On The Devaluation of The Photograph

dadnme
one of my favorite childhood photos – little me with my father on his bike.

The camera is one of the most remarkable innovations of the last few centuries; perhaps not in its technical complexity (or lack thereof), compared to other inventions, or in its impact on matters we consider of primary importance (industrialised crop production to feed the urbanised masses, the discoveries of various vaccines and medicines against the microbes and viruses that used to decimate our species, etc etc). However, in its absolutely unique ability to capture and store, fairly indefinitely, a moment of the fleeting present in a physically accessible, tangible medium, it is unparalleled in history.

Before the photograph came along, the present remained a realm of complete inattainability; we lived through it, experiencing it constantly, but the precise details of it could never be recalled; they were coloured, shaded and contorted by the unreliable puppet-master, Memory, with his arthritic fingers and shaky hands. It was also a realm of utter loneliness; of course, it still is, and always will be, for our own experiences of interacting with the world and each other remain indescribable in their entirety to anyone but ourselves. However, with the photograph, we are able to preserve, exactly as it would have appeared to multiple, objective observers, a singular moment of space and time. Through the medium of the photograph, we can see, in almost identical detail, how the reflections of light that make up our visual experience of this world look through the eyes of another human being.

hamlet

The consequences of this are profound – mostly, for me anyway, in that we can see the faces of the dead, as they were decades (or even centuries ago), as their friends and loved ones, as well as rivals and enemies, would have seen them. Somehow, through the miracle of a chemical reaction to the mystically transcendent medium of light, we can capture how the human eye perceives reality and transfer it onto a two-dimensional surface. Hamlet needed a skull to enhance his childhood recollections of the long-dead Yorick, and even with the physical remains of what used to be the man held in his fingers, how accurate would his mental image have been? How could he possibly have communicated this image to his peers in any manner as physically accurate as a photograph would have conveyed it? As a writer, and an avid reader, I am acutely aware of the power of words, sentences and descriptions to evoke a place, a person, a scene, a mood – yet at the same time, there is little that can rival the photograph in its ability to capture a single slice of physical time.

This musing on the evocative and sometimes almost sacred nature of photographs leads me to the point I wish to discuss, as evinced in the title of this post: the devaluation of the photograph. Photography had always been a fairly expensive pastime; one needed both a camera and film, which was costly in itself and required the services of a specialist to develop. Now, before any of you digital guys get riled up and offended, please don’t think that this post is intended to be an attack on digital photography – it’s not. Digital photography is a realm of infinite possibility, and for those who have an artistic eye, the medium is incredible in its potential for diversity. My father, one of whose lifelong passions has been photography (particularly wildlife photography, in which his skills are incredible) has embraced digital photography with wholehearted enthusiasm, despite his advanced years.

Yet, simultaneously, the spread of camera technology to the general masses, most specifically by the proliferation of cellphone cameras, has lead to a cheapening of the art form, both in a literal and figurative sense. We no longer need to buy film to take pictures – we can store thousands on the memory cards of our digital cameras and print any number of them from our home printers. We no longer need a darkroom to manipulate photographic images – anyone with even the most moderate computer skills can do this digitally. And in this mass democratisation of photography, something of the value once inherent in its processes has become lost.

rockicons1
images like these iconic rock photographs needed impeccable timing, dedication to the craft and more than a little luck to attain.

Because of the cost of film in a now-lost era, care had to be taken in image selection. You couldn’t just point your lens at any old thing and snap away with abandon – you only had 24, or sometimes 12, if I remember correctly, shots in your reel. You had to choose what you were going to shoot very carefully, because that film wasn’t cheap and neither were the fees to develop it. Now, you want to take fifty pictures of that convenience store salad you’re about to eat on a plastic table – sure, why not? After all, who wouldn’t want to see an image of such magnificent profundity? You and your friends go out and get smashed in the local pub – get those cellphone cameras snapping away! Everyone is very interested in the sixty-eight shaky, half-blurred shots of you guys smiling and laughing drunkenly that will be uploaded to your favorite social network the next day!

I think that in the last two years, more pictures have been taken of me than those that exist of me throughout the entire span of my life since birth. In one particular instance, a rather snap-happy gentleman took and uploaded perhaps forty or fifty shots of me drumming (and at least half of these were random shots of me staring into space between songs, drinking water, and other such inconsequential minutae). What, precisely, is the point of such an exercise? Have we collectively begun to assume such a sense of narcissistic self-importance (and the topic of everyday narcissism that is disseminated, enabled and reinforced through visual-heavy social media will be the topic of another blog post entirely) that we feel that it is utterly necessary to photographically document and share every arbitrary and banal detail of our existences with even the most casual of acquaintances?

According to this blog post approximately 85 billion photographs were taken from the time of the invention of the photograph up until the year 2000. Now, 3.5 trillion photos exist – and 10% of those were taken just last year! Now how many out of these pictures do you suppose were carefully thought out and profound images? Don’t get me wrong now; I’m not suggesting that every picture taken needs to be a work of art that touches on the sublime in some manner – there is a place for frivolousness, for light-heartedness, for whimsical images and candid snaps of friends at social gatherings. Indeed, I wish that digital cameras had been around when I was a child and teenager, so that I’d have more pictures of those long past years (all I have now, of my teenage years especially, are memories – I can count on one hand the number of photos of me as a teen that exist today). I have to rely on my memory to conjure up images of how my friends looked in the 80s and 90s, but I suppose there is something of value in that as well – for one thing, it keeps the old cognitive gears oiled and allows me to wallow in the golden half-light of nostalgic recollection every once in a while.

bwoyz
I’d be stoked if a photo existed of all of us together instead of just this cartoon…

I do also wish that I’d had the foresight to take some actual film photographs of my friends back then. We were a tight-knit crew, my teenage buddies and I, and I often sit and think of the times we shared and the mischief we got up to. I feel that this experience would be greatly enhanced if I could hold a photograph in my hands and see how the light danced on our youthful features, once upon in a time, in a present that has long since faded from this plane of reality. Alas, the magnificence of youth was wasted on me, who had not the foresight to photographically document the multitude of shenanigans in which my friends and I engaged. Or – was it really wasted, just because there is no photographic evidence to document those days? Certainly, they have evaporated into the aether of the past now, and there is nothing but the intangible and malleable notion of a set of memories floating around in our heads, but does that necessarily change the inherent value of those past experiences?

I guess what I’m trying to say is don’t take for granted the fact that we have the technological means to capture a single moment, in all its fleeting glory, and transfer it to a medium in which it will be effectively frozen and stored indefinitely, BUT, don’t abuse it either. There is no need to overload an already massively-saturated virtual arena with images of banality and tedium. Try to recall the sacredness of the ritual of pulling out an old photo album, dusting it off and paging through it, feeling the slickness of the protective film on your fingertips and the overly sharp corners of the hard pages as you lean back in your easy chair and lose yourself in the memories that the images bring flooding through your mind. Appreciate the fact that you can capture a slice of the fleeting present, and freeze-protect it forever against the ravages of time. Capture moments of love and joy and friendship, and treasure them. Maybe save the 7-11 meals and half-blurred nightclub shots for your memory…

 

Why Trapjaw?

So you’re here. You’re thinking, “well this is interesting/boring/stupid/witty/pedestrian/riveting etc etc etc,” but you’re probably also wondering what the Trapjaw thing is all about.

Well, if you’ve read this post, you’ll understand why I chose the Masters of the Universe theme to colour this corner of cyberspace, but I didn’t quite go into details about why I chose Trapjaw specifically. To be honest, there are a multitude of layers regarding the imagery and symbolism conjured up by this strange, blue-skinned character that appeal to me and are relevant in some way to aspects of myself. I could go into a lot of depth, I suppose, and here’s my Literature degree begging to speak, but I don’t think that a literary essay is necessary here.

m_trap-jaw
“The Menace of Trapjaw!”

Firstly, the most basic connection is that when I was a child, he was a perennial favourite of mine in terms of Masters of the Universe characters.  His position would temporarily be replaced by other characters with whom I’d develop momentary obsessions, such as Beast-Man, Merman, Clawful, Whiplash and Webstor.  As you can see, I was solely interested in the villains of the series.  To me, they were a lot more visually and conceptually interesting than the heroes, who were usually purely human characters such as He Man, Teela, Man-At-Arms and Ram-Man.  They looked normal (well, with their hulk-like muscles and strangely disproportionate leg length, relatively normal) and this didn’t captivate my interest.  The bad guys looked cool; they were true monsters in the visual sense of the word, and this appealed to my young artist’s mind.  Instead of the boring peach-tone human skin, I could use my whole palette of crayon colours to draw these bad boys.

I especially liked ones that were as different from the others as possible.  Most of the figurines were cast from exactly the same mold, meaning that He-Man had exactly the same body as Skeletor, Tri-Klops, Zodac and pretty much every other character, bar some different feet and a “hairy” chest here or there.  Trapjaw, however, had completely unique legs, with armour plating and green, glowing panels (at least that’s what they were in my mind’s eye).  He had a wickedly cool robotic arm with three interchangeable mountable weapons, and of course that moveable and menacing jaw.  And his crimson helmet reminded me a lot, perhaps subconsciously, of my father’s crimson motorcycle helmet that he wore at the time.

Also, Trapjaw seemed to be completely unavailable in Pietermaritzburg, although my neighbour managed to find one, along with almost every other character in the series. I do remember seeing a Trapjaw figurine once in the OK supermarket in the middle of town, but I’d usually only get one of these figurines on my birthday or for Christmas, or some other special occasion, and that time was none of those.  We all know how infinitely more desirable something becomes, especially to a child, when it seems unobtainable…

Trap-jaw
The image of Trapjaw that was on the back of every MOTU box. It was captioned “Trapjaw – Evil and Armed for Combat”.

Now let’s shift time-frames out of the early 80s and nearer to the present. So why Trapjaw now? What’s relevance does a childhood fascination have for my life as a 30-year-old man? Well, about a decade ago, when I first starting getting into internet forums (the internet was rather late in arriving to South African shores), and I needed to pick a user name, it seemed lame to just call myself “jon1982” or some variant thereof. I racked my brains for something suitable; something short, simple and easy to remember that was also somehow relevant to me personally, and the image of that childhood obsession popped into my mind. I was drumming in a Durban-based punk band called Stanley Anvil at the time, and all of the guys in the band had a great liking for vintage 80s action figures, and this rekindled my own interest in childhood nostalgia. Indeed, when I tried to quit the band (I loved the guys and the music, but the commute from Pietermaritzburg to Durban to rehearse was a killer, both in terms of time and petrol money in my mom’s juice-sucking ‘1969 Beetle), they bribed me to stay with a Trapjaw figurine!

Anyway, this brought the old half-orc, half-robot hybrid to my mind, and I decided that his name would be a suitable handle for my online alter-ego. It seemed that there was more to it than mere nostalgic fondness, though; I had more in common with Trapjaw than I thought. I had been frequently referred to as a “machine” due to my furious and frenetic drumming style – half-man, half-machine, just like Trapjaw. Like his interchangeable weapons on his right hand, I liked to think that I had a small but decent set of skills that I could switch between at will. And, the cherry on top: like Trapjaw, I have a metal lower jaw. Well, not entirely metal. It is still composed of bone, but due to a pretty severe motorcycle accident in which my lower jaw was snapped in two places, I now had two titanium plates permanently affixed to my jawbone (no, they don’t set off airport metal detectors).

So there you have it; the reason for my choice of Trapjaw as an online alter-ego. Feeling enlightened? Good… let’s move on 🙂

Genesis.

Writing. That’s the word, isn’t it? That’s what it’s all about, right? This blog, in a microcosmic sense of the word, and to apply a more grandiose presumption, my life.  But what, in a sense, is writing all about, at least, in the very personal context of my own perception?  That’s what’s at the core of this whole thing.

Writing is storytelling. And storytelling is inextricably interwoven with language and song, forming the core threads of the rope that binds us, Generation Z, lazing our lives away in front of luminescent computer screens here in the 21st century, with our primeval ancestors who shivered in caves around smoky campfires and prayed to forgotten stone idols to give them the courage and strength and shaky faith in their flint spears to protect them from the fangs of the sabre-toothed tiger, or to provide the tribe with a mammoth kill to see them through the long, cold winter.

A writer is what I’ve wanted to be for as long as I can remember. Or, to be more precise, a storyteller, for this was a dream that germinated from seeds that were sowed long before I was able to read the letters of the Roman alphabet. It all started when I was three years old. I remember it as clearly as if it were but a few weeks ago, although the notion of the toddler I was then has long since disappeared into the faltering mists of time. My father took me one Saturday morning, as he often did, to the local mall a few blocks away from my house. The word “mall” is perhaps not quite the most accurate term to describe the single strip of around a dozen stores that constituted the Scottsville Shopping Centre in those days, although to my wide eyes it was a continent long, especially if one lost sight of those familiar fatherly knees and calves in a forest of giant-limbs that soared up beyond the sight of one’s toddler-vision. I know that I was three years old because this was before I started attending pre-primary school in 1986 (“kindergarten”, as it is known in other parts of the world). Anyway, to cut a long story short, my father, after he had payed his routine visits to the bank and the post office, decided to stop in with me at the local CNA (a stationery slash book slash toy store). And it was from there that he bought me my first ever Masters of the Universe action figure; a small but not insignificant gift, for it was to forever alter the course of my life.

zodac
Zodac – my first ever Masters of the Universe figurine. He was part of the original 1981 lineup.

I remember that my father picked out the toy for me, because although I was excited about getting a toy, the array of MOTU figurines lined up on the CNA shelves was rather bewildering and I had no urgent preference for any particular one.  However, upon arriving home and tearing the little plastic being from its factory-sealed prison, I discovered a wonderful surprise concealed behind the figurine: a small comic.  I eagerly began paging through the little comic and the gears of my sapling mind began whirring with a turbocharged freneticism that I had never before experienced.  The pictures, the colours, the action; all of this appealed keenly to something deep inside of me. I demanded that my father read me the comic, which he did, delighted at the success of his purchase. I’d page through the comic again and again, and get my father to read it to me as often as he was willing to.  Later, as I collected more MOTU comics, the imaginary world that had been born in my mind began to grow and develop.  I began inventing my own MOTU characters, whom I would talk excitedly about with my best friend James at preschool (we bonded especially well over our shared MOTU obsession), and we would pretend to be these characters as we fought imaginary battles and raced through fantastic landscapes on the grassy and undulating playground of New England Pre-Primary.  At home, all my parents needed to do to amuse me was to give me a stack of blank white paper and my box of Crayola 24-colour crayons, and I’d be lost in my own world for a few hours, drawing MOTU characters and other fantastic creatures that I’d create in my mind.

comiccc
some of the original series of MOTU comics that I owned.

Later, when I learned to read in grade one, I discovered a new favorite place: the town library.  I honestly could not get enough books, and I devoured them with as much ferocity as my newly-literate mind and still-rather-limited vocabulary could handle. There were the usual childhood reads; Dr Seuss classics, Richard Scarry’s books, The Berenstain Bears, Curious George and of course a number of classic Ladybird fairy tales and fables, but honestly, I was most interested in non-fiction back then, interestingly enough; the stories of characters in far away worlds or other times and places in human history took a back seat to the real life stories of wild animals.  I became utterly obsessed with finding out as much as I could about wild animals, to the extent that when I had exhausted the supply of materials in the Children’s section of the library, I’d get my parents to check out books for me from the adult section. I’d set out my blank papers at home, and on the right hand paper, I’d copy out a full-sized picture of whichever animal I was documenting with my crayons, and on the left I’d compile, in my shaky six-year-old hand, a list of facts and figures about the animal.  After I’d put together a good few pages, I’d staple them together (well, my mother would do that for me), and I’d draw a front and back cover for my book.  I was self-publishing long before anyone had ever imagined the existence of Createspace or Lulu!

Later my interest shifted to history (I was big into knights and pirates, mostly), and then as my reading skill developed to the point where I was comfortably able to handle novels, I became an insatiable devourer of fiction. I entertained the notion of writing my own stories from an early age, and actually started a few out, with the intention of making them novels, but I never managed to finish them.  In my teenage years, I put down my pen for a while and picked up drumsticks, as the raging, angst-ridden sounds of grunge, punk and alternative rock spoke to a newly-awakened part of my adolescent soul that screamed rebellion with an irresistible fire, but always, at the back of my mind, were the stories, the stories, the stories.

Now, after turning around in my head since those nostalgia-thick days of early childhood, these stories are finally taking form and shape in the physical world.  I am adding my own string to the vast and unending thread of human history and culture; I am writing, and writing with a pace and fury and determination that I have never had the courage to harness before.  Hopefully my writing, my stories, will form a thread that spans decades and lasts for the length of my own lifetime, and perhaps this addition to the rope of the aeon-old tradition of storytelling will extend to generations who are born after my own return to the dust from whence I came, although that is perhaps too lofty a height to aim for right now.

But, what is a dream if not an unreachable ideal?  I will grasp as fully as I can at this one, and see what my fingertips eventually encircle.