Art

A Nonjudgmental Look at Our Impulse to Share Images

Although social media has amped up the sharing of photos, the urge behind it is nothing new.

snap+share: transmitting photographs from mail art to social networks, 2019, installation view, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (photo © Matthew Millman Photography)

SAN FRANCISCO — In Corinne Vionnet’s series Photo Opportunities (2005–14), blurry images of iconic sites, including the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Majal, look ethereal and classically beautiful. For nine years, Vionnet collected online photos of tourist destinations and combined them. She got the idea on a visit to the Tower of Pisa, where she noticed people standing in the same place, taking the same photo. The ghostly images in Photo Opportunities show the obsessive nature of photography and the desire to show we were there.

Corinne Vionnet, “San Francisco” (2006) from the series Photo Opportunities (2005–14) (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, John Caldwell, Curator of Painting and Sculpture (1989–93), Fund for Contemporary Art purchase, © Corinne Vionnet)

The exhibition snap+share: transmitting photographs from mail art to social networks, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), reveals that although social media has amped up sharing photos, this urge is nothing new. Clément Chéroux, SFMOMA’s chief photography curator, points to On Kawara’s 1970s I Got Up . . . series, postcards sent stamped with, for example, “I got up at 9:15 a.m.” or “I got up at 8:55 a.m.,” which Chéroux compares to Snapchat and Instagram as a way to affirm our existence. Indeed, the exhibition starts off with a photo a French software engineer sent of his daughter right after she was born, disseminating it through his mobile phone and online network, and then swiftly transitions to the tradition of mail art from the 1950s and ’60s.

Philippe Kahn, Sophie Lee Kahn birth picture, first photograph shared instantly through a
digital camera, cellphone, and server with 2,000 people, June 11th, 1997 (image courtesy the
Lee-Kahn Foundation, © Philippe Kahn)
On Kawara, “I Got Up…” (1975) (Robert Harshorn Shimshak & Marion Brenner, © One Million Years Foundation, courtesy One Million Years Foundation and David Zwirner)

We cross the threshold from analog to digital when we encounter Erik Kessels’s 2011 piece “24HRS in Photos.” Kessels found about a million images were shared on Flickr in a day, and he wanted to show that physically. He printed out the photos, and they’re piled in the gallery with a path for the visitor to make their way through hundreds of thousands of images of pets, fireworks, and babies.

Erik Kessels, “24HRS in Photos” (2011) (courtesy the artist, © Erik Kessels)

Kate Hollenbach notes how technology affects us physically. Observing the intimate relationships we have with our smartphones and the emotional connection between people and their devices, Hollenbach programmed an app to capture herself every time she looked at her phone for a month. The result, “phonelovesyoutoo,” a display on three walls of a gallery of over 1,000 videos of her face on screen as she checks her mail, is mesmerizing and a little disturbing. On her website, Hollenbach writes that only her face is in the videos — sometimes puffy with sleep, sometimes with hair wet from a shower, sometimes wearing lipstick: “The context changes but the face mostly stays the same: it is a blank expression, a concentrating expression, the kind of vacant look reserved only for glowing screens.”

snap+share: transmitting photographs from mail art to social networks, 2019, installation view, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (photo © Matthew Millman Photography)

Naturally, snap+share is filled with opportunities for visitors to share their own photographs. The show includes memes such as David Horovitz’s “241543903” (2009–ongoing) in which he invites people to put their heads in a freezer, snap a picture and upload it using the tag #241543903. A red freezer, complete with fake food, is in the gallery, summoning people to participate.

Eva and Franco Mattes, “Ceiling Cat” (2016) (courtesy Postmasters Gallery, New York, and
Team Gallery, Los Angeles, © Eva and Franco Mattes)

Cats are one of the most shared images online, with CNN estimating that in 2015 there were around 6.5 billion cat pictures floating around, and the final piece in the exhibit, Eva and Franco Mattes’s “Ceiling Cat,”(2016) is a three-dimensional sculpture of a cat’s head poking from a hole in the ceiling. This was inspired by a meme that went viral in 2006 with the tagline “Ceiling Cat is watching you.”

Some people see the cat as a metaphor for the internet — always watching. But rather than looking at the kind of images shared, the curators were more interested in the ways the digital has affected how they’re shared — from quantity and ubiquity to elements of surveillance. Visitors to the show mostly appeared delighted, gasping when they saw the cat peering down at them, happily sticking their head inside the freezer, and oohing at the masses of photos in Kessels’s piece. The exhibit doesn’t invite us to judge or to shake our heads at the addiction to phones and social media. Rather we observe the nature of images and the impulse to share. With or without our phones, we yearn for human connection.

snap+share: transmitting photographs from mail art to social networks continues at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (151 Third Street, San Francisco) through August 4.

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