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.
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.
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.
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…