Monday, May 2, 2016

Seeing, Recording

Here's an interesting distinction. Interesting, that is, to me.

A recent commenter on this blog noted that some people with cameras use them as a way to see more intensely, the actual recorded photograph (implicitly) being to some degree or another superfluous. This ties in neatly with something I've been saying for ages, and which the mainstream pundit-class are barely starting to notice, to wit: the usage of photography on social media isn't really about recording the moment, at least not a long-term recording. It is about a kind of remote seeing. It is "look at this, which I saw" and it's not intended to be interesting in a week, or even in an hour. It's sharing in the immediate moment.

It's about seeing and then sharing what is seen. Curating, if you will, my current "now", and sharing that out to my friends so they too can "see". If they "see" it now, or in a few days, that's OK, but the intent is that they should "see" it once, in the same way that I am seeing it now. I see my latte, the guy with the funny hat, the cute dog. Then the world whirls onward, and that's that. In a moment, in an hour, in a week, my friend checks on my Instagram, and they get to see the latte, the hat guy, the dog, in the same way.

I think it is fair to say that these people are often not curating their photographs but rather their environment.

This is wildly in contrast to traditional photography. So much so that this new thing is incomprehensible to the old guard. I, as a member of the old guard, have to kind of struggle to get it, and if I'm not paying attention, I miss it all over again.

Ansel Adams and the boring old dudes before him droned on about archival processing, prints that would last 500 years, and so on. The whole deal is about making a Really Great Picture and then preserving it forever. This whole business is in a deeply essential way about recording.

The traditional snapshot is also about recording. "Here we are at Disneyland, in 1978, there's Susie with Cinderella, see how little she was? Ha ha!" and so on.

These things were intended to be looked at more than once, and in the future.

Somehow, imperceptibly, the snapshot has changed from being a record to a much more immediate extension of sight. We're still at Disneyland, but we're at Disneyland right now, see? It's not really clear what's happening to the recording aspect of this. Are the trips to Disneyland just lost in time, like tears in rain? Or do they live on in the bowels of the phone, until the phone dies? It's clear that people mostly don't care, certainly.

These pictures are intended, largely, to be looked at exactly one (1) time.

In parallel, we have (if my commenter is to be believed?!) quite serious photographers who are doing roughly the same thing, photography as seeing. There have been street photographers (Winogrand) who seem to have been doing this quite a while ago. Something about the act of committing photons to film was important to the way Winogrand got through his day, but actually developing the films and looking at them was not. See also Vivian Maier, and, I suppose, loads of other similar whackos out there. In those cases, the record exists, but apparently as an afterthought. These people weren't even extending their seeing to others, they were literally looking at their world through a viewfinder, and found some sort of solace of comfort therein.

These people may have been making pictures intended to be looked at not at all. And God alone knows how many of them there are that have never been privileged to be dug up, the corpses of their work propped up in overblown monographs.

I still make pictures, or more exactly, collections of pictures that are intended to be looked at many times. But I'm old.


  1. I get what you're saying about seeing/sharing and recording, but I think the comment you reference is more about just focusing your own attention, the camera being incidental. For me, when I have time, I like to draw. I'm not that good, probably won't share what I'm drawing, but it is a great way for me to really stop and look at something, see it in detail, and regardless of output that has value for me. I can't draw something (or take an intentional, decent photograph for that matter) without kicking up that level of attention.

    In a related way, my daughter uses her long zoom p&s almost as a game of tag, taking pictures of birds while we're hiking. Pure fun. She gets some great pictures, but has little interest in curating them or even sharing. It's more the thrill of the hunt or seeing detail she would not be able to get close enough to see without the zoom. I think if she had an SD card that auto-deleted each evening she'd be fine >99% of the time. Cameras- fun! Oh and you can make pictures to keep and share too!


  2. I guess the original comment was mine, and I had Winogrand and Mayer in my mind when I wrote it. I am not very familiar with their work, though, so I didn't use them as examples in the post.
    As far as I'm concerned, I try to create work which has some meaning to me and which I take out and enjoy from time to time. I'm "old school" in this respect, too. On the other hand, when I'm "in the field", I often become carried away by all the beauty I see and consequently take a lot of pictures. This I find enjoyable and rewarding in itself. A current project of mine is to distill what I find beautiful, and it is driving me nuts.

  3. I remember one of my friend's kid with her first digital camera: she ran around the yard for an hour and made dozens of photos, looked at them on the (back then tiny) display, and moved on. She never even wanted to import the photos to a computer to look at them. Seeing the world differently through the camera was enough for her.