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Baudelaire’s Nightmare

In 1859, the Paris Salon allowed photographs into its exhibition. This brought a howl of outrage from Baudelaire, who claimed that it would destroy painting, while the great unwashed would flock to the exhibition just to see themselves.

He was partly right, but more interestingly wrong.

Yes, people did like to see photographs of themselves. But the big thing that happened with photography was that the newspapers got hold of it. They could now show their readers what royalty looked like, what adventurers and criminals and, especially, the scandalous looked like. We liked that more. We still liked photographs of ourselves, but these now found their place on the mantlepiece or in photograph albums that were taken out for visitors or at Christmas. Photographs of ourselves were domestic, not public.

Then came the moving picture. The first great success with moving pictures came when cameramen would put their camera outside a factory gate just before the whistle went, or in a park on a Sunday afternoon, or at a football match watching the spectators rather than the game. (See, for instance, the wonderful films of Mitchell and Kenyon that were rediscovered a little while ago.) The moviemakers would then announce to the crowd where that film was going to be shown, usually that same evening, and they were guaranteed a full house.

But by the turn of the century even Mitchell and Kenyon were recreating, somewhere in the North of England, scenes from the Boer War. For that it is but a small step to employing actors, first amateur then professional. Pictures of ordinary people were confined to travelogues and newsreels, which were themselves relegated to the fringes of movie shows before disappearing altogether.

Again, we continued to take home movies, and still do, but these were again domestic not public.

The rise of television, which coincided with Andy Warhol’s claim that we would all be famous for fifteen minutes, was not so democratic as either photography or film. For a start, we did not have access to the means of either production or distribution. Nevertheless, the new medium did initially engage with ordinary people, the view of the person in the street was often sought, ordinary people were constantly turning up on quiz shows, even the earliest forms of what we now call ‘reality TV’, shows like ‘The Family’, were concerned with the ordinariness of their subjects. But reality TV is no longer concerned with the ordinary but the extraordinary, anyone caught in its web is meant to be, and to desire to be, a celebrity; and the quiz shows that do still call on ordinary people have been pushed increasingly to the margins. Meanwhile we are no longer interested in the vox pop (except in radio phone-in programmes), replacing it with the talking head, another form of celebrity. So television which, for a while, seemed to usher people from the domestic into the public, has allowed them to slip back into the domestic once more.

And now we have digital media, where everything we join, whether Facebook or Twitter or Linked-In or what have you, desires us to have an image to represent ourselves. And we all have a camera with us practically all of the time. And we are used to putting up films of ourselves on YouTube or photographs of ourselves on Pinterest. And it feels like we are out in the public sphere all the time.

Yet I wonder. It’s probably too soon to get a clear impression of what is going on. But I rather think that the snaps we put on Pinterest, the videos we put on YouTube, unless they happen to show a cat being funny, are probably being viewed only by that same group of family and friends who would, in another age, have sat down to leaf through our photo album or to watch our shaky home movies. In other words, I wonder whether all of this social media (however much of it might last, however much it might change) is not so much an emergence into the public sphere as a very slight expansion of our domestic sphere.

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