Oh, Snap!

Connie Nielsen and Robin Williams in One Hour Photo.jpeg
“According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “snapshot” was first used in 1808 by an English sportsman by the name of Sir Henry Hawker. He noted in his diary that almost every bird he shot that day was taken by snapshot, meaning a hurried shot, taken without deliberate aim. Snapshot, then, was originally a hunting term.”1

I had always meant to check this quote. It is basically accurate, except for some minor details. It was Peter Hawker, an English army officer (not sure about the “sir” either). The diary entry was dated 1808, but it wasn’t published until 1893, though their are similar usages noted from 1846 as well. Herschel applied “snap-shot” to photography as early as 1860. The comparatively recent deployment of the term makes it dubious to suggest any sort of originary hypotheses or hunting heritage based on Hawker alone. It’s easier if you trace down “snap” (sans shot). I love the OED.

Why does this matter? Because terminology always comes with a sort of baggage, a network of associations that persist even though the term is deployed in new contexts. I was reminded of that vividly by a chapter by Carolyn Miller on topos invoking the venatic (hunting) tradition in rhetoric. Photography, it seems to me, has even more direct ties to hunting and its rich tableau of associations. It is facile to simply associate hunting with predatory behavior as Sontag in On Photography, with critics in subsequent decades nodding along without challenge. The venatic tradition is, as Detienne and Vernant suggest, an alternate paradigm that simply does not fit in with the emergent classical world view2. Consequently, hunting doesn’t sit comfortably in modern consciousness either. There’s a lot more to say about that than I can possibly manage here.

What drove me to explore this again was an interview with Joan Fontcuberta on Eyecurious:

MF: With the proliferation of digital technology, more still photographs are being made than ever before, despite advances in other media like video. Do you think that people would still be as attached to photography if it were no longer perceived as a document of reality?

JF: Yes, certainly. Photography is dissolving into the magma of images. It is losing its historical specificity, but is beginning to fulfil other functions. I just published a book titled Through the Looking Glass about cell phone photos and their circulation through the Internet and online social networks. Teenagers are not interested in photographs as documents but as trophies. When Martians finally invade the Earth, green lizard-shaped aliens will emerge from their spacecrafts. They will fire at us with laser guns but we won’t hide nor protect ourselves. We’ll take our cell phones and we’ll photograph them to prove that we saw them, to prove that we were there when they arrived.

I have difficulty understanding why Fontcuberta thinks that “trophies” are a separate and novel category from documents; photographers have been taking “trophies” since the beginning of the medium. Roger Fenton’s Crimean War photographs, for example. They are documents, yes, but they are also trophies of a strange and far away place. The trophies returned to England from Egypt were not simply archeological plunder, but stereo views of places that prove the intrepidness of their publishers. Dissolving into the magma of images? Oh, snap! The onslaught of images began sometime in the middle ages, if not before. I began to wonder about the vocabulary involved: the venatic vocabulary.

Just what is the linguistic relationship between documents, monuments, and hunting?

Snap seems to enter the English lexicon as a verb around 1530 with reference to biting both by animals or humans; a bit later (1586) it is associated with the sound, the snapping of fingers. But by the early 1600s it moves to on a more criminal tack: a snap, also known as a cloyer, is a pickpocket or thief. But there’s foreshadowing in the phrasal use of snap up in 1550: “Whan we lyue in ydlenes in all luste and pleasure, the deuyll snappyth vs vp.” The nominal use is evidenced prior to this slightly; In 1495 snap designates a bite or bite mark. The predator/prey dynamic is clearly at the core of the term.

In the same time period c.1550, trophy designated both a type of monument erected at a battlefield, and also the spoils of war. Used figuratively, “Anything serving as a token or evidence of victory, valour, power, skill, etc.; a monument, memorial.” Interestingly, one of the earliest synonyms for “spoils” was prey, in usage c. 1385.3 The prey/monument connection is positively ancient. Famously, Foucault remarked that modernity was engaged in the practice of transforming documents into monuments. It seems that the first monuments were prey or the symbolic representation thereof. It seems impossible to neatly sever the relationship between hunting and memory/memorial. The predatory isn’t value added/observed; it’s the historical core of the practice. Far from “losing its historical specificity” photography ultimately returns to traditonal social practices.

Of course, this is contingent on granting a sort of “shape-shifter” definition of imaging: images are transformed by technology (i.e., wood-block to metal plate engraving, halftone dots to pixels on a screen) but have a relatively consistent core amid outwardly changing manifestations/deployments. Nonetheless, I am interested Fontcuberta’s latest work. I was not able to locate any evidence of the “book” he refers to, but I suspect it’s the catalog to this exhibition. The closest bit to the topic he suggests in my prior quotation here:


Mirrors and cameras is a work which describes the panoptic and scopic character of our society : everything is given to an absolute vision and all of us are guided by the pleasure of viewing.
With the proliferation of digital cameras and their incorporation into mobile phones a new extremely popular genre of images has turned up, as evidenced in blogs and forums on the net : numerous self-portraits taken by youngsters and teenagers in front of the mirror (in which to close the perceptive circle the camera itself appears as a recording device ). Mirrors in intimate spaces like baths, student rooms , hotels, club toilets and other leisure premises , fitting rooms of clothes shops, car rear-view mirrors , elevators…

In these photos the ludic and selfexploratory character prevails over memory. Self photography and the dissemination of these images through social networks is part of a seduction game and of the rituals of communication of new urban subcultures.

I suspect that Fontcuberta is aware of the fact that his name for the series is appropriated from the well established imaging practice of reflectography, an infrared technique used to locate drawings and other hidden images behind paintings (such images are also called reflectograms). The self portrait, again, is hardly new. But Fontcuberta’s emphasis of the “ludic and selfexploratory character” is admirable. Does this negate “memory” though? I suspect not. As people age, they are slow to update their self-image. It has long been a commonplace among participants in social media to use old snapshots (either of themselves, or sometimes of strangers) as icons— particularly baby pictures. Memory is simply redirected, playfully, and not negated. The high seriousness of fixed representation is replaced with a sort of polymorphic shape shifting. This, in the end, is what I find fascinating.

In their quest to uncover the logic/paradigm behind the venatic tradition, Detienne and Vernant focus on metis (cunning intelligence), tracking it through Greek literature like hunters themselves, “in areas which the philosopher usually passes over in silence or mentions only with irony or with hostility so that, by contrast, he can display to its fullest advantage the way of reasoning and understanding required in his own profession” (4). The divisions, promoted by philosophers in couplets: being and becoming, or the intelligible and the sensible, leave little or no room for the functioning of agency or the logic of the hunt.

Metis is characterized precisely by the way it operates by continuously oscillating between two opposite poles. It turns into contraries objects that are not yet defined as stable, circumscribed, mutually exclusive concepts but appear as Powers in a situation of confrontation and which, depending on the outcome of the combat in which they are engaged, find themselves now in one position, as victors, and now in the opposite one, as vanquished [emphasis mine]. These deities, who have the power of binding, have to be constantly on their guard in order not to be bound in their turn.

Thus, when the individual who is endowed with metis, be he god or man, is confronted with a multiple, changing reality whose limitless polymorphic powers render it almost impossible to sieze, he can only dominate it— that is to say enclose it within the limits of a single, unchangeable form within his control— if he proves himself to be more multiple, more polyvalent than his adversary. (5)

The struggle to bind a continually shifting world, to seize it, underwrites the struggle to document and monumentalize the world as evidence of our domination changes its shape but not its intent. In some ways we’re still out on the savannah chasing prey.

And like a cat, we often play with our food before consuming it.

1 I would have used the actual clip from the movie, but Fox blocked display of my upload of the 50 seconds I needed to illustrate my lead quote. Frickin’ copyright police.

2I cited Miller when I was working on my last RSA paper on Willis J. Abbot and his role in the invention/discovery of Panama in the popular consciousness. Shortly afterward, I dug through to find one of her primary sources on the venatic tradition and its influence on ancient thought,
Cunning Intellegence in Greek Culture and Society by Marcel Detienne & Jean-Pierre Vernant. Excellent stuff.

3Amazingly booty is late to the party only entering the lexicon c.1474; booty in its modern, sexualized sense is a very recent development c.1926 “bootylicious” enters the lexicon c.1992.