Welcome to the Dollhouse

The Big Allure of Tiny Photography

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 into the LoveHewitt.com Web site and filled up all its memory with pictures 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" [sic]; but that's what a Gameboy owner should be: "Obssesive". [sic]

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, and I'm not sure how to argue that it isn't, let's not forget what market niches really are: they're us. They're our desires and our imaginations. And if the ecosystem they have given rise to seems less and less like anything 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 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.

One of five articles in our Cyber feature.

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