Thursday, December 27, 2007

Snapshots of our lives

Over this holiday, there has finally been time to catch up on the New Yorker, and enjoy John Updike's "Visual Trophies," a review of a new book The Art of the American Snapshot 1888-1978 and exhibit at the National Gallery of Art of 254 snapshots from the collection of Seattle collector Robert E. Jackson. This book/exhibit/collecting urge touches on several interesting points: The history of photographic technology; the history of photographic marketing and sales and how Kodak and Polaroid, among others, changed the way Americans view themselves and their families. What is considered image-worthy? Updike raises some important questions:
It is good times, happy times, that we wish to preserve. In its ads of the twenties and thirties, Kodak insistently pushed its product as the recorder of family life. “I’ll show ’em a real family!” one jubilant snapshooter brags (“He’s something to brag about, that new baby of yours”); another spread shows two commuters on a railroad platform, one of them enviously studying the other’s snapshots and thinking, “I felt ashamed. He was so proud of his children; why hadn’t I taken snapshots of mine?” A third ad simply advises, while a proficient mother photographs her two children in their lunch booth, “Let Kodak keep the story.” The camera both exalted and invaded domestic privacy—“Candid photography is making us human goldfish,” one pundit wrote in the journal Photography in 1938.
And this led to important changes in special events, rituals:
At many a wedding, the hired photographer replaced the minister as the central officiator.
Now, the ones recording the event were also directing the event - we are not living our own lives but only vicariously as actors at the direction of others. And what was the point?

Updike admits he was not immune:
The photographic impulse, as I experienced it in my days as a Nikon-toting daddy, wore two aspects, the creative and the commemorative. The first sought to catch, in the plump snap of the shutter, something vivid and even beautiful in its color and contour; the second aim, more realistic though in a sense grander, was to halt the flow of time.
If the unspoken goal was to halt the flow of time, then what images are considered worth keeping? Well, all of them. But then what do we do with these images once we have them? Boxes and boxes of images, unsorted, uncataloged, often unlooked at again. Updike admits that he is like many Americans with unsorted stacks of photos.
My own shoeboxes of curling, yellowing snapshots derive their fascination almost entirely from my personal connections with the depicted matter—grandparents and parents, cousins and schoolmates, houses I once lived in, vistas and furniture lifted from my private temps perdu.
Like Updike I also have shoe boxes, though most recently my saved photos are in Whitman's Candy Sampler boxes. Portland author Chelsea Cain has plastic storage tubs.

Cain's Dec 19 post "Let's Go: Green Thermos" from the Oregonian, describes what happens when the pictures are left behind for surviving family - in this case, her mother's photos looked at after her mother died:

And then, the photographs. There were boxes and boxes of them. Photographs of her childhood, of mine, of us, of friends, old family photographs, photographs of other peoples' families that she'd bought in thrift stores or at garage sales, a hodgepodge of flashes of lives now gone.

I went through the photographs in the days after she died and put together an album to have out at her service, pictures of her through her life, and pictures of the people she loved.
Why do we do this? Take photos and save them. I think Updike is right - creative and commemorative - a hope to halt time. So our snapshots may not compare esthetically with those of the great photographers, but they fulfill an important role in our lives and give us back the times we have lost. Sometimes, the emotions are too much.

Recalls Cain:
It was months before I started to go through the photographs again. I told myself I was going to organize them. Some were in envelopes, some were in plastic boxes, some were in albums, most were loose. I tried to separate them into stacks. Mom. Mom and me. Mom and friends. Nature. (Thirty percent of the pictures my mom took were of flowers.) But I would get distracted by the images and my memories and eventually give up on the organization and get caught up in the pictures. It's been 10 years now. I've upgraded the boxes from cardboard to plastic tubs. The organization project? Not so successful. I keep trying. Every couple of years, I get those boxes out and start making stacks.
But of course she got sidetracked by memories and the photos remained unsorted. Cain comes right back to the modern problem, the problem that faces the cartoon Cathy character and brings us to the question of why - why take pictures, why keep pictures, what to do with the pictures. The tangible souvenirs, memories, have changed now with technology. Just as social networking online is not the same as a face-to-face visit, so Cain, says, there's a difference with paper versus online images:

A few years ago my sister-in-law got a digital camera from her husband for Christmas. She had it the first couple of times we visited, and then the next time we saw her it was gone, and she had her old film camera again. "What happened to the camera?" I asked her.

"It was fine," she said. "But I missed picking up the photographs." She said that she loved taking pictures, and she loved having pictures, but the thing she loved most was going to pick up the photographs and taking the envelope to the car and opening it up and seeing what had turned out. That moment, that five minutes, that was one of her favorite things.

She'd tried to get used to the digital camera, to embrace all it had to offer, but in the end it just wasn't worth it. Life doesn't have a lot of those moments, those favorite five minutes, and she missed her connection to those images, a connection that just wasn't happening on that little LCD screen, where each picture was vetted, deleted, restaged.

We have a digital camera, and a thousand images, all saved in files on a hard drive. I need to print them out and put them in a box. So my daughter has something to organize.

The pervasiveness of this phenomenon of photographing everything and saving it -- and the frustration -- are often the joke in the Cathy comic strip by Cathy Guisewite. I wasn't able to find a particular episode from the past to link showing Cathy surrounded by thousands of unsorted photos (and now, by thousands of digital camera memory sticks), but today's cartoon jokes about not having downloaded holiday photos etc. Modern technology does allow - encourage? - more immediate selection / deletion / of digital photos (even iPhone photos).

I recall reading that Socrates worried that the new technology of writing would erode memory. Individual memory, maybe, but writing created / aided / institutional memory. Now, I suspect that the same is true for photography. And with the perspective of a hundred plus years, we can see how this image capturing is playing a role in our lives.



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