Is it on screen? On social media? In the print? In the print you made, or that someone else made for you?
Is it ‘the image’, or maybe, ‘image idea’: an abstraction that exists apart from all the physical versions? Or does the work have to be a ‘thing’ for you? A physical thing like a print that you can touch or hold?
For the former we might think negative or RAW file. We might not be too worried about where or how the different versions appear, because we are thinking of ourselves as ‘image makers’. The latter, however, leads to more traditional connotations of control and visualisation. Dare I even write ‘photography’, traditionally conceived.
Ansel Adams had an insightful way of seeing the problem. He famously called the negative the ‘score’ and the print the ‘performance’. This analogy with music is useful because it recognises the gap between image idea and realised, physical photograph. Insightful though it is, it doesn’t quite resolve the issues. Which is the definitive Moonrise, Hernandez by Adams? The early print, near to the time of exposure, or the later, darker versions with more contrast?
Adams didn’t have to contend with social media either. What happens if you share a scan of your negative online, and then go on to make a darkroom print later? Where is the work in this case? The latter will subtly different; although potentially not so different that the ‘image idea’ is contradicted.
Must your work exist for a given period of time? This is written into traditional practice. One of the reasons for the high values for Adams’ prints is not only their highly individualised craft status, but their longevity, thanks to the silver gelatin medium and craftsman-like, archival processing. An iPhone or equivalent image is an obvious candidate for temporary status - made, maybe shared, enjoyed, laughed at … and then gone - but there are issues with images and files we might assume to be more permanent. Many photographers who made early migrations to digital have file storage and retrieval headaches. Discs become unreadable, software is not longer supported, old machines fail. Negatives made many decades earlier are still perfectly good today for scanning or darkroom printing.
For us as photography practitioners, these fascinating, near philosophical questions, resolve into practical ones. We face a series of choices about the work we want to make and where we personally stand on the issues. We can be an image maker or traditional photographer. It’s up to us to draw the necessary lines of engagement, to police definitive, perhaps physical versions if appropriate, or to concentrate our energies on other kinds of image construction and dissemination.
Like it or not, you do have to wonder where the work is.