Will Anyone Want to Look At Our Street Photos 500 Years From Now?

I like to think that people will still want to look at our street photos in the distant future, say, 500 years from now.

Why would they want to do that? For the same reasons we look at paintings from 500 years ago: chiefly for their artistic quality but also for what they tell us about the past.

Take, for example, the sublime “Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam” painted by Quentin Matsys in 1517. So that’s what the best-selling author of the early 16th century looked like! Erasmus wrote “In Praise of Folly” and numerous other works, capitalising on the invention of the printing press to such an extent that he’d written most of the printed books in circulation. We can be confident his likeness is accurate because he looks much the same in a portrait by Hans Holbein.

1517 was the very height of the High Renaissance and you don’t need to look far to find dozens of masterpieces created in that year: Raphael’s “Christ Falling on the Way to Calvary;” Andrea del Sarto’s “Madonna of the Harpies;” Lorenzo Lotto’s “Susanna and the Elders.” Even Leonardo’s Mona Lisa was finished in 1517 after nearly fifteen years of intermittent work.

So, how many people look at the Mona Lisa today? Well, just about everyone — although most visitors to the Louvre seem to snap it with their cellphones. Wasn’t it Erasmus who said: “In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king”? With our cameras we’re all a bit one-eyed today!

Pessimists will predict that if there’s anyone left on Earth in 2517 they’ll probably have more pressing things to do than look at street photography from 500 years ago. Will our descendents be huddling in underground shelters, taking refuge from nuclear fallout? Or will they be preparing for a voyage to the stars? Maybe they’ll all be in prison, locked up there by a small clique of uber-rich who own 100 per cent of the world’s resources.

Whatever they doing, I’m wondering what they’ll make of today’s street photos — our images taken in public spaces of people in their everyday clothes, pursuing pleasure and business. I like to think they’ll get some insight into what it’s like to be alive today. They’ll see wealth and poverty, often side by side. They’ll notice what we eat, how we travel, how we dress.

If anyone looks at my own pictures they’ll see we often go shopping, although they’ll probably be puzzled by the extraordinary difference between shopping in a street market and being welcomed to an upmarket department store with full ceremonial honours (see my featured image, above). Perhaps they’ll think the girls in my picture are religious supplicants entering a temple of worship. They won’t be very far wrong.

Personally, I’m not a pessimist. I tend towards being a “rational optimist” in the Matt Ridley sense (Google his book), despite there being so many setbacks as time moves on. In fact, I rather think that people in 2517 will be far more interested in our street photography than in most of the artworks with which our contemporary galleries are stuffed. In 500 years time, Matt Stuart’s pigeons will make more sense than Tracey Emin’s unmade bed.

In 2517 there could be an enthusiasm for period drama, just as we enjoy Elizabethan drama today. When Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” was adapted for television the production team researched surviving visual material from the era in which it is set (1500-1535). I’m sure this task will become a lot easier in 2517 when our photographs will be instantly available to those who need the information they contain. Immersive movies could have sets made from our street photos, digitally reconstructed from the millions of images we bequeath to posterity.

The world in 2517 will be unimaginably different from what it is today. In the worst-case scenario (asteroid hit, nuclear war, uncontrollable climate change, virulent disease, or robotic takeover) our street photos may exist only in digital form, streaming their way across the vast expanses of space, to be seen eventually in a distant galaxy by bug-eyed aliens who will puzzle over the way we travel, the way we dress — and our strange head gear.

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