Tat is a Sanskrit word meaning that. As editors discover when learning how to distinguish the proper deployment of that from "which" and "who," that is a pointing word. Such was probably its primordial origin—just as babies most easily say "mmm" or "muh" or "ma" and the sound is attached, the world around, to the first attachment object—the mother—so toddlers will easily say "ta" or "da" or "la" when pointing at something that has caught their notice or interest, or that delights or alarms them.
Tat is a word we might use for the basic fact of a photograph. We're pointing at something and saying, "that." Look at that; that is there; that exists. I see that. That is (or more properly was, since the present fact of the that begins to recede in time from the instant the shutter is tripped).
Photographs can be so much more—perhaps must be, if they're to hold any interest whatsoever. But the base level, the naked ontological frame, is tat.
And the epistemological complement: what have you seen? Anything interesting? Likely to interest anyone else too? (Animesh Ray says, "A photograph, to be memorable, must ask: 'Tatah kim?'—from that, what?")
It's curious to me that in all the discussion of digital "ease" and "cheapness," no consideration is ever given to the fact that, when a man in the 1930s loaded an expensive roll of film into a folder, say, and was thereby given ten or twelve precious exposures that he resolved to make last hours or days or weeks or even months, it made him very picky about what to point at. Only something in some way special or meaningful was worth "spending" an exposure on. (Which didn't stop failures from being plentiful, of course.) And a few days browsing some of the literally endless upload sites on the internet will bring home the point to you very clearly that present-day photographers will point at anything, no matter how trivial or mundane, and feel no qualms about posting it for the world to see even if it is devoid of any discernible interest or distinction or meaning or visual grace whatsoever. That's not the medium's fault—but just as surely, our situation has changed. We have greatly relaxed our sense of discrimination, to the point that it might as well not exist. I speak collectively, not accusatorily at any person in particular. (It has always been the exceptional, then and now, which draws most of our interest.)
So now you know what I mean when I give my inscrutable oracular first criticism of modern photography c. 2011: too much mere tat.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by David: "Just something that should be pointed out: Flickr and other photosharing sites are not really targeted at photographers. They are for people to share their pictures. That photographers also use it shouldn't be used as a measure of the quality or amount of photographs that photographers take. The vast majority of people at those sites are taking happy-snaps and couldn't care less about what we think about the pictures they post."
Featured Comment by Kevin: "I think there is a pleasure no matter how simplistic in pressing a button and creating an image be it representative of a moment in time or just an image of 'tat'...it still gives pleasure. Digital devices give more pleasure initially than film cameras (OK I know film cameras have the tactile advantage, but I'm talking instant feedback), but perhaps now in the modern age require more skill than film cameras to actually produce something above the norm. The learning journey may start easy, but may only result in tat.... Only the dedicated will escape the trenches and consistently produce above the norm.... Hmmm, sounds just like the past."
Featured Comment by Erlik: "Yeah, Mike, isn't it all coming down (again) to edit, edit, edit? Which you will see only on websites of professional photographers. Everybody else either doesn't bother or doesn't know how to do it. I shot an SF convention last year. Uploaded only 18 photos. And got asked why there was only 18 photos, where were the others."
Mike replies: Yes, in the transition to digital and the web, the biggest casualty might be the necessary editor....
Featured Comment by Mani Sitaraman: "Aha, I never thought my three years of Sanskrit in middle school in India would come in handy. 'Tat' in Sanskrit is not pronounced 'tatt' as in the first syllable of the word tattle. It is pronounced as 'tut' as in 'tut-tut,' except that both the 't's are soft, as if lisped. After 40 years. Thank you, Mr. R.D. Banerjee!"