This gigantic pile of 350,000 Flickr photos is now art

At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, a daunting mountain of images printed from a day's worth of uploads gives a snapshot at the enormity of the internet.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
  • Third place film critic, 2021 LA Press Club National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards
Leslie Katz
3 min read

A precursor to the modern selfie: "me" written on a photograph mailed to family and friends. 


On any given day, people upload millions upon millions of photos to the internet.

That gave Dutch artist Erik Kessels an idea. He printed out 350,000 of them and piled them randomly into a giant, undulating heap.

We like to think the photos we upload to Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr are special, and to us they are, but this mass of pictures serves as a reminder they're really just drops in the endless, fast-flowing river of online images. Sorry, but your favorite shots of Fido and little Bobby are ephemeral.

Approach the mountain of images, culled from a single day of Flickr uploads and now on display at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and you'll spot countless moments frozen in time -- a dad with a toddler on his lap, a happy couple at their wedding, a hockey game. But step back a foot, and one personal snapshot becomes indistinguishable from the next.

The internet may have massively sped up the distribution and consumption of photos, but long before we could snap and upload pics with our phones , we still found ways to share them. And that's what the SFMOMA exhibit Snap + Share: Transmitting photographs from mail art to social networks explores.

Selfies, cats and so many uploads: Our love affair with sharing photos

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Equal parts digitized pixels and analog art, it includes everything from a video projection of colorful floating pixels to a 1970s wire photo transmitter and old postcards from photographer Walker Evans and artists Joseph Beuys and On Kawara. As part of a project called "I Got Up…" Kawara sent mass-produced postcards to friends and colleagues imprinted with his waking times.

"By sending postcards in the 1970s with the messages, 'I got up at 8:15' or 'I got up at 8:22 a.m.,' he is asserting, 'I'm here, I exist, I'm a real person,'" said Clément Chéroux, senior curator of photography at SFMOMA. "And this is essentially what we are doing today with Snapchat and Instagram."

While Chéroux is careful to stress that Snap + Share is "not another exhibition about selfies," the exhibit does showcase a charming collection of anonymous old photos, all with the word "me" written on them, that are like precursors to the modern selfie.

The portraits, which span the 1920s to the 1960s, and were likely sent to friends and family along with detailed letters. They show individuals and groups standing in front of homes, vacationing on beaches and goofing around with army buddies. The "me" is like a hashtag scrawled across a sepia-toned memory.

The meme, that ultimate engine of photo sharing, finds its place in the exhibit, too. Back in 2009, artist David Horvitz took a photo of himself sticking his head in a freezer, posted it online and urged others to do the same using the tag #241543903. The practice went viral, linking people around the globe through a weird shared act, as memes do. A bunch of the brain-freezing pictures are on display at SFMOMA, along with a sign encouraging visitors to snap their own versions.

And since nothing epitomizes the meme more than cats, it's fitting that Eva and Franco Mattes' taxidermied kitty peers down from a cutout in the ceiling, as if getting back at the internet for all the time it's spent staring at felines. Museumgoers are, not surprisingly, encouraged to snap and share photos of it.

Not in the San Francisco Bay Area? Click through the gallery above for a virtual tour of the exhibit, on display at SFMOMA through Aug. 4.