jpegs




























I have piles of photographs on my desktop. Each measures two by three centimetres, and is labelled jpeg

berlin ruin 2.jpg  coney island3.jpg  deiniolen slate yard.jpg  paris horse butcher.jpg 




Photography was born at almost the same time as the railway. The two evolve hand in hand – the world of tourism is the world of the camera – because they share a conception of the world. The railway transforms the world into a commodity. It makes places into objects of consumption and, in doing so, deprives them of their quality as places. Oceans, mountains, and cities float in the world just like the objects of the universal exhibitions. ‘Photographed images,’ says Susan Sontag, ‘do not seem to be statements about the world’ – unlike what is written, or hand-made visual statements – 'so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.’ Photography does for architecture what the railway did for cities, transforming it into merchandise and conveying it through the magazines for it to be consumed by the masses. This adds a new context to the production of architecture, to which corresponds an independent cycle of usage, one superimposed upon that of the built space.


But in addition to all this, the railway turns places into nonplaces because it poses itself as a new limit, whereas previously the built object had done so; but since the railway is a fluid limit, it actually nullifies the old differences between inside and outside. It is often said of railway stations that they are a substitute for the old gates of the city, but what they do in fact is to displace the notion of frontier; not only do they fail to demarcate the edge of the urban fabric, but they ignore the city as such, as fabric. The railway, which knows only of departure and arrival points, turns cities into points [...] recognises only points and directions [...]


Photography participates in this spatial conception [...] Photography shares with the railway an ‘ignorance’ of place, and this has on the objects shot by the camera an affect similar to that of the railway on the points it reaches: it deprives them of their quality as things1.


Each jpeg is a selected point like places on an itinerary. We will visit this, see this, and think this. Place is therefore only allowed to say the words given to it, its image and meaning predetermined almost before the shutter’s click. 
Space is condensed, or done away with. We can traverse continents in a matter of hours, our jet lag the only sign that we were elsewhere this morning. It is air travel above all that reduces our sense of the intervening space between departure and arrival. (This process of abstraction is echoed in the world-picture built for us by the modern communications media, particularly televised news casting, which blots out or stereotypes as much as it reveals in whisking us nightly to those ‘hot spots’ that editorial decisions and camera crews define as significant2Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Heinrich Heine remarked:


Space is killed by railways and we are left with time alone. Now you can travel to Orleans in four and a half hours and it takes no longer to get to Rouen. Just imagine what will happen when the lines to Belgium and Germany are completed and connected up with their railways! I feel as if the mountains and forest of all countries were advancing on Paris. Even now I can smell the German linden trees3


I play cards with the photographs, pairing a staircase in Berlin with a door in Paris; and a patch of slate with a hog’s head (because I like the grey and pink). Countries advance on the desktop. Synthesised, maybe. Simplified, yes. They have been deprived of their full meaning by the process of pointing. 






1 Colomina, B (1994) ‘City’ in Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture and Mass Media Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 
(quoting Sontag, S (1977) ‘In Plato’s Cave’ in On Photography New York:Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
2Gray, R (1986) ’Travel’ in Kowalewski, M (ed) Temperamental Journeys: Essays on the Modern Literature of Travel 
3 Heinrich Heine (1854) Lutetia