The Infinite in the Finite

April 30, 2017

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.