Sunday, May 28, 2017

A Thousand Words

At a recent concert, as at every sizable one beyond the most sedate that I’ve attended in the past decade, in the audience there was a large crop of alit cell phones atop waving arms. Not that long ago rules against cameras and recordings at concerts were pretty strictly enforced, but with the proliferation of smart phones they are so widely flouted as to be unenforceable in most venues. Not a few of the attendees around me experienced the night primarily through their phones, reviewing photos and video clips immediately after recording them and then posting them to social media; only occasionally did they look directly at the band. Since the marginal cost of taking a digital photo is zero, people take far more than they did a decade or two ago. When someone wants to show you a particular photo stored on a phone, they typically flick through hundreds of pics in order to find it. On hard drives, flash drives, and the cloud they store photos in the thousands. Some people, of course, are very methodical with their files; they separate digital photos neatly into thematic “albums,” each with contents of manageable size. Most, however, are more slipshod: doing the online equivalent of the pre-digital practice of saving pictures by tossing them all helter-skelter into a big box.

1947 model Kodak Brownie
Photography is nearly two hundred years old, but for the whole of the 19th century it was the domain of the specialist. A camera simply wasn’t something ordinary people had around the house to record events of their daily lives. All that changed thanks to George Eastman, a lifelong bachelor who liked nothing more than to bake pies, bicycle (perhaps to wear off the pie), and make photography simpler. Founder of Eastman Kodak, he and his researchers invented a new flexible photographic film and purpose-designed a camera for the film that ordinary folks could afford and use. The Kodak brownie was offered for sale in 1900 at a price of $2. Millions of brownies were sold over the next eight decades. True, they weren’t remotely up to the standards demanded by commercial photographers, but for a shot of your 10-year-old niece on a pony they were just fine. The first camera I remember using as a kid was my parents’ 1947 model brownie.

Polaroid Snap digital camera
Humans are an impatient breed, however, and they dislike waiting for film to be developed, which typically was at least two days in the 1950s; one hour photo shops came along later. They wanted to know right away if the pictures were properly framed and lit. Polaroid came to the rescue in 1948 with their instant cameras. Polaroid had appeal beyond instant gratification: privacy. You could take embarrassing photos without worrying about whether the folks in the photo shop giggled over them or kept their own copies. It became the camera of choice for nonprofessional photos of an adult nature. Polaroid took a devastating hit in the 90s and 00s from digital photography, which also produces instant results, but in recent years it has made something of a comeback. The new Polaroid cameras in a range of prices and sizes are digital but print out an instant hard copy just like the old models. This has distinct advantages: Sometimes, as many people have learned to their cost, it is not a good idea to save a particular photo in an easily shared electronic format; it is better to print a single pic and delete the digital file from the camera. True, it still can be scanned and shared, but that is troublesome enough to be less common than an impulsive finger-tap on a phone made under the influence of brandy.

All this comes to mind because an hour ago I printed out hard copies of a few digital pics for a photo album – the kind with actual pages in a three-ring notebook. I like old fashioned albums you can hold in your hands, just as I prefer actual books to Kindle. Of course I do have purely digital file folders of pics and, for reasons of time and money, I do occasionally read books online, but given a choice when time and money are not significant issues I prefer the bulky material ones. It’s a quadruple sensory thing: not just sight but tactility, aroma, and the sound of pages turning. I suppose one can taste a book or photo too, and thereby employ all five, but I choose to leave that one out. Also, a physical photo album forces one to edit. A good photo album, like a well-written biography, is concise; it contains key information without overwhelming the reader/viewer with boring repetitive details. It is defined as much by what is left out as by what it contains.

Oldest photo in my album: my
great great grandfather
Ferdinand Meyers, b.1832
My physical photo albums aren’t especially good (in the sense of being interesting to anyone but myself), but they serve my purpose. There are three books: 1) family photos predating 1950, 2) photos from 1950 to 1970, and 3) photos from 1970 to present. If that seems unequally distributed it’s because my mom snapped a lot of photos in the two decades between 1950 (the year my sister was born) and 1970 (the year I graduated high school). Even after I trimmed the contents – tossing the excised pics into a box – they still make a larger book than the other two combined. I reorganized the first two albums when they became mine. The reorganization was necessary to suit my chronological taste (I have a BA in history); the two previously weren’t organized that way at all. My mom had selected photographs well out of a big box of them, but if there was any theme or pattern to their place in the albums it was a mystery known only to her; photos decades apart were as likely as not to be on the same page.
Most recent album photo: I mashing
poor Samantha Fish after her concert

I rarely force anyone else to look at the albums, but I do think they are more graspable to others in a holistic way than images called up to an LED screen. Moreover, they are more graspable to me. Perhaps Millennials and GenZs feel differently, but if I want to wallow in the past, a hold-in-hands album is the way to do it. It recalls not just what is in it, but what is left out. Unless someone throws the albums out they even will survive long after the passwords to my digital files are forgotten. I don’t fret about that though. All things are temporary, very much including memories. 

Ringo Starr – Photograph


  1. I didn't know about that little Polaroid Snap camera. Pretty neat. My parents have had many cameras and eventually got a Polaroid Instamatic, I guess it was called. You'd take a picture wait a few minutes, and then pull the back off to see the results.

    I remember taking photograph in college where you'd also use the dark room something behind the scenes one usually didn't deal with back then. I can't remember the format of the camera back then, it wasn't 35mm. It was a box-like camera and you'd look down into the top of the camera to see what you were shooting. I enjoyed the course though. There's a guy on Youtube that buys and fixes up old camera. He says he still uses them more as a hobby. I can't imagine. Sometimes technology invents a better mousetrap.

    1. I used a Polaroid whenever practical from the 60s through the 80s. It wasn’t always practical because – unlike the Snap – the Polaroids then were bulky. Often I wanted something that would fit in a pocket, especially when traveling, so I had a small (post-Brownie) Kodak, too. I was never a serious enough photographer for a more serious camera. A few of my friends always had the case-full-of-lenses and the home dark-room-in-the-basement thing going on though. I’m sure the college class was informative.

      The social ramifications of nearly everyone having a camera/video-recorder available at all times are still in the process of manifesting themselves. Whatever they are, there is no going back.