thinking with pictures

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handy tools – life before cameras

photo showing knife in left hand, smartphone camera in right hand

ubiquitous cameras affect the ways we move through life as a series of framed, captured moments

Setting off to buy a few groceries on a glorious cool morning filled with bright light, my eye scanned all the attractive subjects that might be worth photographing (or making a video snapshot, if audio or isolated bit of motion were just so). For some reason, I stopped my daydream and wondered how different the sunlit scenes would appear to a person living at a time or place where no cameras were known, or at least were rare and unfamiliar in one’s ordinary routines of daily experience. Since cell phones bring recording of still and moving images, as well as sound capture into the hands of so many people, it is hard to appreciate the absence of visual representations available by the simple motion of nothing more than to point and shoot.

As a child I grew up with film cameras: first was the family’s slightly bulky flashbulb point-and-shoot device using a roll of 120 or 620 film. Then came the Kodak Instamatic for color snapshots of the late 1960s and middle 1970s before moving to the even more compact form factor of the “Pocket Instamatic” 110 cartridges of film (13x17mm negatives) that were so cheap that we children got our very own camera and could appear on the other side of the lens. In those days, picture taking was fairly informal, encouraged by the consumer advertising that showed happy people snapping away with abandon. But with film sold in 12 exposures and later 20 exposures (28×28 mm negatives), each shutter release brought you nearer to the end. So shots tended to be used somewhat sparingly, with many of the shots commemorative (family events or vacations and photo spots with signage to direct tourists to fixed compositions).

Later in high school and the chance to join the photo-club with reusable 35mm cassettes of black and white film bringing the cost down to a few pennies per shot, plus the price of darkroom chemicals and paper, I began to shoot more and more pictures and carried a camera to places and subjects that might not have seemed typical when using the old consumer, point-and-shoot gear. But even with the capacity to shoot rolls loaded with 36 exposures, since there was a price in money and chemicals and DIY effort involved, the act of recognizing an interesting subject, lighting, or angle would involve some consciousness of expense. In other words the picture-taking experience was not frictionless because there were (for a teenager of limited means, at least) costs involved every time a picture was framed, the focus double-checked, and any adjustments to the light meter’s suggested exposure were figured into the shutter release.

What remained the same in those earliest moments of parents allowing me to take a picture with the family camera, and later with me taking my own shots with my own enthusiast equipment, was the sense of clear boundaries and intention about setting forth to “take pictures.” In other words, some deliberateness and possibly preparation was needed before packing a camera and rolls of film, and then seeking out a specific subject; or in a photo walk, waiting for spontaneous subjects to present themselves. By contrast, the presence of a good cell phone camera within one’s reach most anywhere and anytime in which price per exposure is practically no-cost means that people have gotten used to snapping pictures for many purposes other than recording a family event or special trip. Now it is common to use a camera to remember parking location, product information, insurance claim or inventory, special food or drink, maps and other helpful signage, and so on.

The visual anthropologist Richard Chalfin has studied family photo albums in the time before digital photography, both in USA and in Japan, among other places. In his book, Snapshot Versions of Life, he says that pictures express who belongs in or out of a group; it is a kind of boundary of inclusion or exclusion. As such the lens we use to capture subjects of significance, value, or memory will reflect who we are; who we wish to see ourselves as, or what we hope to be true or one day to become true. With the lack of friction or cost of cell phone snapshots, the selfie is perhaps an extreme extension of Chalfen’s observations of the sociological frame that the photographic frame expresses. With self posed near famous site, person, or occasion, the resulting photo says “I was here” and “this who I am” and by process of association, I claim some of the halo effect that glows from this precious place, person, or thing.

So the long history of photography seems to culminate at this moment with a flowering of self-representation, self-examination, and self-referential meaning; looking inward rather than seeking to engage and understand the surrounding landscape of cultures, risks and opportunities, or the Big Questions of life that the humanities is filled with. But is it possible to travel backward along the sequence of developments: from digital cameras on so many portable devices, to the consumer film cartridges of 12 exposures color and before that black and white, to the large-capacity Kodak “Brownie Box” camera of the 1900s – 1940s, back to the advent of portable 35 mm photojournalism with the original Leica, and before that the 4″x5″ film plates of the news photographers in the early years of the 1900s, and before that the clunkier glass plates of studio and field cameras like those of Matthew Brady and the others traveling out west and around the battlefields of the U.S. Civil War. Going back into the 1840s and earlier is the realm of experimenters of the Daguerreotype. Before a scene could be focused onto a chemically treated metal plate and fixed with permanence by chemical treatment, there was the camera obscura that painters and sketch makers and map makers could use: the lens could focus on the ground glass at the rear, and under the shielding darkness of a cloak, the artists could trace the lines of a composition with precision on paper and produce a final image that is almost photographic in detail and perspective, thanks to the precision lens. Each of these moments in camera history affected the kinds of subjects that were worth recording, sharing, or publishing for sale.

In the beginning it was very costly to make a picture and only very high value incidents would be memorialized and displayed or sold. Most people in the industrialized societies seldom saw a photographer or appeared in the frame until the 1920s or later, when low cost Box Cameras like the Kodak Brownie (spools of 127 film, slightly smaller than the 120 rolls) and the associated system of film processing and photo printing facilities were running. Around this time and in the generation before there were subscription services to deliver a few stereoscopic postcards of world events or famous places to homes to enjoy with their very own stereoscopic viewer frame. But the act of making one’s one decision about what is worth capturing and then going about the composition and pressing the shutter only came with the cheap and increasingly common point and shoot cameras. Even then, however, it would not be a casual affair to tote the box camera around in search of subjects. Instead it would be a wedding, funeral, family reunion, or some other part of the life cycle that would be recorded. The rest of one’s waking consciousness and daily routines would be less about documentary considerations of representing one’s day or lifetime, but instead would be focused on fulfilling obligations, watching for liabilities to avoid or opportunities to seize. In other words, in the time before ubiquitous cameras to record self or others, the way to view the world was in terms of instrumental goals: things to accomplish, respect to gain, criticism to avoid, expectations to fulfill, dreams to launch, and so on.

One’s eye took in the surroundings differently to today’s lens-preoccupied thinking. Life was not a series of photo opportunities, but was a big and wonderful adventure that one was immersed in; a player on the field, rather than a spectator on the sidelines. As such, a person in the time before cameras would set off in the morning with money in pocket, hat to protect from the elements and signal one’s style, and perhaps a pocket knife, pocket watch and gold chain, pad and paper, make-up mirror, or some other handy tool that was useful in the day to day events in one’s life.

Back in 1984 a relative of mine traveled abroad to visit my location and the people I had gotten to know there. It was a once-in-a-lifetime voyage and yet I was puzzled by his lack of camera. During his military service in the 1950s he had obtained on tiny Minox spy camera, not much bigger than a pocket lighter. So he must have once had some photography interest or knowledge. When asked about the lack of camera now, he answered that carrying a camera tended to blinker his vision to see and seek subjects that conformed with ideas of what would make “a good picture.” There is not too much harm from picture taking; indeed, many people discover that their powers of (detail) observation sharpen when carrying camera or binoculars. They tend to use whatever tool is at hand to engage the world. But he made the deliberate decision to experience the time and place with only a journal and pen.

Who can say: does formal, deliberate, ponderous (e.g. sheet film or tripod-dependent) camera shooting add value or add boundaries to one’s engagement in a place and time, and the relationships one forms as rapport builds and context deepens? Does less formal, simpler, point-and-shoot photography streamline the form factor so that many more occasions can be captured than by the slow shooting, above? And if camera work does indeed amplify the value to self and the ability to communicate those experiences to others, does it follow that better camera skill and a bigger scale of visual recording will also increase the communication power of the work? Taken all the way to the extreme, does ubiquitous camera use with the proliferation of cell phone shooting lead to saturation, so that life and the recording of life blur together such that the meaning of engaging a place and time is not about actively grappling with conditions on the ground (a player on the field), but instead consists of experiences of representing the conditions on the ground (a spectator on the sidelines).

I suspect that cameras that are rarely seen or experienced (1870), or ones that are ubiquitious (2018) act like a mirror. They are extremely useful and they are sources of fascination. They may produce additional narcissism and they may distract a person from active engagement in their social environment and physical ecosystem. On balance they seem to do more good than harm, but like most things that are good, they must still be used in moderation and with some degree of care; not used in ways that are thoughtless or mindless, but instead taken into one’s hand and brought to one’s eye deliberately. It is hard to appreciate truly the experience of a place or time in which all cameras are absent and only hand-drawn visual representation is possible. Simply locking one’s own gear in a drawer for a week or a year cannot remove the built-in habits of thinking and seeing accumulated from years of taking pictures.