Julian Dibbell on Mon, 23 Nov 1998 21:04:27 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> On Tiny Photography

The Big Allure of Tiny Photography

By Julian Dibbell

(First published, in slightly different form, in The Village
Voice, November 17, 1998)


I was thinking of you when I ducked under the curtain of
that strange new photo booth in Penn Station, just inside
the subterranean K-mart there. A black-haired cartoon girl,
perky and Japanimated, winked and chirped at me from the
video screen. "Let's try it!" she coaxed in delicately
accented English, and as I fed three dollar bills into the
slot below the screen, I was thinking of you.

The cartoon girl showed me all the different borders and
tones I could choose from: picture frame, heart-shaped
frame, balloons and teddy bears, all this and more in sepia,
black and white, or color. I chose color, and a simple
letter-box border inscribed with generic subtitles: For you.
Thank you. I love you. The cartoon girl gave me three tries
to get my pose right, and I never quite did. The grid of 16
thumbnail photographs slid out of its slot with me just
slightly chipmunk-faced and hunchbacked in every one.

When I got home I found you slumped in despair before the
blinking cursor of a blank computer screen, brokenhearted at
the dumb, catlike habit words have of refusing to come when
asked. One look at your face and I despaired also: I had no
words to talk you out of your sadness. So I walked over to
your computer monitor instead, peeled one of the 16 stickers
off the grid, and stuck it to the upper-left-hand corner of
the frame, a piece of me right there where I would want to
see a piece of you at such a moment, and just the way I'd
want to see it, too: tiny, uncomplicated and contained, a
bright, calming dot that floats at the edge of harder
things, that promises to stay there even when you or I
happen to be one of those things.

You saw the photograph and laughed. And when you reached out
to touch it, I noticed this: the tip of your finger covered
my face entirely.


How long have we been dreaming of these tiny pictures? The
world-historical answer, I suppose, would look all the way
back past miniature paintings, locket portraits, and
landscape carvings embedded in nutshells to the smallest
figurines found in the deepest archaeological digs. But for
me? I'm pretty sure it started with the matchbox-size "spy"
camera I ordered from a comic-book ad when I was 11 years

In all my years of gazing dreamily at those ads-at the
"working" child-scale submarine and tank, at the amazing Sea
Monkeys and the Venus's-fly-traps-that miniature camera was
the only item I ever actually sent away for. I don't think I
wanted to do any spying with it (if I had, wouldn't I have
ordered the X-ray vision glasses also?). I presume, rather,
that it was the sheer smallness of the thing that compelled
me to have it. I think, too, it was the thought that from so
minuscule a device there could only come images just as
heartbreakingly tiny-that I might point the camera at the
world around me and render that world so small and cute that
I could hold it between thumb and forefinger, and never fear
it. But the camera, it turned out, was defective, and I was
too young and cowed by the world of commerce to send it back
for replacement. Eventually I sold it at a yard sale.

In all the years that followed I doubt I ever thought about
those unseen images again. But then one day last winter I
came across that strange new photo booth in the Penn Station
K-mart, and there they were: the tiny photographs of my
dreams. It had taken 24 years, but finally the loopy
technoculture we inhabit had decided it wanted to see them
too. And soon there were more. The sticker booths were
sighted in SoHo, in Herald Square, on Lower Broadway. In
June, Nintendo started selling a $49.95 digital camera, an
add-on to its hand-held Game Boy, with a $59.95 printer that
spews adhesive ribbons of stamp-size black-and-white
snapshots. And now, even as you read this, Polaroid is
preparing the North American launch of the $19.99 Xiao, a
camera that takes instant color prints the size of Wheat

That all of these products originated in Japan is apparently
no coincidence. The Japanese, we are told, have a peculiar
attraction to the miniature. And adolescent Japanese
females, especially, seem to love nothing more these days
than the miniature and photographic. Buying and trading
little pictures of each other in a frenzy of socialization
("Japanese girls put these stickers on everything," a U.S.
photo-booth sales director told the New York Times, "their
notebooks, their clothing, their bags, you name it"), they
are by all accounts the main motive force behind the current

But speaking as a 35-year-old white North American male who
has held in his own hands an advance unit of the ravishingly
small and frivolous Xiao, who looks forward to the day
(sometime next year) when Polaroid will sell him one all his
own, who will make a point of loading it with the special
sticky-backed version of the film so that he can clutter up
the surfaces of his life with faces and sights already
attached to his heart-I am here to tell you: demographics is
no defense against the seductions of tiny photography.


Let us not mince words in the face of excellence: Adam
"Adrock" Pearson, age 13, resident of the 913 area code, has
created and maintains what is surely the finest Game Boy
Camera site on the World Wide Web

Granted, it's not as slickly designed as some. But what
other site has so ample a gallery of digitally altered
snapshots sent in by visitors? Where else will you find the
magnificent image "Toilet Man!" (a standard crapper given
cartoon angel wings with the camera's built-in editing
software) alongside the more predictable snaps of Dad with
mouse ears and goofy rolling eyes? And who but Adrock takes
you so deep into the mysteries of the Game Boy Camera
itself? All 30 of the secret "B Album" images that come with
the camera are on exhibit here, complete with instructions
on how to unlock each one-for the "Cartoon Bear and Farmer"
image, get 3000 points in the Space Fever II game; for "A
Lion's head," swap five images via the Game Link cable with
another Game Boy registered to a male; for "A boy is playing
with a space man's gun," swap five images with a female...

The quiet intensity of early-teenage passion suffuses the
site. The text is sober and meticulous throughout, but here
and there Adrock's giddiness at having discovered how
tightly a simple consumer product can grip his soul bubbles
close to the surface. In his transcript of an online
interview with 18-year-old Philip "DMG ICE" Wesley, host of
another Game Boy site, the two boys chatter eagerly about
the different things they've done with their cameras. Philip
talks about the graphical "post-it note reminders" he's
printed out and the "picture phonebook" of friends and
acquaintances he's compiled. Adrock recalls the time he
aimed his Game Boy at the screen of a computer jacked in to
the LoveHewitt.com Web site and filled up all its memory
with photos of Jennifer Love Hewitt, 30 little images of
teen perfection captured and held in a device small enough
to slide into his pocket.

Adrock: All my friends then told me I needed to settle down
just a bit.

Philip: Hmm. Sounds interesting and "obssesive"; but that's
what a Gameboy owner should be: "Obssesive".

Adrock: Right.

Philip: Well, sort of.


OK, I'll admit it, there is a somewhat creepy undertow to
this wave of little photographs breaking on our shores.

Snapshots don't just sit there, after all, basking
innocently in our attention. Every time we look at one, and
every time we pose for one, we're also being
trained-acclimated to an order of things in which we may at
any moment find ourselves in the line of the camera's
impersonal gaze. We learn to shape our faces for that gaze,
to fit our behavior to its socially defined expectations,
and the tighter the loop between the moment of posing and
the moment of viewing, the tighter we tend to fit. This is
something the folks at Polaroid, for instance, understand
very well-and bank on. "We think of instant photography as a
kind of `social catalyst,'" says vice president of corporate
communications Robert L. Guenther. "Take it to a party and
people start doing things they normally wouldn't."

What, then, is really going on when the snapshot, having
crashed our parties, begins to colonize new spaces in our
lives-when this token of the camera's gaze begins to stare
back at us from the edge of our computer screens, from our
notebooks, clothing, bags, you name it? The answer, in this
light, would appear to be obvious: tininess becomes a kind
of infiltration strategy. It's the postmodern surveillance
state's way of sneaking snapshots into previously resistant
nooks and crannies of our field of vision, and thus
extending further its own insidious dominion.

Or not. There's a less paranoid, but not necessarily more
comforting, way of understanding the phenomenon, and it
starts with the acknowledgment that images nowadays are
really just another fetishized commodity among the many that
compete for shelf space in capitalism's weird ecosystem. As
such, they follow the same evolutionary laws as all the
others, probing blindly into potential market niches through
random entrepreneurial mutations and other spasms of
novelty. And therefore, if the photograph has found a way to
infiltrate new nooks and crannies of the visual field, why
wonder to what devious end? There isn't any particularly
human logic to it at all, sinister or otherwise. Even beetle
populations, mindlessly diversifying amid the mulch of the
rain-forest floor, do the same.

Yet if that's the case, let's not forget what market niches
really are: they're us. They're our desires and our
imaginations. And if the weird ecosystem they have given
rise to seems less and less like anything actual humans
could have made, that doesn't mean we can't find solace in
it here and there. Even, for instance, in something so
negligible as a tiny photograph floating somewhere at the
edge of our vision.

Because of course it's true: the world we live in is pretty
much the world as we actual humans have made it, and even
for Japanese schoolgirls and North American white men it can
be a hard and scary place. Words fail, ambitions founder,
lovers abandon, parents just don't understand; all the
eternal sorrows still obtain. And for a long time now
there's been an additional and more pervasive one to contend
with-the sense of loss we cannot help but feel as modernity
charges on in its headlong pursuit of the possible, churning
up every settled thing in its path. The commodities we live
by flourish and fade at a furious pace, bright new
technologies grow obsolete before our eyes, assumptions
quiver and unravel at every turn, and yes, just like the man
said, all that is solid melts into air.

But then sometimes, for a brief consoling moment, we get to
do something like this: we point and shoot, and freeze the
air again, and reattach some little piece of it to whatever
surfaces remain.

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