I wanted the photo above to be an example of the new so-called “living pictures” that have garnered much recent attention. However, Lytro has not provided proper embedding code so I can only post this screenshot of a living photo. I highly recommend clicking on the photo or clicking here before reading along.

Update: the code now works, so before reading on, click the photo above. Click around various parts of the image and watch the focus change.

Okay, by now you have experienced a living photo. You see it, but you can also make it come alive; touch it, change the focus, reorient what is seen and focused on. Some might even argue that you get to decide the meaning of the story the image tells. This post asks: what would it mean if we start posting living pictures across social media? Might it change how we take photos? How might we differently interact with social media photography when we can manipulate the faces of our friends and engage with the images in a new way?

It has been my contention that photography can teach us quite a bit about social media. Not just because there are so many photos online but because photography serves as a familiar and grounding reference point to the newness of social media. Photography situates the novel and sometimes disorienting ways we are documenting ourselves online with a technology that did the same offline more than a century ago.

I have written about Susan Sontag’s description of photographers being always at once poets and scribes when taking photos to describe how we create our social media profiles in a similar way. I have used the concept of the “camera eye” photographers develop to discuss how social media has imbued us with a similar “documentary vision.” I also described how the explosion of faux-vintage photos taken with Hipstamatic and Instagram serve as a powerful example of how social media has trained us to be nostalgic for the present in a grasp at authenticity.

Here, I want to discuss what many are calling “revolutionary” and the next “big thing” in photography: the so-called living pictures linked to above developed by the Lytro company that have just entered the consumer market with cameras shipping early next year.

Lytro “Living Picture” Technology

This is not an essay so much about the technology but instead the implications of how it might become manifested across social media. Indeed, this is highly speculative since consumers have not yet even used the technology. Further, I am not writing here about the potential implications of Lytro technology for professional photographers but instead how it might be used in everyday, mainstream social media environments. If writing about professional photographers, one might focus on how living pictures make explicit that all photographic images are always co-creations between photographer and audience; or how these photos also make explicit that images are never the objective capturing of reality but also a creative endeavor via what is photographed and how the image is produced. Let me pull myself away from these tangents and briefly explain what Lytro’s “living pictures” are.

Lytro is the first company to bring “light-field” technology into a small consumer device. Light-field, or “plenoptic”, camera technology captures all the light–its color, intensity and direction–that makes contact with the internal sensor. It does not select a single focus point but captures all possible focus points at once. To understand the result, one needs to know just a little about what is called “depth of field.”

The Lytro camera has a constant aperture of f/2. This is simply referring to the size of the hole through which light travels from the world into the camera. A small f number (or “f-stop”) means a wide opening and f/2 is considerably wider than what one usually finds in point-and-shoot cameras. Besides capturing more light, the wide aperture means that either that which is near the camera or that which is far away will be in focus, but certainly not both. Objects in the foreground will be in focus and the background blurry, or vice versa.

And the Lytro camera lets one choose what will be in sharp focus and what is blurry after the photo is taken. This is brand new. Tellingly, Lytro put this technology not in professional cameras but in a point-and-shoot camera priced within the grasp of a large consumer demographic. Clearly, the primary intention is to create a new “living” type of photo to post online across social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and so on.

I will mostly skip over the stuff you might get in a consumer review of a new gadget. For instance, the editing one can do to a Lytro photograph is more limited (e.g., no faux-vintage filters, yet). The process to get the photo from the camera to Facebook is a bit awkward (from camera to a cable to a computer to Lytro’s software to Lytro’s website and then finally to Facebook) relative to a smartphone that can post non-living photos directly to various social media sites. And given that these cameras are not yet even on sale (let alone popular; I will not predict if they will be or not), there are many obstacles between now and some reality where we see lots of “living photos” in our Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr streams.

But if Lytro is successful and these self-shot living pictures do start to appear in our social media streams then we have at least the potential for a new type of a social media object. And this is why living pictures deserve conceptual attention here.

Living Pictures

The viewer of a living picture seemingly has a new sort of control with respect to the photo-object. By clicking around inside of the photo and brining things in and out of focus, others are now more active in choosing what story the photo is telling. They might feel that their own perspective, taste and aesthetics can now determine what they ultimately see. Further, the experience might be more intimate because rather than just seeing a friend’s face, one is reaching out for, touching and manipulating it and its relation to other objects in the image.

All photos are to be understood as a conversation between the photographer, the photo-object and the viewer. The living picture asks us to slightly rebalance this delicate relationship by granting more power to the viewer; observing becomes more like a game when the image is placed in our hands as something to play with.

Is this a new paradigm in how social media content is engaged with?

Think of the content we post on Facebook or Twitter. Once posted, the productive role of others is not at the level of the content posted but to create new content peripherally around the original content. The productive potential for those interacting with content posted by others comes in the form of comments, likes, +1’s, thumbs up, retweets, rebloggs, etc. (social media vocabulary tends to proliferate beyond what it signifies). The status update, link, photo, geographic “check in” all remain largely unedited. It is nearly impossible to find mainstream examples of the content itself being interacted with. Status updates are rarely rewritten. Sometimes tweets are edited when retweeted (often using the MT or “modified tweet” indicator), but even these attempt to dutifully replicate the original meaning of the tweet being modified.

Photos in social media streams are typically to be stared at and scrolled through, not changed and manipulated. The interactivity with living pictures might be a meaningful, if subtle, change in the role of the viewer with respect to social media objects. These photo-objects ask more of those who encounter them.

These Living Pictures are Barely Alive

So far, I have described what is new about these images; what the “life” in “living pictures” refers to. However, this position is easy to overstate. Ultimately, these photos are barely alive and “revolutionary” this is not.

I’m reminded of my favorite essay by Theodore Adorno. In The Stars Down to Earth, he asked what are the pedagogical functions of technology? What does technology teach us to do?

The answer for those who purchase a Lytro camera is pretty simple: living picture technology teaches users to take photos that will look good at multiple focus points.

This answer is a counter-point to what I think might be a popular criticism of Lytro technology: “why would I want others choosing what is in focus? I took the photo wanting the focus a specific way.” No, living pictures are not the ability for others to alter what the photographer intended. Those using the Lytro camera will take photos with the various focal points in mind, positioning objects both in the foreground and background. Notice the photo-set on the Lytro website. The photos all contain something near and distant that both look good either in or out of focus.

examples from Lytro's website - notice objects placed both near and far

Having objects at varying depths-of-field will entice others to click around in the image; precisely the process that breathes life into a so-called living picture. Learning to take photos in this style will maximize social media participation for those posting living pictures. The photos will generate more comments and will be more “like”-able.

What this implies is that while living pictures are slightly more interactive they certainly are not an example of photographers giving up control over the images they post. The amount of control turned over from the photographer to the viewer is quite minimal.

There is a very limited universe of possibilities provided to the viewer by the Lytro photo. The number of ways in which observers can bring “life” to (that is, refocus) the Lytro photo is quite minimal and because of this the photographer is well aware of the few different ways in which others will refocus the photo.

Yes, the Lytro photo can be seen in more than one way unlike other photos posted to social media. However, the new possibilities are quite minimal. Clicking through the current crop of living photos reveals that the user can choose between two or perhaps three significantly different focal points; all of which the photographer very likely had in mind either when shooting or at least when uploading the image.


What Would a Truly Living Photo Look Like?

The photo would have to take on a life of its own beyond what any one photographer or viewer intended. Writing in late-November 2011, the example seems obvious.

collage of some different mutations of the Officer Pike living picture

The now-infamous photo of Officer Pike pepper-spraying peaceful Occupy protesters at UC Davis serves as an example of an image come to life. The image of the “Casually Pepper Spray Everything Cop” has become a viral meme, taking on new forms no one could have ever imaged (a few examples are shows above). Instead of this, Lytro photos are still predetermined by those who took and shared the photo. A living picture contains more than just the creative energy of the photographer, but is fundamentally remixed with the energy, aesthetic and meanings of others; something that the Lytro photo does not achieve.

To conclude, the label “living picture” has been misapplied to Lytro technology. These photos are not alive and do not seem so revolutionary after all. However, they do mark a new way in which users might experience photos on social media: instead of leaning back, scrolling and clicking-through, viewers are enticed to lean forward and manipulate. Looking forward, will we see a larger trend towards sharing on social media becoming more remixable and interactive? Most people did not remix the pepper spray cop, and few of the photos we post on social media get such treatment, but Lytro’s technology begs the question: might more social media content one day truly come alive?

Follow Nathan on Twitter: @nathanjurgenson