thinking with pictures

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Snapshot statement vs. Photo paragraph


Most people make a single statement with single emphasis; others invite the eye to wander across the field of view [credit: for 19 September 2018, screenshot sampling]

In the beginning a person with a camera is drawn to single subjects in isolation from the context of meaning, status, space or time. It is the thing itself that they wish to capture as a frozen moment – unchanging for eternity. As one gains technical skills at controlling the composition and exposure with increasingly sophisticated gear and post-processing tools, the production values improve and the thing in and of itself attracts attention. It gives visual pleasure for the rich quality that is faithfully communicated, or even improved more than the visual experience of the original subject in its actual setting, as light quality is enhanced, color is given added or decreased saturation, distractions are minimized, and so on. The art of timing and standpoint may develop, too, culminating in the wonder of and the appreciation for Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment.

But after seeing and composing enough single-subject photos, some people become interested in the contrasts, juxtaposition, or interplay of surrounding ideas, symbols, or other subjects nearby or ones suggested by their absence. These photos are analogous to paragraphs or even short stories, compared to the single declarative sentence or question that is expressed by a snapshot that attracts the viewer’s eye only momentarily. Instead, these wider or more complicated scenes invite lingering looks all around the frame, traveling from background to middle and foreground and then in return. Perhaps the eye follows the lines of composition, figures placed in each field of the frame, or the play of texture and light/shadow. Whatever it may be, these photographic tableaux seem to be full of meanings, interpretations, or settings for what is about to take place (or the scene of something that is now underway; or what has happened at the scene).

Once one’s taste for photographic scenes goes beyond a single statement, exclamation point, or question mark, then it becomes easier to spot compositions of this kind. Likewise, it becomes easier to notice, compose, capture, and convey scenes like this to others. But how far along this path could a photo go: beyond the single phrase and then an extended paragraph, could a photo all by itself, without the support of caption or indeed with no accompanying written context, be able to convey several paragraphs of meaning, or even present an entire (dramatic) story from the setting and cast of characters, to the complicating factors or antagonists in view (or suggested), to the resolution? That is an open question; one worth consideration and worth trying to photograph, too. Norman Rockwell‘s visual representations succeeded this way, again and again.


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Metaphorically – see then frame; then focus; then capture… an idea

stick figure to illustrate photographer with camera

composing a picture with camera; without camera

The habit of setting off each day with some form of camera close to hand is the kind of exercise that builds a habit of seeing. Eventually, once this habit is well-formed, the physical camera becomes less important and the exercise can proceed even without “writing with light.” Although one’s mental lens does not produce something to share directly with others in print or electronic form, sometimes a person can “paint pictures with words” that approximate the visual experience that first drew the person’s eye.

What happens in the mind of someone well-practiced in the habit of making pictures; and by extension, adept at speaking metaphorically? Is there a similar sequence of steps that takes place in one’s mind when capturing an idea, expressing an impression, or exploring one’s imagination? Looking at the camera in hand, the first thing that happens is the spark of recognition: a-ha, here is a scene or subject that attracts my attention. For a point-and-shoot photographer, there is little more to do than releasing the shutter, although some might know from experience that greater rewards can result from delaying the release and first considering the alternatives – moving closer or moving to a different standpoint, choosing the best moment of release, or time of day that supplies the most effective lighting conditions. And there is the delicate art of precisely framing the scene to include some things and exclude others; and to foreground certain parts while placing other parts in middle or background.

With cameras other than a point-and-shoot model, there are more decisions to make before capturing a subject on film or electronic sensor. But a similar sequence in involved. First the person must become aware of a potential subject and the context available to frame it. With the scene composed, then the question of focus comes into consideration. Determining the main subject in the starting point for focus, but if there is plenty of light, then the lens aperture can be closed small enough to produce very great Depth of Field so that the zone of focus extends far past the central subject point of focus, and also far in front of the subject; perhaps the entire scene will be recorded fully in focus in that case. At other time the opposite effect may advance the photographer’s intended expression of the subject: very shallow zone of focus with all other elements blurred. As for moving subjects, the photographer may deliberately freeze, or blur slightly or greatly, that motion by selecting a correspondingly fast or slow shutter speed.

Besides framing, focus, and freezing or blurring of moving elements, the matter of exposure lies within the control of the photographer. The human eye has been estimated capable of absorbing a greater range of light values than current electronic sensors, or indeed film stock. Some reports say most digital camera can accommodate 10-12 f-stops from darkest shadow detail to brightest highlight detail before all else is rendered indistinguishable black or white. Healthy human eyes, in comparison, can handle 14 f-stops of dynamic range in light values. Therefore, along with the framing, focus depth, freezing or blurring of moving subjects, the photographer can decide to give priority to the brightest part of the scene or the deepest shadows of the scene, but not to both. Of course, an evenly lit scene that is uniformly bright or dark or somewhere in-between will not have to sacrifice part of the dynamic range, since all of it fits well within the sensor’s limitations. But for situations with a very great range in light values, then the photographer’s decision can average things out, losing a bit of the dark extreme and of the bright extreme; or the person can prioritize the brightest elements (while sacrificing some of the dark parts); or the reverse, the person can prioritize the darkest elements (while sacrificing some of the bright parts).

Now for the figurative¬† jump from cameras to compositions of the mind: there seems to be a similar three-step process. Walking along, once an idea enters a person’s mind, then the first step is to frame it (mentally in one’s mind’s eye) by drawing boundaries to include some things and exclude other things, foregrounding some things while leaving other things in the middle or background. The second step is to choose the main subject to focus upon, also determining whether to produce shallow, medium, or deep focus by controlling the Depth of Field. And the last step is to consider the exposure level of light and moment of shutter release. For someone who is in the habit of mentally composing a picture, these decisions come one after another with little effort, almost automatically. The result of cameraless composition practice with one’s eye is to produce better photography when an actual camera is to hand. The key is to resist the quick-trigger impulse to spot something attractive, then point-and-shoot before quickly putting away the camera and moving on to the next visual feast. Instead, there is great worth is separating the sequence of events between spotting an opportunity and then finally capturing the subject. Each of the three stages that leads to finally committing to a frozen moment of time captured on sensor or film will increasingly narrow down the field of possible decisions until at the end the solution to the compositional problem is solved and the shutter can at last be released.


A promising subject to look at arises, then the first narrowing down comes from framing it with big or small boundaries and a standpoint that puts certain elements into foreground or background to the main subject. The next narrowing down comes from decisions on how much should be focused, and where that plane of focus should be centered. The final narrowing down comes at the point of exposure: which part of the illumination shall be captured well and which part, possibly, to sacrifice (as being too bright or too dark in relation to the main subject), in addition to deciding on the Decisive Moment as Cartier-Bresson called the optimum moment of releasing the shutter for the composed scene. These same increasingly refined stages occur not only in the lens of camera or mind’s eye, but also more generally in the manner of encountering a new idea, then framing, then selectively focusing, and finally committing to a final grasp of the thing.


As one’s habits become more firmly established and one’s mind also becomes more supple and nimble, then compositions that are “written with light” or understandings that are captured in one’s mind can be ever more beautiful, subtle, and sophisticated as a result.

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Your purpose affects your vision and capture of a subject


Clipart to illustrate some accepted photography subjects: life events, beauty, reportage, performances, commentary.

In the history of photography there was a time when gear became portable, not in the sense of the post-battlefield mobility of Matthew Brady and his wagon-built darkroom for preparing and finishing his glass plates, but in the sense of the Kodak “Brownie” box camera with a long spool of film in the early 1900s or the cassettes for 35mm film and the small cameras that went with that innovation. The bigger, more time-consuming, and financially significant equipment of those early times meant that most pictures were commissioned for big events of civic or family or company life. When newspapers and other rapidly published periodicals began to use photographs then news stories became suitable subjects to compose and capture. As costs continued to go down and gear came into the hands of more and more people, the marketing departments pressing for more consumption of film and photo printing supplies and services began to depict happy families snapping pictures as a kind of background beat to the everyday experience of living one’s days – picture-taking in the hands of children, picture-taking for no special occasion. And with the spread of cellphones equipped with high quality digital cameras for still and video capture, now the majority of the world’s peoples take photos to share, print, or hold privately. As a result of the psychologically “no-cost” of visual recording, even the most banal subjects are captured and may well end up among the images found in the Internet Archive for future generations to wonder at.


What is the connection between the concept in one’s mind for what makes a worthy subject and the way one moves through the world and recognizes certain things as “photo opportunities” while other things are invisible or unremarkable, either in one’s own sensibilities or worth capturing to show to others in one’s world who might find interest in the matter? Just as form factor affects what one can and cannot readily photograph (point-and-shoot compared to large-format camera on tripod), this mental filter or measuring stick also affects what one willingly or unwillingly can photograph. In other words, there are certain subjects that are compulsory photo events: weddings, class photos, tourist sites, and even funerals in some societies or moments of history. But other subjects pass unnoticed, unremarked upon, taken-for-granted.


Related to the concept of what rises to the level of significance to make a person reach for cellphone or pull a big camera off the shelf to make some shots, there is also the aspect of purpose: on a photo walk maybe there is no predetermined subject and it is up to one’s muse to stir the feelings needed to compose a shot. But for a scheduled event or one that accidentally happens, then the purpose is given and the boundaries of what is or is not relevant will define the scope of shooting pictures and video clips. If wildlife is one’s purpose, then perhaps a big camera and long lens will narrow one’s view of the passing scenery and will shape the intentionality that adds meaning to the excursion. But if social commentary is one’s purpose, then the subject can probably be captured with a normal or wide focal length lens. And the convenience of carrying an inconspicuous enthusiast, point-and-shoot, or cellphone camera will mediate the experience of moving through one’s world, watching for moments and subjects that express something about the general society or the specific lives in view. And if one goes beyond snapping single subjects in isolation and aims to document a wide-ranging subject across many locations, settings, and days or weeks, then this extended purpose will affect one’s view of the surroundings and will determine what is relevant or is not connected to the subject.


These same reflective observations about the influence of one’s purpose on one’s vision of the world applies not only to photographic capture and representations of a subject, but can be extended by metaphor to the wider meanings of one’s worldview; that is, the physical dimensions of one’s engagement with and exposure to the world (form-factor) is one influence on the resulting experience. But also one’s purpose (what is your business; your stake-holding; your reputation or name or expectations) will define what comes to be seen relevant or else is invisible to one’s mind. Just so a “high flyer” will barely notice the details of the ground, while a “ground crawler” will find it hard to imagine the big picture view that the high flyer enjoys. And someone in the business of wedding pictures will respond to situations where his or her services and wealth of experience may be applied; whereas a tourist passing through the same locations as that wedding photographer will have other purposes, or possibly will have no set purpose, and therefore will frame the day in different terms. Conclusion: consider carefully your purposes – be aware what preoccupies you (and by extension you will also know what you are blind to). Consider carefully, also, your gear —the form factor– that will affect what you see as a recognizable subject.


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Framing the meaning and the moment, seeing the before & after, too

young person floating on summer lake; puffy clouds overhead

Photo recropped long and narrow to produce boundaries to frame the scene; but in real life, the water & sky go on and on.

Still photos can be spontaneous point-and-shoot, “grab shots,” or they can be carefully composed from the fixed position of tripod or from a steady, hand-held stance. In both cases, though, the frame lines define the edges of the canvas where meaningful relationships between foreground and the distance, and between the static & moving elements can be captured with the release of the shutter. When viewing a picture of any medium, it is worth considering the wider context (what lies just outside the cropping boundary of the frame) and what might be moving around the scene before or after the “frozen moment” when the creator’s composition holds each subject locked into position relative to the frame and in connection to the other subjects nearby. By expanding your visual imagination to include things before and after the moment of the composition, the way that daily reality and composed, artful captures are related to each other begins to become clear; that is, out of the push and pull of daily life’s small moments of splendor and wonder there are points when all the pieces come into alignment, creating a natural composition for one’s mind’s eye to notice or to record. By the same reasoning, when considering the things that are outside of the frame of view, again, the relationship can be understood between ordinary visual experience (continuous context in 360 degrees of awareness) and extra-ordinary moments of beauty, when the elements fall into place so that foreground and background draw the eye forward and lines guide the viewer’s path for looking over the scene.

There is a third consideration when observing a careful composition or a casual snapshot. That is the point of view of subjects that are located within the frame of view. By visual habit, usually viewers look at a composition frozen in time from the outside; as spectators thrilled by the way all the pieces fit into the overall effect. But a deeper and more interesting experience comes from considering the point of view of those creatures that appear in the picture. It could be a flock of birds, a nest of ants, flowering landscaping or wild plantings. Whatever and who ever appears in the composition has a set of responsibilities and preoccupations that fills their attention. They have expectations and ideas to reach for. There are also limitations or obstacles that the person or other creature is facing along the way to reaching their goal or fulfilling their plans. This way of thinking about what may be going on in the hearts or minds of subjects inside of the composition is a kind of counter-weight to the simple, exterior visual experience of people who admire a composition, while forgetting about what ideas, opportunities, and problems face the people in the photo, for example. The reward for developing a habit of considering the point of view of the people and other creatures in the photo is that the aesthetic layer of a composition is tempered by the daily reality of those “insider” viewpoints; the gap between reality and appearances can be minimized and therefore beauty does not have to be far from daily routines and habits; and the reverse is also true, daily routines no longer need to be separate from artisitc moments when some elements intersect and the light is of special quality, with the lines of the nearby subjects complementing the main subjects.

So the next time you are browsing a set of images online, viewing your own gallery of best photos, or immersing yourself in a glossy coffee-table photo book, try out these 3 considerations to give wider meaning to the composition: (1) ask what lies outside the frame, (2) wonder about the photo scene before and after the time of releasing the shutter, and (3) imagine the perspective of the people and animals appearing in the picture. As with most skill-based exercise, the more you practice, the easier it becomes. And the reward will be to close the mysterious gap between ordinary life and extra-ordinary captured moments of composed meaning. This exercise at seeing things in a new way goes beyond lens and images, though. The same process seems to be at work in non-visual, non-photographic situations of one’s life. These 3 exercises will widen and deepen you connections to the things appearing in the stream of daily experience: look *outside* the frame or edges (1), consider what came before and what will likely follow the thing that is presently in front of you & preoccupying your imagination (2), and take into consideration how things look from the other person’s point of view, not just your own.

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Seeing what was here before


Looking north in 2018 at the town’s commercial center, Main Street, with eyes from 1971.

With middle age comes vision that combines today with memories of what is no longer present. Thing now gone sometimes leave traces in one’s mind or heart and sometimes the earlier things leave physical traces for curious observers to interpret. The three city blocks that form the commercial heart of this county seat in middle Michigan still attract some business, but nothing like the heydays that finally lost customers in the 1980s and still today. Having seen the town on and off these past 47 years, many of the earlier shops and town events still haunt my imagination: the silver and white cars parked in front of the long front of the Main Street Cafe and Pizza shop are models of the last year or two. If the cars of 1971 were parked next to these, the contrasts would be many -not just the design appearance, but the functionality and resulting performance. As for the business that have occupied the premises there, back in 1971 there was a D&C (dime and cent) store with a vast bulk candy counter where young spenders could order small bags of their favorites, sold by weight and paid for with a few coins. A kid could feel like a king browsing the aisles of toys, clothing, and candy with just a few dollars in hand. A few years later a similar general store (franchised far and wide) by the name of Ben Franklin (channeling the master’s habit of frugality) took over the property. During the 1980s and 1990s I was largely in other cities, but restaurant-type businesses operated there with varied lengths of success until the current restaurant took over 20 or 25 years ago.

The adjoining building next closest to the lens stands on the corner and its facade in stone bears the name of a bank that originally stood prominently there in competition with another one at the right edge of the frame but out of view. But by 1971 that corner location was occupied for a long time by a Rexall Pharmacy. The upstairs was given over to a community non-profit organization for use from the early 1980s until the late 1990s. Around 2000 the drug store changed hands to another Pharmacy for a few years, after that it seems like something altogether different operated on the property until finally around 2000 or so the present owner remodeled it for maximum security needed to offer banking services.

Similar stories up and down the Main Street color the prospect of this place. But for every middle aged observer, there will be others whose memories are much, much longer. Others will have non-commercial memories, but instead hold personal memories of conversations, relationships, events, or employment (including behind the scenes anecdotes) routines and procedures, for example. Still others will be newcomers, whatever their age may be, and see only what is currently in business. Or perhaps the newcomer has an observant mind and can identify some of the tell-tale clues of building fronts to guess what sorts of retail business was there long ago. As for the generations now long gone, most of their own layers of memories have passed away with them, unless captured in a book, diary, or newspaper article, for example. Fast-forwarding the passage of time into the future 5 or 25 or 200 years would be something to try one day. By then much of the world will have changed, and yet some essential human experiences and ways of being in the world will remain recognizable to those here today.

In summary, this time-lens or chrono-vision is one more way to understand a place or a moment captured in video or still photograph. Like seasoned wildlife trackers, those will long memories will be able to detect and perceive and tell others the many layers of meanings, events, and personalities that passed that way earlier. Others will not have the depth of memories, but will be keen observers who can identify a few clues about earlier times. But perhaps rarest of all are the people who can take a few principles and facts that will shed a little light on the future events and look of a place to come. The lens and composition certainly capture a likeness of a time and place, but after that it is the mind that adds in the past and the future to that recorded point in time.


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seeing with your own eyes -certainty or Rashomon effect?

Kurosawa’s Rashomon and before that Shakespeare’s Hamlet showed audiences the same events told from several viewpoints; the actions and outcomes do not change, but the connective tissue, standpoint, depth of field, focal length and field of view affect the meaning and the ability to tie the matter to other subjects. This simple illustration takes a slightly different position, not rotating from one set of eyes to another, as with the stage productions, but instead by altering the frame of composition, making it ever more inclusive (or the reverse; more exclusive).

illustration of 3 nested frames for a subject

Three ever wider frames to see with own eyes: composition, camera & composition, context of all.

Lawyers and students of psychology are taught that eye-witness accounts can sometimes be unreliable. In the first generations of photography, the popular belief was that “a photo does not lie,” so closely does its verisimilitude correspond to the scene in front of the lens at the moment of capture. But closer examination has shown careful forgeries or frauds are possible, even in the days before digital manipulation. And yet when our eyes present a composition, we seem to hold everything in the frame as a complete statement; as if it were all that we need to know and that the context outside the frame, behind the scenes, or the events before or after the frozen moment will not contribute to the certainty or reality of visual grasp of the things within the frame.


As a result of this high denomination of truth value attached to visual information, whether staged or spontaneous, we tend to accept as necessary and sufficient proof whatever is produced in visual form. Similar certainty of one’s viewpoint holds by extension to cultural (mis)communication, ethnic differences, religious worldviews, or tendencies that distinguish masculine and feminine communication patterns both verbal and non-verbal. In other words, a perfectly rational person of goodwill and wide experience in the world can easily hold a firm view of how the world works, his or her place in the scheme of things, and what master narrative should be applied to interpret one’s past, present, and the intended course to come in one’s future aspirations and reference points. And yet a second person who is equally well-adjusted to a very different part of the world may hold very firmly an understanding of the world that diametrically opposes the first person. By looking at the illustration, above, the role of adjusting one’s frame and composition can be seen. There will be times when one person’s perspective differs to another person’s perspective, and yet the underlying facts can be agreed upon: the scene is the same, but the frame drawn around the subject, indeed the choice of which should be the main subject, can differ.


All this rambling is to say that the primacy of visual understanding can lead to feelings of certainty, or possibly a sense of superior vantage point to trump any alternate view. But by returning to the simple illustration, above, the principle of reframing can be seen as a way to permit diverse interpretations to coexist, much in the spirit of the Buddhist parable of seekers climbing the same mountain, but starting from different sides and facing the sun and moon and wind and weather accordingly from different angles before coming to the same summit and meeting the others there to share that mountaintop experience.


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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.