I’ve been wondering what a digital photograph now means to me.
It used to take weeks, sometimes months, for me to finish a 36-frame roll of film. Each frame was worth something, as I recall some of my rolls cost around $25 to develop, so I took more time to plan a shot. I remember, when I looked through my contact sheets, that most of my photographs were awful: over or underexposed, blurry in the wrong spots, not quite the compositions I was going for. But that trial-and-error process was enjoyable. Now, I think about the permanency of those mistakes; I’ve kept these photographs, and their contact sheets and negatives, stuffed in shoe boxes and envelopes.
A visual archive of imperfections.
I don’t know why I’ve kept them. It could be I just haven’t had the chance to toss them. But I am somehow satisfied by this collection: it’s a physical reminder of what it takes to create one genuinely good photograph. A record of the lapse between the initial camera click and a finished, framed shot.
Because today, I don’t use my camera in the same way. (In fact, ever since I started using an iPhone 4 and posting to Instagram, I hardly use my Canon and my Nikon.) But despite which camera I use, and the subject of my photographs, my process generally goes like this: I take four to six shots of the same angle, then take just as many vertical shots. And then I walk around it—whatever it is—and repeat, and then I crouch or lie on the ground, as ground-level shots are especially wonderful, and repeat again.
Or I take advantage of my smallness and slide in between crevices, or climb something if I can, or find reflections and textures, and radically off-center or ostensibly uninteresting focal points. (I don’t care for sunsets, for instance; I’d rather focus on the graffitied garbage bin in the foreground.) And in each position, I take numerous shots once again.
I upload these images and sift through them on my computer, hoping to find, pluck, and post at least a few shots I like, and then drag this “album” into the trash, as if this process is no longer important, or at least not enough to keep a record. Given my active polishing of my online profiles, perhaps it’s no longer necessary to acknowledge these iterations.
The default photo is what matters.
And I place “album” in quotes because I’ve seemed to move away from taking a cohesive set of photographs, which is something I’ve noticed ever since I stopped regularly posting to Flickr. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with my friend Robin in Los Angeles a few weeks ago not about photography, but music—particularly, the dying concept of the album. She had overheard a conversation in a movie theater about the Beatles, and one of the kids uttered, “I like the Beatles; I have all of their iTunes.” I’ve heard these kinds of exchanges before, but this one is fresh in my mind. These days, we may download a single track, unaware of or uninterested in an entire album.
I show a similar disinterest in my photography. Process and context are increasingly less significant. I’m preoccupied instead with creating the perfect shot for any given moment—worthy of an avatar, of a Facebook cover photo—and discarding the rest.
A single unit is easier and faster to create—and consume.
* * * * *
Even without the camera in hand the world becomes transformed into the status of the potential-photograph.
Nathan Jurgenson has written about our developing Facebook Eye, a mode in which we perceive moments and experiences more and more as snapshots, Facebook updates, and tweets to be documented, shared, and ultimately “liked.” I was reminded of his thoughts while reading Michael Sacasas’ wonderful piece on tourism and pilgrimage. Recently abroad, Sacasas writes about suffering from a case of camera eye and visiting a place, “taking it all in,” and absorbing and consuming it:
I kept thinking that in the end it is all still driven by the impulse to consume, precisely to take in and take away. It was as those tribesmen feared; with the camera I was hunting for the soul of the place, somehow to disassociate it from the material space and absorb it into myself.
His piece is worth reading, as it discusses much more, but for now it makes me think about how I have taken photographs lately: How I hold my iPhone in my hand while I walk to snap quick pictures that require no setup or little thought, sometimes taking them simply because I can. How I can make any moment of my day ripe for consumption. How easy it is to absorb a place, strip it of its elements, and run the X-pro II filter over it to make it mine. How those steps of learning in between—the mistakes and outtakes and nuances—are no longer preserved.
And I’m not sure how I feel about this shift. It’s not always about the result.
Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Writer at Writing Through the Fog. Editor at Automattic.