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In her treatise on photography, Susan Sontag said, “Today everything exists to end in a photograph.” Witness any public event in the 21st century, crowd members’ arms extended outward with smartphones pointed in every direction and understand how prophetic that statement was way back in 1977.
Sontag’s plea for fewer, more meaningful images seems a quaint cry in the dark 35 years later in an instant age when billions of modern lives cast a shadow life comprised of multiple billions of digital images.
But do they really exist if they only take up space on a computer hard drive in pixels?
My sister sent out an email the other night asking for photos of the family’s pets. It has become a tradition in our family to make a calendar each year at Christmas, featuring the best shots of our dogs, reproduced on shiny paper in a full-color large format. On the one hand, it was simple and satisfying enough to scroll through iPhoto, pull out a variety of shots and email them to her. On the other hand, these images seemed remote. I shot them either with a phone or a digital camera, transferred them to a storage space on a laptop computer and rarely, if ever, looked at them again.
Multiply that by the fact that every other family member has also shot pictures of the same dogs with their digital devices and their images exist in their personal cyberspaces. Our lives are documented exponentially but remain largely out of sight in a password-protected private realm.
Maybe it is a sign of becoming an antiquated senior out here in the middle distance, but when I snap a shot with my iPhone, it doesn’t even register that I am taking a picture. The image becomes a phantom almost as soon as it is captured, destined to enter iPhoto purgatory.
I remember cameras with film and their understood limitations. A roll of 12 or 24 or 36 shots implied that choices must be made, photos framed and planned. And there was always the possibility that mishandling film could result in accidental exposure to light and a big white blob over what was to be a representation of something significant.
My parents shot the photographic archive of our family’s 1950s and early ‘60s lives with a wind-up Brownie camera — girls lined up on the lawn in stiff-skirted Easter dresses; sleepy-eyed kids in pajamas holding up just unwrapped Christmas gifts; obligatory shots with visiting cousins and grandparents and aunts and uncles; brothers posing like Elvis or The Rifleman. The film was developed and the snapshots printed at a photography studio where they were bound together neatly in little books with yellow paper covers. Square black-and-white images with corrugated edges. When I visit my mother now, 50 years later, they are still there in her drawers and cabinets, waiting for searching hands to pull them into the light, and they don’t require a viewing device.
In the groovy 1970s we acquired a string of Kodak Instamatics with their drop-in plastic film cartridges and Polaroid Land cameras that magically made washed-out color prints in sixty seconds. I remember the advent of the flashcube that flipped and flashed four times, then was tossed. I worked at a drug store in high school and sold Instamatic film cartridges and bushels of flashcube four-packs to the suburbanites of East Memphis. Back then people dropped off their film and didn’t discover how their pictures turned out until a week later when they were returned from the processing plant. We sorted them into large envelopes by hand, and a 16-year old store clerk sometimes couldn’t resist sneaking a look at someone else’s living room or back yard or, God forbid, bedroom memories.
Senior year in high school, my boyfriend was a photography nerd with a Nikkormat, the first single lens reflex camera I’d ever seen. He rolled his own film from bulk stock and developed it in a can he swished around inside a black sack with two armholes. He reeked constantly of a mix of sweat and darkroom chemicals and unfettered passion for the contrast he could create in a black and white print.
Thirty-five years later, he died, leaving behind a lifetime of photographs — boxes of prints and negatives and a computer hard drive loaded with tens of thousands of digital images. We touched and framed and hung the prints, especially the old black and whites, and quickly forgot the digital images were there. They remain in code on a computer hard drive, still waiting to be delivered.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.