thinking with pictures

Lens as curator in the Museum of Life

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collage of images marked "favorite"

flickr “favorites” pattern emerges

One begins at the far end of a lens; first meeting a camera while only an infant in many cases. Later in life one may become curious and peer through the other side of the lens and one day be given a camera of one’s own to play with. Many people are bitten by the photography bug and find meaning in the hobby or even therapeutic power in articulating single frames or entire story sequences visually, either for personal significance or to share with others in person or online.

In the course of taking pictures of favorite people, places and things (the proper nouns of one’s world) eventually a sizeable collection accumulates. Then, much like the curator of a collection at a museum, the photographer is faced with the challenge of organizing the content: sorting images that are usable, can be given away as mementoes, ones that exhibit a set of meanings most clearly from ones that are less effective. In the end a few of the images will be shared, while most will be saved and a few will be deleted or destroyed altogether.

Thinking back to the first few cameras that I worked with and my appetite to flip through back issues of the National Geographic Magazine, I can now see how the photos that I viewed and the ones that I then took somehow corresponded: of the many that I viewed, only a few arrested my attention. Of the many visual experiences, only a few called me to raise camera to eye and release the shutter. In sum the lens has given tangible form to things unspoken or too vast to articulate verbally, yet in the fraction of a second some of that meaning can be telegraphed visually. The lens allows us to see patterns and themes that speak to us, but which otherwise are too diffuse and subtle to perceive ordinarily in the flow of lived experience. Just as a curator plucks what best communicates an idea from the storehouse of collections, so too does the lens pluck what is meaningful from the stream of experience: the composition and photo making process results in stacks of images, much like a museum collection from which one portion can go into the gallery for public engagement and comment.

Extending the metaphor of lens as curator further, we can consider the entire life cycle of the museum enterprise. Once a collection has formed, then a suitable site to archive, research and exhibit the materials follows. In other words, the discovery and collecting phase is only the beginning. Working with the collections to find patterns and meanings inductively, then drawing inferences and tracing deductions is the next phase. And finally there is the presentation, publication and exhibition that completes the life cycle; for without communicating the findings and subject, the value of the undertaking is limited.


Author: gpwitteveen

Better Outreach is my aim. See to know more.

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