "But now it's fun." The children agree, and except for Ray, who doesn't understand what all the fuss is about, they run, jump, exchange props and switch places. As the minutes tick away, it becomes clear that this is not a hyperactive family, but that the camera's presence is creating a special kind of experience.

The digital revolution has made it possible for everyone to create thousands of photographs. But in recent years, a new trend has emerged: to have a professional take one good photograph that can be held in the hand or hung on the wall. Until two years ago, says Sivan Farag, whose father, Sami, founded the legendary studio on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, few families wanted a group photo. These days, though, he does at least one family a week.

"In the past few years," he says, "people have realized that they do not have family photos - everyone is busy all day, no one has time. One day they suddenly discover that they need a family photo. Our idea is to create an experience. The family does not come to have its picture taken, but for a different type of leisure activity, and in contrast to going to a movie or visiting a shopping mall, the result will stay with them. From my point of view, I know I am creating history, because the photograph will accompany them in a project on the family's roots, to the kindergarten, to family gatherings, everywhere."

The revitalized trend, he notes, has its roots in Europe, where "it's usual to give the grandparents a studio portrait of all the grandchildren as a holiday gift." The cost in Israel ranges from NIS 150 for the most basic photo to NIS 1,500 for a series of photos in a digital frame or a luxury leather album.

Still, Farag is well aware that there is one major reason for the studio's renewed attractiveness - namely, that people no longer print photographs. Their sentimental value makes no difference, nor does the fact that they have no backup on the computer, nor does it matter that the last family photo on the wall at home was taken a number of years ago. The incontrovertible fact is that photos are no longer being printed.

Three years ago, there were 900 photography shops in Israel; today there are 250, and according to Farag their number will shrink to just 150 over the next year (even though the cost of developing photos in Israel is significantly lower than in Europe ). When do people realize they are not printing photos? When catastrophe strikes - and strike it does. Entire hard drives are wiped out, cellular phones are lost together with the sentimental photos they contain, Facebook or Flickr accounts get blocked, cameras give up the ghost before the images are imported to the computer. Whole histories are wiped out, yet no one does anything about it.

"Every week, people come to me with tears in their eyes, tell me that everything was deleted and ask me what to do," Farag relates. "People put all their photos into the computer and one day discover they have nothing."

Effortless and devalued

After my visit to the studio I went back to the photo albums in my computer. I quickly understood, much as I had been warned by Farag, that custom had devalued my photography. Until half a year ago, my modest digital camera had served me faithfully in every corner of the world, producing dozens of photos that have been resting ever since in my Flickr account ( ). But in the last six months - during which I visited Basel, Milan, Turin, Barcelona, Tokyo, London and New York - the camera remained in its case.

In the past, I returned from every trip abroad with hundreds of photographs, but lately it seemed I no longer had a need to take pictures. Even when I spent two weeks in Tokyo - certainly a riveting experience - the camera never clicked. I guess I felt that everything has already been photographed: the outlandishly dressed Japanese girls in Harajuku, the glaring neon signs on the Shinjuku skyscrapers and the tidal waves of humanity at the famous crosswalk in Shibuya.

A small experiment: I search for photographs of Tokyo on Flickr and very quickly find some that I could have taken myself. Do I feel differently toward them? Not necessarily. I wonder if I could find photos that I did not take, but in which my image appears. The future of face identification technology will no doubt make this possible. Why, then, do people continue to take photos and more photos? Why this uncontrolled flow of information? And why, in contrast to the past, does the process stop before the printing stage?

"Nowadays we are content with the knowledge that the photographs are in the computer. It's enough for us to know that we can access the information, even if we never do so," replies Eyal Fried, who has a master's degree in cognitive psychology and interaction design. With industrial designer Eyal Eliav, Fried taught a course in "digital memory and physical memory" at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design.

"It makes no difference how many pictures I take, what matters is the experience of a specific moment that passes through the camera. I document a moment so that I can go back to it, even though, statistically, we hardly ever go back. There are data showing that we do this less than once throughout our entire lives."

Is that also why we no longer print photos?

Fried: "In still photography, from the moment you click until you have a photograph in your hand, effort and time are needed. The energy we used to put into that process made us attach far greater importance to the result. Nowadays the process is both immediate and cheap: we see the result in a second. And for a thing to have value, we apparently have to make an effort to get it. That's true in all facets of life."

Need to edit

"I myself do not yet grasp the implications of the digital revolution," says Miki Kratsman, head of the photography department at Bezalel and co-creator, with Gideon Levy, of the "Twilight Zone" feature in Haaretz Magazine. "We do not yet understand the insane mobility of images and are trying to analyze developing technologies, even though that is a dangerous place to be."

To illustrate what he means by "insane mobility of images," Kratsman tells the following story: "In 1991, I covered the Gulf War for the foreign press: I took pictures, developed them, ran to the [military] censor, drove to the airport and went through security, all the time praying that I would make it before the plane took off. You know, 1991 wasn't such a long time ago, but look how remote it seems. Today I will send you pictures by e-mail and you will write back with your opinion of them. These are wonderful developments, which have made the printing of pictures somewhat superfluous."

Then let's talk about printing. Do you have printed photos of your family? "In my kitchen, there are photographs of my mother when she was two, being held in the arms of her grandfather. There is a photo of my father's first ID card, which you get in Argentina when you are 10. And there is a photograph of my grandfather when he was two, before his family left Odessa for Argentina. For me those are sacred objects."

But sacred objects of a kind that will not be on your children's refrigerators.

"They will have something else. Not long ago we gave my wife's father a present of an electronic frame and he complained that it contained too many pictures. He's right. You upload a million photos to Flickr and suddenly you say, 'Just a minute, I want people to see only one or two pictures.' That will come. Something similar happened in press photography. It used to be that a press photographer sent the films to the paper and the photography editor chose what to print from the raw material. These days a photographer sends a lot fewer photos than in the past, because you can't send gigabytes of material by e-mail; he does the editing first. Digital photography has restored power to the photographer. That reinforces the theory that the vast quantities will gradually diminish. We need to edit, which we did not have to do previously."

International, interactive, Internet

Recently the art workshops for young people at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art launched a campaign under the slogan "Photography - everyone can." What is the value of photography in an era in which everyone has a camera? Kratsman, as we might expect, maintains that even if everyone can, the quality of the final product depends on additional factors. "Not long ago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art held a symposium on the theme 'Is photography dead?'" Kratsman relates. "I remembered how in 1996 the cover of Photo magazine asked the same question, and then, as now, it was hogwash. All that's happened is that the digital developments have done something amazing for photography, by putting it in a place where a different, broader, type of inquiry is called for.

"When I started taking pictures, cameras with motors came on the market. I was a sports photographer. The veteran photographers said, 'Now everyone can take photos.' People said the same thing when autofocus cameras went on sale. But no, there are still photographers who are good and others who are not as good." Kratsman puts this concept into practice in Bezalel. "For many years, technology has not been the end, but the means, there," he says. "You need to be in control of the technology in order to create the art."

What about those who say "everyone can do it"?

"At the technological level, they really can say that," he replies, "and it may be true for some of the results. But I don't think it is essentially true. There is the famous story about [the late artist] Raffi Lavie, who said that his grandson could scribble on plywood better than he could. But the scribbling of Lavie himself has a history of meaning which the grandson lacks, and even if the youngster gets instructions and we get similar scribbling from him, it will lack that dimension."

In the latest graduation exhibition in Kratsman's department, student Gilad Baram showed a project called "Photoscape," which raised similar questions concerning the essence of photography and the photographer's role in the current era. This is an international interactive project based on video communications via the Internet. Baram created an extensive network of people scattered all over the world, who responded to a request he posted via e-mail to "host" his camera in their private spaces, from which the photography was done. Effectively, they acted as agents in a mechanism he called "photography by remote control." While each such agent held his laptop, Baram instructed them which way to aim it, and when he arrived at the image he wanted, he photographed his computer screen. "At the instrumental level, no special skills are needed here," Kratsman says. "But the project's concept is meaningful. Just as when Duchamp's 'Fountain' was examined, no one set about building urinals to check his professional capabilities. That's not what it's about."

Effect and defect

Kratsman is currently taking part in a group exhibition at the Schreiber Art Gallery of Tel Aviv University. (Other participating artists include Sasha Abramovich, Tali Amitai-Tabib, Yaniv Waissa, Natalie Zwillinger and Malka Spiegel-Newman, the former bassist of Minimal Compact, a rock band. ) The most basic element of the exhibition - entitled "The Defect as Effect: Toy Cameras in the Digital Age" - is the toy camera. With great effort, the photographers tried to reconnect with the lens and the shutter, the negative and the darkroom, which are no longer part of the photographic experience.

"Digital cameras, which have revolutionized the media world, have made these elements superfluous, transformed them into fossils," says the exhibition's curator, Anat Gorel-Rorberger, herself a photographer. "The enchanting, magical photograph, printed on light-sensitive paper and constituting material testimony to the charged moment of encounter between eye and camera and the world, has undergone a complete change of character and become a hollow, transparent memento - weightless, ethereal, odorless - on the PC screen. Precisely because of the speed that now dominates the creation of photographs, many photographers feel a sense of longing for the touch of the hand, which is absent from the digital frame. As an antithesis to the speed, the polish and the infinite possibilities offered by this technology, they chose here to go back and take pictures with cheap 'toy cameras' that are loaded with film and do not permit fluent technical performances." In most cases the result is a fragile image of reality, sometimes also decidedly romantic. And when the photograph is soft, blurred, surrounded by a black, dreamlike aura and possesses a hallucinatory, seductive and kitschy palette, it is easy to understand why so many photographers find it appealing.

"I am a product of the analog age. I loved the magic of working in the lab, of physically touching the negative, of being responsible for the surprise that emerges," Gorel-Rorberger says. "But at the same time, engaging with toy cameras is not only a venture into nostalgia. It fuses the past with contemporary fashionable practice, connects the creativity of the past with a rich colorfulness. The camera does its work and you do not know what to expect, though with time you do know: you learn how to control the transformation of the defect into an effect."

For example, Kratsman's photographs in the exhibition document the separation wall and the former Israeli settlement bloc in the Gaza Strip. "There is a black aura around the frame which stems from the camera's defectiveness - the lens does not cover the full size of the negative," Gorel-Rorberger explains. "Kratsman is documenting a reality that outrages him, but the camera very much softens it. This nothing camera actually renders the photographer and his statement present in the photograph. Suddenly the wall is very beautiful; it is beautified and deceptive for the photographer."

How do you account for the romanticizing of the old ponderous ways in which photographers worked?

"It's because they make it possible to engage in the act of photography in the most pungent way. Nowadays everything is planned, and if it didn't come out the way you wanted, you do another frame. So yes, there is nostalgia for the past, an attempt to scratch, to play."

Eleven years ago I was given a Lomo camera, that scratching and distorting retro Soviet product. I immediately fell in love with the inbuilt defect. Two years later, I bought another camera, which produced a different effect, and for a time I took pictures only with the two of them. These days the two cameras are gathering dust in a drawer, along with a fine still camera that belonged to my father. Recently, I promised myself that in a planned holiday in New York I would go back to taking pictures. After all, how else will I be able to prove that I visited all those places? Even my passport doesn't get stamped anymore, since automatic machines were installed at the airport.

Miki Kratsman has his own solution. He takes his iPhone when he goes abroad. He describes the rectangular instrument as the greatest development in photography, or at least in tourist photography. "The iPhone tells you where you took the picture and locates the photograph on the map of the world. You no longer have to photograph the Eiffel Tower in order to prove you were in Paris. It's amazing. I am talking about technology, and without my wanting it, the talk has shifted to concept."

What's the difference between your tourist photography and the images that accompany the text of "Twilight Zone" in Haaretz Magazine?

"What's the difference between the article you are now writing and the note you leave on the refrigerator? That's exactly the difference: the personal dimension. The column's photographs possess an activist element, the result of political, photographic and conceptual thought. There's a similarity, monotony and continuity to the photographs, showing that nothing changes. It's not a circus, but the same continuing reality. When I take pictures as a tourist, the touristic theme usually demands less involvement and thought from me."

On the same subject, Eyal Fried notes, "In rational, linear terms you might claim that if a famous place has been photographed millions of times by millions of people from every possible angle, you will, as a result, be able to find any photo you want on the Internet. But I say in response that our need to take pictures is not that we are out to have the place leave an imprint on us. By investing in photography, we are leaving our imprint on the place. A distinction has to be drawn between personal and collective memory, and the value of your albums is personal."

Eliav adds in this connection, "Most of us are still interested in personal memory: what you wore in Tokyo, what you got for a present. Memory is a very large part of what sets us apart in our own eyes - which memories are important to us, which we preserve, which we discard, what we set aside in the meantime. My children are used to being documented all the time. Their need to extract memory from the past is less dominant than that of our generation. Their need is different."

Fried: "We all know the term 'Kodak moment,' which describes the one special instant. Everything is at the ready. There is something special about that moment. It's a double memory: the documentation and the state of readiness. That no longer exists."

So we are all living in one big Kodak moment?

Fried: "The whole reality of what memory is and what meaning it possesses in our lives is completely changing - and we are only at the start of the process. Not long ago someone told me that his son picked up a photograph and was looking in the most natural way for where to press it in order to see the next picture. In the most natural way."

Hagit Saad contributed to this article

Metadata and privacy issues

The secret behind everything that can be done today with digital photos is metadata − information contained in the file, beyond the medium itself. In the same way as MP3 files also contain the artist’s name, the song title and the album, picture files can also contain data. If you’ve ever wondered how Flickr knows which camera you used and where your pictures were taken, metadata is the answer.

The most common format for metadata in photographs is Exif ‏(exchangeable image file format‏). Exif is capable of encoding in every photograph what camera took the picture and when it was taken − and, if the camera has GPS, where it was taken. If not, that information can be added afterward. The format also comes in a reduced version for presentation of the photograph and the copyright details.

Every operating system today contains accessible programs that make it possible to edit or remove metadata. If you don’t want others to know where your pictures were taken, you can install a program called MetaEditor and change or delete that information. You can also add more information, such as descriptions.

Already, programs that incorporate face identification, such as Google’s Picasa, can add information about the subjects of the photographs to the metadata. In the future, face identification may be possible by means of cellular telephones. When the camera is connected to the Web, it will be able in real time to check face identification with a server and add a label to the photo.

Cellular applications can already access a range of data from Facebook; in the near future such data are likely to include photographs. If today you receive an alert about labeling your photograph after it is uploaded to Facebook, the day may come when the alert will coincide with taking the picture.

Like many social networking innovations, this poses a clear and concrete danger to privacy. Users may be forced to decide whether they want the world to see photos of them drunk while they are still intoxicated. But they will probably be able to decide on privacy settings for their photos in advance.

− Didi Hanoch