For some reason when we start talking about photography–particularly the amateur, the point-and-shooter–we use some not-so-classy words: You take a picture, capture an image, snap a shot. They point to the quickness of a camera, yes, but they also inform the way we think about photography to begin with. Photography is not something that we, the average person, create; instead it’s something we take from a particular location or experience, and in this digital age where everyone is a photographer, that taking is ubiquitous.But what are we taking? Not so long ago I was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, trying to admire one of the displays of medieval armor. A kid walked up to the glass nearby, raised his phone, snapped a shot, and walked away. I saw the same thing in a gallery of French paintings, from people much older and with much better photography equipment: point, shoot, walk away.
I wanted to ask what they thought they’d just captured. Not an experience, certainly. And not even a piece of art: just a sub-par, grainy, crooked photo to keep on their phones until they need the space and summarily delete it. Even supposing they remove it onto their computers, what will they see when it flashes up on their screensaver? They hardly looked at it when it was inches in front of their face, when they could clearly see the cracks or textures in the paint, the vastness or smallness of its size.Have events become excuses for “photo opps”? What happens when moments belong to Kodak and not to us?
We miss something, is what. We lose out. Thumb through the photos of your most recent vacation, and then ask yourself if you can remember anything outside the things you “captured.” Can you recall what it was like to stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon? Was it windy, hot, dry? Were people next to you or were you alone? What did you hear? How much of your view of the Grand Canyon arrived through the screen of your camera?
We (I am hardly exempt) take the pictures because we want something to bring home with us, to help us remember. But photos don’t help us remember much but the photos, so that our impressions of this place we’ve been is boxed up in little 4×6 frames. The best way to ensure you remember something is to experience it entirely, to look around and tell yourself you’re going to remember this moment, and remember it very well. Suddenly you’ll notice everything: the slight, hardly noticeable breeze; the flash of shadows on the valley below from the bird of prey circling overhead; the looks on the faces of the people around you. And once you notice everything you become a part of everything: thus, you have an experience.
Stand in front of a work of art and really see it.
Turn off all other distractions and put on a piece of music and hear it.
Go for a hike and immerse yourself in the world around you. Talk a walk downtown and see the people, the store fronts, the items for sale in the windows.
All this experience is also inspiration for your own work. Writers, like all other artists, are observers first and creators second, and we can’t create anything beautiful if we don’t take the time to wonder appreciate life first. Certainly I can’t. And all that aside there’s nothing like the serenity of such a moment, such complete immersion in something so thrilling and exciting and new.
Personally, I’m still holding out hope that I’ll one day be able to afford a digital SLR camera with a high megapixel capacity and fancy gadgets whose names I don’t yet know. But I want it because my point-and-shoot does only that: points and shoots. It’s a taker, a snapshotter (and even that it doesn’t do very well). Good photography isn’t taken, it’s created. Good photography is an experience all to itself, and requires you to see the world and find the little things no one else saw, the angles and views and shafts of falling light that others might have missed. I’m no great photographer, but I like the idea of trying to create it anyway, for the same reasons that I hack around at a piano keyboard within the safety of my headphones, and that I’d like to someday dabble in watercolors again. Even, in a way, the same reasons that I turn to the computer and sit down to write.
I’ve had all these experiences, you see. And they can’t wait to be transformed into something new.