Welcome to the Dollhouse

The Big Allure of Tiny Photography

I was thinking of you when I ducked under the curtain of that strange new photo booth in Penn Station, just inside the subterranean Kmart 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 old.

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.

One day last winter I came across that strange new photo booth in the Penn Station Kmart, and there they were: the tiny photographs of my dreams. 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 Thins.

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 boom.

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 are no defense against the seductions of tiny photography.

Now, let us not mince words in the face of excellence: Adam "Adrock" Pearson, age 14, resident of the 913 area code, has created and maintains the finest Game Boy camera site on the World Wide Web (members.tripod.com/~gbcamera).

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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