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Photography’s Radical Shift from Analog Memories to Digital Noise

As a baby boomer, I witnessed the shift from a visual culture that was predominantly made up of black-and-white images to one dominated by color. Today’s millennials are witnessing an even more radical change as image production and distribution shifts from analog to digital. Though made in 2014, Sara Cwynar’s mysterious Girl from Contact Sheet 2 (Darkroom Manuals), manages somehow to encompass all of these generational changes, evoking a world that is simultaneously nostalgic, contemporary, and even a bit futuristic.

If you break the picture down you see that it’s a black-and-white image of what would appear to be a young girl, perhaps a class photo or maybe a picture from a photo booth. It’s definitely something composed and institutional, not spontaneous. There appear to be curtains behind her though they could be part of the obscuring noise, it’s not clear. She’s looking at us, but she’s not looking at us—because, again, the noise.

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Sara Cwynar, Girl from Contact Sheet 2 (Darkroom Manuals), 2013. Courtesy of the artist and Foxy Production, New York.

The noise is color so we know it came after the fact, after the photo of the girl was taken. What we don’t know is how it got there or who put it there. The noise looks digital, in sharp contrast to the analog surface it distorts. There’s the suggestion of a scanner malfunction, but here too things don’t really add up. The colors are an acid CMYK, not the RGB that a scanner would produce. The lines of the noise run vertical, but still I can’t help but think of TV scan lines. I’m reminded of my childhood, of trying to move the rabbit ears of our old color Magnavox, to get themjust right so I could at least make out the figures in whatever show I was watching after school. (In fact, the more I look at this photo, the harder it is to shake the suspicion that this is a picture of Buffy from Family Affair.)

As to the question of how the noise got there, I suspect an intentional act on the part of the artist. Whatever those jagged lines are they clearly don’t belong there, and yet they’re beautiful—lending a kind of liquid and painterly elegance to the picture. The effect suggests a creative intervention—a distanced, hands-off digital brush stroke—as if the artist isn’t comfortable with the nostalgia inherent to the original image and feels a compulsion to disrupt the analog seduction and push us forward into the present.

And of course it’s with this tension between the analog and the digital that this image most forcefully speaks to us. It’s a poster for our current condition, for a life lived with one foot in a landscape of film and analog memories and the other stepping forward into a world of digital noise and special effects. Like the rips and tears inflicted on a paper print over time, this picture reminds us that the scars of digital degeneration and mutation also occur as image files travel around the Internet, or are passed from one device to another.

As we add up the clues to this picture, perhaps the most telling detail is its parenthetical title, (Darkroom Manuals). This addendum, tagged to an image that has clearly left the darkroom, reminds us that the old ways of doing things no longer apply, that dodging and burning have been replaced by clicking and dragging—and that things will never be the same.

Oliver Wasow’s essay was originally published as part of the Hillman Photography Initiative‘s This Picture project, which explored the breadth of response a single image can trigger.