The most common photo on Flickr is not, as you might expect, a selfie, but almost the opposite. Created in 2004, Flickr is one of the last holdouts of Web 2.0’s image-sharing websites. According to the artist and photographer Penelope Umbrico, the most popular subject of Flickr photos is the sun, which is impossible to look at and nearly impossible to photograph properly.
In 2006, Umbrico discovered that searching for the sun on Flickr yielded a shocking number of hits, and she started compiling the photos she found. Her first search turned up half a million images, while a 2016 search yielded over 30 million. Umbrico’s Suns from Sunsets on Flickr has been installed internationally at several museums over the past few years, in the form of hundreds of 4x6 prints. These photographs constitute just a tiny selection of all the nearly identical sun images available on Flickr. The effect of all those suns together is alarming (they’re so bright) but also oddly funny.
Umbrico has been using found photos to explore notions of authorship and personal identity online long before Flickr was created. Given that she’s spent more than a decade creating art using online images, I called Umbrico over Skype to ask about the changes she’s noticed in digital photography. She tells me that she noticed a visible change in photos around the turn of the millennium.
“With families that adopted early digital cameras, there was a certain generation—that maybe is a little older than you—that is pictured in this really awful way,” she tells me over Skype (born in 1993, my first digital camera was probably a Nikon CoolPix). “Awful” is an accurate way of describing most of the content of Internet History’s photo archive.
As Umbrico points out, the small file size of the first digital photos may have been the biggest contributor to their disappearance. “Nobody knew how to print them, nobody knew really how to save them. They were such small files. They got lost really easily. If the camera ran out of batteries the images would get lost."
"That shift from the one megapixel image to the five megapixel image happened over maybe a period of seven years. In those seven years, everything was possible. And nothing.”
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, various image storage platforms came and went. Some, like Webshots, took untold numbers of user photos with them when they shut down.
Umbrico’s Sunset Portraits captures this sense of promise and disappointment that accompanied digital photography’s heyday. Made up of found images from Flickr circa 2010, Sunset Portraits is a collection of photos in which digital technology obscures the subjects’ identities completely. In other words, these are photos in which a digital camera, set to auto, focused on the sun instead of the people posed in front of it.
The result is a series of portraits in which the people being photographed are nearly invisible, reduced to shadowy silhouettes eclipsed by the sunset behind them. “For me, that really was a kind of indication of the disappearance of the individual, through this technology,” says Umbrico.
Now that so many people have a high-quality digital camera on their phone, Sunset Portraits has also become an archive of photography’s least aesthetic era. Umbrico tells me that she almost never finds images like this on Flickr anymore. “There’s face recognition in cameras now. So cameras now expose for the face, not the sun.”
In Eric Oglander’s Craigslist Mirrors, an ongoing archival practice located on Tumblr and Instagram, questions about online identity are explored through digital photographs of mirrors sourced from Craigslist. The repetition of mirror images serves to remind the viewer of their own presence behind the reflective screen of the computer or phone on which they are viewing the work. Reflections in Craigslist Mirrors draw attention to the physical embodiment of the viewer as well as the obscured identity of the original image creator.
Internet History takes deeply personal images, which presumably held significance for the creator (the record of a joke between friends, a loud party, a wedding, a sunset), and removes them from their original context.
These images are stripped of their value as individual artifacts in order to become, instead, part of a larger cultural record. The personal becomes shared, anonymous, historical.
Craigslist Mirrors takes anonymous images which were created for the purpose of selling household junk and makes them personal again. By virtue of their location in an archive, Oglander’s found mirror portraits are imbued with new significance.
After becoming popular online, Craigslist Mirrors is now available in print form, titled simply Mirrors and published by TBW Books. “I feel like it legitimized the project a little bit, just being in a physical form,” Oglander says. It’s a funny admission to hear in regards to a project that most viewers encountered online. But it’s also revealing of the anxiety that characterizes these internet-based works. Images online feel more vulnerable, less solid, than those printed in a book. This is especially true, perhaps, of the images in Craigslist Mirrors, which were never intended to be saved.
In most images that make up Craigslist Mirrors, the photographer is hidden, but it is a conspicuous, visible sort of absence—the photographer must have gone to great effort to compose the shot in such a way that their body would not be reflected by the mirror. The result is an image that holds aesthetic appeal in large part because of this ironic omission.
There is something inherently unsettling about an image of a mirror in which no human reflection can be seen.
Instead, these solitary mirrors reflect clouds in the sky, the long grass of a suburban lawn, the shadowy interior of a messy living room. The best Craigslist Mirrors images recall the mirror-based work of the Danish artist Jeppe Hein; especially his Mirror Wall (2009), in which visitors to a gallery are faced with their shifting reflection in a mirror, and also his Mirror Labyrinth works, which consist of mirrored mazes installed in public spaces. Hein's larger-than-life mirrors invite participation and interaction. Their simple beauty has a broad appeal not unlike that of Craigslist Mirrors.
"I think people are interested in this imagery because it’s so innocent," Eric Oglander tells me. "Not the content itself, but the act of it being created. Compared to sitting down and you know, theorizing and coming up with a mind-blowing work of art. It just exists, and people don’t make it with the intention of it being art."
The outdoor mirrors in Craigslist Mirrors have a more immediate visual appeal than the project's accidental self-portraits and interior shots. The outdoor images also further highlight the absence of the photographer, who is usually replaced in the mirror by grass or sky. "I think it’s an attempt to not reflect the inside of their home," Oglander says of these outside photos.
In other anonymous images, the photographer has blurred out their face, which only serves to draw more attention to their body, and the camera in their hands. Alternatively, the photographer has obscured their physical presence using Photoshop, sometimes by placing a black box over their body or face. These blacked-out images are unnerving; the photographer’s decision to edit themselves out of the image seems to say something about the type of person they are. But is it so unusual to want to avoid visual representation?
Regarding the present glut of images online, the artist and media theorist Hito Steyerl writes in e-flux, "Warhol’s prediction that everybody would be world-famous for fifteen minutes had become true long ago. Now many people want the contrary: to be invisible, if only for fifteen minutes."
Can a person not go online to offload an old mirror for ten bucks without feeling the "pressure to represent and be represented," as Hito Steyerl puts it?
Oglander says he finds most of the images in Craigslist Mirrors lonely. “I feel like the mirrors kind of have a presence,” Oglander says. “Being a reflective surface, it almost feels like they’re seeing a little bit.” In this way, the mirrors pictured in Craigslist Mirrors serve to locate the viewer within the image archive. The mirrors parallel the reflective surface of the screen on which the viewer is seeing the photographs.
In addition to her Flickr-sourced works, Penelope Umbrico has also explored Craigslist images. Beginning in 2008, she collected images of TVs being sold on Craigslist for her TVs from Craigslist work. In the rounded, shiny screens of these mostly CRT-style sets, the photographer can be found reflected. Blowing up these TV photos creates a series of self-portraits that, just like those collected in Craigslist Mirrors, are made more revealing by their lack of intent.
“Nobody cares about those photographs; they’re taken just to sell a TV,” Umbrico says. “But in them you see this kind of individuality and intimacy.”
Craigslist Mirrors is a gesture towards answers to the difficult questions of identity in digital space which are raised by Umbrico’s Craigslist- and Flickr-sourced works. Umbrico's projects destabilize our notions of originality through repetition; in Everyone’s Photos Any License (2015-2016), she examines the current state of Flickr through a collection of over 600 images of the moon.
Unlike the sunsets of early Flickr, these contemporary moon photos are crisp, professional, and classified as "Rights Reserved." Umbrico contacted each photographer to ask for permission to include their image in the project, and everyone is given full credit. But the images all look so similar that "they seem to cancel each other out," as Umbrico puts it. “When you see them all together, they really lose that sense of authorship or individuality."
When thousands of people are taking the exact same photograph, the individual value of each image lies in the process by which it was made, not the final result.
Each photo becomes part of a collective effort. The result is one perfect image of how the moon might look at any given point in time, anywhere in the world.
Internet history functions in a similar way, collecting parallel examples of life in the early 2000s to form one large image—a massive, disorganized scrapbook for everyone who grew up on the early internet. Less directly concerned with the passing of time or issues of ownership, Oglander's Craigslist Mirrors explores how we present, or avoid presenting, ourselves online.
Ultimately, what Penelope Umbrico's archives as well as internet history and Craigslist Mirrors demonstrate above all is that, in an online world made up of billions of rapidly multiplying images, every photo archive will be absurd and incomplete. Maybe an imperfect archive is better than no archive at all.