I Am a Camera

November 14, 2016

"Garbage Bin" by Eric Rennie

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.

— Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin

Kenneth Thomas, my 11th-grade English teacher, gave us the assignment of writing a descriptive paragraph that was strictly factual, without any judgmental language or emotional shadings.  This proved to be surprisingly difficult to do.  You were almost reduced to making lists, shorn of any descriptive modifiers.  For example, I might list the contents of the garbage bin in my kitchen thus: an aluminum lid to a yogurt container, a cardboard holder for a frozen sandwich wrap, a used tea bag, several green onion stalks, a wet paper towel, a banana peel, a wedge of green pepper, a smaller piece of red pepper, several pieces of iceberg and red leaf lettuce, a cucumber slice, a sprinkling of wet coffee grounds and a cantaloupe rind on top, with another partly submerged next to it.  Apart from a few references to colors, there is no appeal here to the senses, which in this case is just as well, since the fragrance was none too appetizing.  Even to refer to the container as a garbage bin may have introduced a pejorative connotation that is not in keeping with the intent of the exercise.

By stripping the flesh off the bones of our writing, we were given some insight into how easily it can become larded with implicit judgments and emotional content.  I no longer remember whether my class was reading Hemingway at the time, but I seem to recall A Farewell to Arms was assigned that year.  Hemingway, of course, was noted for his unadorned style, which rigorously avoided both adjectives and abstractions – to say nothing of commas and subordinate clauses -- and left much unsaid altogether.  Critics often point to his formative experience as a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star and later as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star in Paris, where he learned to say a great deal in as few words as possible when filing copy by transatlantic cable.  Hemingway also drew inspiration from painters like Cezanne, as he told Lillian Ross in a famous profile in the New Yorker: “I was learning something from the painting of Cézanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions that I was trying to put in them.”  Critic Zoe Trodd saw in Hemingway’s work a “camera-eye aesthetic” that captured scenes in a series of quick snapshots that were layered on to give an almost cinematic effect.

Whether writing by the eye or the ear, Hemingway’s quest was always to write one true sentence. “Write the truest sentence you know," he would tell himself to get started.  “So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.”  Given his abhorrence of abstraction, his sentences were always aimed at the particular rather than at some great universal truth.  They pointed beyond the words to the thing itself, exactly as a camera would.  A camera never records more or less than what it is actually there.  It offers no judgments, whether the subject is a bed of roses or a pile of garbage.  It is the perfect instrument for what Buddhist’s call “clear seeing” – nonconceptual awareness unclouded by thought or emotion.

Of course, a camera does not take its own pictures, any more than a story writes itself.  What is the photographer’s role in manipulating an instrument that sees all?  Most fundamentally, the photographer must decide where to point the camera and when to take the picture.  There are adjustments to be made in focus, shutter speed and depth of field.  For an experienced photographer, these adjustments are made almost reflexively. “Thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards—never while actually taking a photograph,” as the iconic photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson once put it.  Cartier-Bresson famously said that he regarded his camera as an extension of his eye.  But you can also think of it the other way around: that the photographer’s eye is an extension of the camera.  If you learn to see as the camera sees, the world is stripped bare and you see it as if for the first time.  The photographer’s job then is not so much to capture what he thinks he sees as what he has been shown.