False Dichotomy

Posted on February 28, 2015 by psu

I like to take pictures of things, but I would not say that I’m a photographer. Back when I carried a camera that was a bit too large people would ask me about the machine and remark that I must be a pretty serious photo person. I would usually claim that I just dabble. This is probably a bit of an understatement.

If you happen to spot me at some event, or in front of some famous structure, or just hanging around in your city as the sun goes down you might observe that I am behind the camera taking a picture instead of standing off of the side observing the scene, soaking it all in. If the situation is particularly interesting, you might see me take 50, or 100, or 200 pictures in a relatively short period of time. This might seem like a lot to you.

You might even feel some concern for my well being. “Oh my”, you might say, why doesn’t psu wake up and smell the roses. Isn’t he “missing out on the real world” by obsessively recording it with his soulless electro-mechanical machine instead? Doesn’t he want to capture his own memories inside his brain, where they will be much more meaningful?

You might even be the type of person who would act on your concern and make sure that I was doing OK:

You: “Hey psu! This sunset in front this famous structure in this wonderful city that you do not visit much is amazing! Why not look at it instead of only taking pictures?”

Me: “Fuck off, I am looking at it.”

There is a false dichotomy at work here. People tend to assume that taking a picture or video of something is a completely separate act from actually being there, even though you have to be there to do it. There is even some modern angst around the idea that by taking photographs you are destroying your own memories. Of course I find this ludicrous. But the reasons are complicated.

Most photography in the world is done in a passive state of mind. You are on vacation, you and the kids walk past a huge impressive building in the middle of the day with thousands of other camera-toting tourists. You tell the kids and the spousal unit to stand in front of the building, frowning and squinting into the sun to record the fact that you in fact made it alive to this famous place. These days you might also take a quick video of the kids interacting with some street person who is begging for money in front of the same monument. Then you post your things in Facebook and forget about them forever.

I will put on my hat of self-importance and self-aggrandizement now and say that I have almost no interest in that. Sure I take my share of mindless snapshots, but you will usually not find me posing people in front of monuments in bad light just to prove we were there.

When I am “doing photography” I generally have two mental goals:

  1. I want to make something that will look nice later.

  2. I want to take a picture that will evoke the sense of the place I was standing when you look at it later while you are standing somewhere completely different.

Honestly I am not that good a photographer, so most of the time I only manage to achieve the first of those two goals. But, once in a while I get lucky and a combination of the situation, my state of mind, and some subconscious force takes over and I actually manage to take a good picture. Those pictures are valuable to me as individual artifacts but the act of trying to make them is actually more important, because here is the thing: if I wasn’t trying to make an interesting photograph, I might not be mentally interacting with the place at all.

My claim is that good photography requires being in a mentally active state which will only increase the extent to which you experience whatever environment you happen to be inhabiting at the time. Rather than mindlessly recording everything (like all the parents at school play) you should be seeking out the things in front of you that are the most interesting and the most evocative of your experience. Not only will you take home a better photograph, but you will probably experience more of the place than you would have just by walking through it. At least that’s how it goes for me. For me taking pictures is like taking notes in class. It forces me to focus my mind and remember what’s going on.

As usual with any good idea about photography, I have borrowed this one from Galen Rowell who wrote many essays about this very subject for this column in Outdoor Photographer over the years. Rowell was a guy who made his living bringing cameras on rock climbing expeditions. His essays have a lot to say about the relationship between experience and photography, and how photography can be a useful tool in not only recording but also amplifying your experiences. You can check out some of his writing at Mountain Light or just buy his books. They are all good. Here is a typical snippet:

Avoid the rut of taking record shots. Imagine that each photograph you’re going to take is the cover of a magazine or the lead photograph in some grand exhibit. Once you think about how it should look when its presented to people who weren’t there, you avoid taking those boring staring-in-the camera shots of you and your partner dead in the middle of the picture, or those landscapes that just show a tree or a mountain without any emotional interpretation.

I have two more thoughts about this subject.

A few years ago Apple ran a nice ad at Christmas time about a sullen teenager who is always staring into his phone. But, there is a twist at the end! The whole time he seemed to be checked out, he was really making a touching video about the entire event, lovingly capturing his family and friends at peak emotional moments. When I saw this ad I thought to myself: “now those people understand where I am coming from.”

Of course, there are dissenting opinions, like this person from Forbes who finds the whole thing depressing and borderline dystopian. But she completely misses the point. If the guy in the ad had worked the way she describes, the video at the end would have been a mindless drone of all the hours and hours of clips that the teenager captured on his phone, unedited and with no post-production. Instead, the final film that you see is skillfully put together to capture the bits that you would want to remember because the kid has the insight to do it right. I would suggest that Ms. Rooney put her iPhone away (which she admits to using to take too many mindless snapshots), read some Galen Rowell books, and then take it up again and re-evaluate her position.

I also have to make one small point about the breathlessly stupid NYT piece about how taking pictures completely destroys your recollection of the past. They describe a study where kids were to take pictures of art work on the one hand and then intently study the art without taking a picture on the other hand. Of course, the kids could not remember the things they photographed.

But what if they studied the art and photographed it? Well:

Memory was not affected if they were directed to zoom in on a part of the object, suggesting that the extra cognitive work compensated for their divided attention.

Which is exactly my point.

The point is not to record everything. The point is to be at a higher level of perception and record the good stuff. Because then you will be a hero.

Final Extra Note: One last stupidity that I can’t let go of from the NYT. Nowhere in the piece does anyone study what people remember about their distant past when there was no physical record at all. I bet the answer is: a lot of nothing.