A wine label

Above: A photo of a wine bottle label. Credit: Winecompass.

Pictures of Nothing

It is commonplace to note that the major new photo-genre of the smartphone era is the much reviled selfie photo-self-portrait. But isn't the primary new photo-genre of our age the free-snap, the functional photo-as-aide-memoire and convenient visual record? Pictures of nothing, incidentals, practical functional photos. A photo made to show a plumber; a photo of one’s teeth just after eating (better than checking them in a mirror); a snap of a train timetable; a wine-bottle label (a wine enjoyed and so to be bought again at some point); a traffic sign; a snap of a flat page of a book, or an official document (the successor to Xerox); a garment label ... anything at all where a visual record is needed.

Pictures of nothing, anything--the free-snap--are a new genre of photography that has emerged since 2007. This mode depends upon the photographic capability of the smartphone hand-held computer (for expediency the date of the beginning of the free-snap revolution should begin from the year of the introduction of the first iPhone).

As French critic Nicolas Bourriaud wrote in 2010: "it is very likely that future historians will consider these early years of the twenty-first century as the period when the status of photography changed radically; the years when photography ceased to become a tool for recording reality, and became a constituent element of reality itself--no more and no less a part of our daily lives than tap water or the asphalt of our pavements."

The rise to ubiquity of the purely-functional photo is a consequence of two key factors: the convenience and general presence of the smartphone (a hand-held computer with photo functionality); and secondly, the reduction in price-per-unit-cost of a photo--from a few pence pre-digital, to zero when using digital equipment.

For the theorist of photography the principal significance of the free-snap as a mode of photography is that the images produced are non-critique-able, or beyond critique, under any known aesthetic framework. (Such purely functional photos share this "beyond aesthetics" with the photo-genre of photo-therapy.) The force of the free-snap is in the way that it renders redundant the language and terms-of-reference of the art historian: considerations of composition, artist's intention, technique, etc., are just not relevant to critiquing a grabbed snap of a wine bottle label. Such a photo is a too lowly to enter the domain of any such critique.

The functional aide-memoire free-snap cannot be considered in terms of art but it can be discussed as a document. And within the context of photo-documents the free-snap has three specific-and-defining qualities. First, it is generally ephemeral not usually intended to be kept or saved for any length of time--it may exist often for only a few hours, or minutes, before getting deleted during a manual device-cleansing activity carried out by the user. (By contrast many photo-documents are intended to last a long time, such as photo-visual archives.) Second, the free-snap is generally made with the minimum technical effort and thought--the user's thought, such as it is, is not much more than, "I'll just take a photo of that as it might be useful to have it later." Third, it is astonishingly profuse and popular--with several billion new examples created each day.

(22 April 2018)