Whereas many companies advertise their products as durable or long lasting, the purveyors of Snatchat happily tout theirs as an “ephemeral” photo messaging service. By ephemeral, they mean photos and videos sent from their social media app disappear forever within ten seconds of being opened – a critical selling point for young users seeking to shield their messages from the prying eyes of grownups. The idea has caught on. On its first day of trading, Snap Inc.’s stock opened at $24 per share, putting its market capitalization at $33 billion, roughly the same size as Marriot or Target. This despite the fact that the firm lost more than half a billion dollars the year before, exceeding its revenues by a substantial margin. Although the company duly warned investors that it “may never achieve or maintain profitability,” the market clearly saw huge upside potential in a product that comes and goes in the time it takes to tie your shoes.
Ephemeral photos are a disheartening development for photographers like me who can spend hours working on a single image with the hope that it will one day hang in a gallery or a museum. To those who embrace the latest technology, such notions no doubt seem quaint. But, of course, there is nothing new about “instant” photography as such, although up until now the emphasis has been on the speed of photo processing rather than the speedy disposal of the finished product.
We do well to remember that the old technology wasn’t always old, and when it was new the critical selling point wasn’t its perishability but something more nearly the opposite. On the eve of the Civil War, when photography was still a novelty, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a series of prescient essays in The Atlantic about its impact on civilization. Until then, portraiture was a costly adornment of the privileged few. Now, Holmes marveled, this “mirror with a memory” enabled even the common man to achieve a kind of immortality. “It is hardly too much to say, that those whom we love no longer leave us in dying, as they did of old,” he wrote. “They remain with us just as they appeared in life; they look down upon us from our walls; they lie upon our tables; they rest upon our bosoms; nay, if we will, we may wear their portraits, like signet-rings, upon our fingers….How these shadows last, and how their originals fade away!”
Death was an omnipresent fact of life in the Victorian era, when women often died in childbirth and many children did not live to adulthood. Three of Abraham Lincoln’s four sons died an early death, a tragic -- but by no means unheard of -- circumstance when Holmes wrote that “those we love no longer leave us in dying.” Until the late 19th century, post-mortem photographs were a popular way to memorialize the recently deceased, particularly infants and small children. Many commercial photographers specialized in them. Photographers went to great lengths to capture life-like poses of the dead: infants ostensibly asleep in their cribs, children cradled in their mothers’ arms, adults propped up in bed or even sitting in chairs.
Yet even when photography was still in its infancy, Holmes complained that too many people took it for granted, preferring novelty to immortality. This may be the single through-line from that time until this, with glass-plate negatives giving way to film cameras, thence to digital cameras and smart phones. The movement was always in the direction of instant gratification: faster shutter speeds, faster film, quicker photo processing, instantaneous uploads and downloads – all culminating in those self-immolating Snapchat messages, known in the trade as “snaps.” Snapchat is photography without a frame. It is not meant for a gallery wall or a photo album or even a photo file on your smart phone. One entrepreneur explained Snapchat’s appeal this way: “…instead of trying to freeze the moment and capturing the experience shouldn’t you focus on the moment itself?”
Moments, by definition, have no duration, so Snapchat has a way to go before disappearing entirely into the now. Still, it is not hard to see why Snapchat’s target market is 18-to-34-year-olds who have grown up on an exclusive diet of TV sound bites and social media. According to a Microsoft study, the average human attention span shrank by roughly a third between 2000 to 2015, from about 12 seconds to 8 seconds (less than a goldfish’s nine-second attention span). Admittedly, there is a certain chicken-and-egg problem here: it is not entirely clear whether electronic media are to blame or are merely responding to the fact that people can’t pay attention anymore. We certainly have our suspicions. Technology writer Nicholas Carr has warned that “media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought.” So what is taking shape out of all this? Hard to say when it comes and goes in under 10 seconds.
"Pepper No. 30" (1930) and "Nude" (1936) by Edward Weston
Around the time I began taking pictures in earnest, I saw a traveling exhibit of Edward Weston’s photographs at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. Weston is regarded as one of the preeminent photographers in the first half of the 20th century. Perhaps his most distinctive works were black and white still lifes of fruits and vegetables, some of which were on display in the Atheneum show. They were gorgeous, not just gorgeous enough to make you want to eat them but gorgeous to look at, as works of art. "I am 'old fashioned' enough to believe that beauty — whether in art or nature, exists as an end in itself,” Weston declared. Elsewhere he said, “My true program is summed up in one word: life.”
He particularly liked photographing peppers, because he said they “never repeat themselves.” Not that he made a career out of photographing objects that might also be eaten. He was also known for landscapes and for nudes that often featured his mistresses as models. They all share a certain sensuous quality, even the vegetables. Much to Weston’s chagrin, he found that critics steeped in the then-current vogue for Freudian psychology would describe his peppers in overtly erotic terms. While his expressed aim was to “make a pepper more than a pepper,” he insisted it was still a pepper, not a penis or a vulva. And yet if you look at the body of his work, you will see an obvious kinship between his vegetables and his nudes, as well as his seashells and even some of his landscapes. Weston accused his critics of seeing things in his work that weren’t there. But perhaps he just couldn’t see things in his own work that were there: the lushness and sensuality of all creation, the muchness of it.
Weston liked taking pictures of peppers because their forms never repeated themselves. And while he did not make a career out of photographing vegetables, he might well have. There are over 600 varieties of peppers in the world, coming in every conceivable shape, size and color. There are 16,000 species of mushrooms, which he also photographed; 4,000 varieties of tomatoes; 7,500 kinds of apples; 1,600 types of bananas; and 4,000 potatoes (although no one ever accused potatoes of being sexy). There appears to be not just one kind of anything in creation, neither animal nor vegetable – except, of course, for the one kind taking the pictures, although that kind alone seems to come in every conceivable shape, size and color all by itself.
If life is your true program, there it is obviously much to work with, and who knows where it ends. When I was growing up, it was still possible to believe that ours was the single planet in the universe that harbored life. Until recent decades, the only planets known to exist were in our solar system, and none but our own appeared hospitable to life. Since 1995, thousands of planets have been identified outside our solar system, and habitable planets in the Milky Way Galaxy may number in the billons. Multiply that by the hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe, and you may have more Earth-like planets altogether than all the grains of sand in all the beaches of the world, each potentially harboring life in some form. And if they do, you can bet there won’t be just one kind of anything, except perhaps for that one kind that takes pictures of the rest.
Surveying the immensity of creation – of trying to – one is struck by the sheer profligacy of it. Consider the lowly pepper, the subject of some of Weston’s most iconic images. He was known to spend a week or more photographing a single pepper. At that rate it would take him a dozen years to photograph just a single specimen of every variety of pepper there is. Why so many peppers? It is as if God or nature -- or whatever you want to call it -- doesn’t know when to stop. And it is the same with everything, not just here but also potentially on every habitable planet in every galaxy in the universe.
For a photographer, this muchness explains why we will never run out of things to shoot, no matter how narrowly focused our interests. I am primarily a landscape photographer and seldom venture more than a few miles from home to take pictures that are exhibited all over the United States. I doubt I will ever produce the kind of monumental works that Ansel Adams did, because Yosemite National Park is not in my backyard, as it was for him. Yet I have not come close to exhausting all the possibilities in my own neighborhood. There is always some nook or cranny that has yet to be explored, then re-explored at a different season or a different time of day. Because I shoot close to home, I can be out there on short notice with my camera and tripod when the fog rolls in or the snow is still clinging to branches or a stream is barely iced over. And it’s not just the terrain that is always changing; so am I. I can pass the same spot a thousand times and not see anything, and then something catches my eye in a certain light the next time around. All I have to do is keep my eyes open.
I am not the only one out there taking pictures, of course. Weston was constrained by heavy large-format camera equipment and the need to develop film in darkrooms using noxious chemicals. Nowadays nearly everybody can get into the game with a digital SLR camera or a smart phone. Something like a trillion photographs are taken every year, not nearly as many as all the grains of sand in all the beaches of the world but still utterly beyond human comprehension. Figured another way, if you glanced at every single image, it would take you over 3,000 years to look at them all, working around the clock. Meanwhile, trillions more would be piling up year in and year out, most of them on social media. Judging by what I see on Facebook, those who post them are not motivated by beauty for its own sake, as Weston was, although they certainly could be summed up by that one word: life. There are pictures of beloved pets, meals eaten at favorite restaurants, vacation pictures -- the kind the stuff that used to find its way into family photo albums, now posted for the entire world to see. What can account for our strange compulsion to photograph everything under the sun? It’s all too much, and yet we can’t seem to get enough of it.
"Teakettle" by Eric Rennie
"Take a commonplace,” wrote Jean Cocteau, “clean it and polish it, light it so that it produces the same effect of youth and freshness and originality and spontaneity as it did originally, and you have done a poet's job.” Cocteau was a poet as well as a filmmaker, but I like to think that his words might apply equally to a photographer. There are, of course, photographers who specialize in photographing the glossy surface of things. But I tend to take things as I find them, saving the cleaning and polishing for after the picture is taken, when I am working in Photoshop or one of its add-ons.
This image presented itself to me early one winter’s morning in our kitchen, with the light streaming through venetian blinds onto the wall behind our glass-topped electric stove. The teakettle is old and dented and scratched; otherwise you would see clearly the photographer’s reflection in its shiny aluminum surface, along with a camera and tripod. Fortunately, the tools of my trade were close at hand. In another few minutes, the light would have shifted, and this image would have been lost. As it was, I hadn’t even sat down to breakfast yet, and already I had done a photographer’s job.
"Phragmites 3" by Eric Rennie
My work is loving the world. So wrote Mary Oliver in the opening line of her poem, “The Messenger.” Asked in an interview what she meant by this, Oliver replied, “Loving the world means giving it attention, which draws one to devotion…” I was struck by her answer, because she might also have been describing my own vocation as a photographer. To love the world does not mean you always find it lovable or even tolerable. Loving the world, as Oliver says, means paying attention to it. I don’t know that I am normally any more attentive than anyone else. But I have a job to do, and when I sling a camera strap over my shoulder or shoulder my tripod, I am all business.
One is drawn to devotion, Oliver says. The Christian mystic and philosopher Simone Weil was getting at the same idea when she wrote, “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.” One might conclude that paying attention must mean directing one’s thoughts to particular object -- but in this case, no. Weil goes on to say, “Attention consists in suspending thought, in leaving it available, empty and subject to penetration by the object.” She added that “thought must remain empty, awaiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that will penetrate it.”
For a photographer, as well as for a poet, the truth is not expressed in generalities but in its particularity: in a particular moment, a particular place, a particular light; and often in its granularity, in its textures and shapes and facial expressions. I like to make photographs so clear and crisp that you can almost step into them. A photograph or poem may point to something beyond itself, but there is no getting around the thing itself. As the Depression-era photographer Walker Evans once expressed it, “If the thing is there, why there it is.”
Christian contemplatives have often been deeply suspicious of the world. Medieval anchorites were walled up in a cell for the rest of their lives after the bishop performed a funeral rite to signify that they were henceforth dead to the world. God himself was not so inclined. According to the biblical creation story, God created the heavens and the earth in six days and judged them to be good. The Hebrew word translated as “good” in the Genesis account literally means “that which gratifies the senses and derivatively that which gives aesthetic or moral satisfaction” -- beautiful, in short. The adjective is used seven times in the first chapter of Genesis as God contemplated his handiwork and pronounced it beautiful: first the light, then the earth and the seas, the plants and the trees, the separation of light from darkness, the sea creatures and birds of the air, the wild animals of the earth and the cattle of every kind. Finally, he beheld everything that he had made and found it to be beautiful. In short, his work had been loving the world. I would like to think that in another incarnation God might be a photographer.
Hollywood star Douglas Fairbanks selling war bonds in New York City, 1918
In a video essay for the PBS Newshour, novelist Russell Banks made what he regarded as a key distinction between a tourist and a traveler. “A traveler carries no camera and uses his or her phone mainly to make occasional phone calls home or when lost for the GPS,” he said, making no bones about where his predilections lay. “It’s now more than 30 years that I have traveled without a camera and snapped no pictures with my iPhone, and I never apologize for it. Instead, when I travel, every night in a hotel room or a cabin or a tent, I sit down and write, sometimes by candlelight, an account of my day, whether I’m writing for hire or just traveling on my own.” Why this aversion to taking pictures on his travels? Banks declared, “To photograph it was somehow to reduce and domesticate my experience and ultimately to kill it.”
As a writer and a photographer, I disclaim any bias in either direction, but I can see Banks’ point, at least insofar as camera-wielding tourists are concerned. There is certainly a sense in which the photographer, like the lepidopterist, kills what he loves. Early photographers would sometimes encounter non-European peoples who believed the camera would steal their souls. We should not be too hasty is dismissing such notions as mere primitive superstition. What exactly is being taken when we take a picture or capture an image? Why do we often feel the need to ask permission before photographing someone? Is there not some kind of transaction taking place that somehow benefits the photographer at the expense of the subject? Life goes on, of course, and those who are shot by a camera (another oddly aggressive locution) suffer no visible wounds. And yet their images wind up trapped forever in a weird two-dimensional simulacrum of the world, frozen in time and drained of all but the appearance of life.
Look at the photograph of a crowd scene from a century ago and you may get some sense of what I mean. The actual crowd haphazardly assembles and then quickly disperses to live out their lives, however obscurely, before vanishing altogether, replaced by the next generation, then by the next and the next. Yet some smidgen remains, if only as a momentary arrangement of light and shadow captured on a photographic plate and then treated with chemicals to produce an image that finds its way into a photo album or a book or a newspaper’s morgue file (how appropriately named!). They are condemned to stand like statues for what appears to be an eternity but is really nothing more than the freeze-frame of a moment, caught like flies in amber.
The advent of the camera phone has only exacerbated the tendency to turn every aspect of human experience into a photo opportunity. The main difference is that those momentary arrangements of light and shadow are now captured on a digital sensor and in short order transmitted into cyberspace, yet another simulacrum of the real world. According to recent statistics, Facebook’s 1.7 billion active monthly users are posting 300 million photos per day online. This works out to well over 100 billion images per year – and that is only a single social media outlet, albeit the largest. In cyberspace, needless to say, it is always tourist season.
And what of the photographer who fancies himself a traveler rather than a tourist? Apart from the fact that his equipment is usually a bit bulkier than a smart phone, what sets him apart from his point-and-shoot counterparts? Surely not the subject matter, which can be almost anything. No, it is what the photographer brings to the transaction. For those who approach photography as an art form, the issue is not what they take but what they have to give. All art is a collaboration between one’s subject and the thing within oneself that resonates with it. The serious photographer is always pointing to something beyond himself and perhaps even to something beyond the subject itself.
What exactly does a serious photographer bring to his art? To put a name to it, I might borrow a term from Christian tradition and call it sacramental imagination, which is the ability to see the sublime in the everyday. You do not necessarily need to invoke God; call it beauty or Nature with a capital “N,” if you prefer. “It is the infinite in the finite,” Baudelaire said. He was speaking as a poet, of course. But what can be more appropriate for the photographer, who traffics in the instantaneous but, if he is true to his vision, can perhaps hope to evoke something eternal.
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