Friday, January 08, 2010

Photography, Documenting, Memory, and the Wonder of it All

I've just started reading an odd and seemingly wonderful book, "The Lure of the Local: Sense of Place in a Multicentered Society" by Lucy Lippard that I picked up at the ever lovely and eclectic Red Hill Books. Her description of photography in the intro has finally gotten me to write the blog post on documenting everything that I've been meaning to write. Lippard writes of photographs:
Like tourism, painting formalizes place into landscape. The same, of course, can be said of photographs, which lie and expose lies. But because they are printable, reproduceable, and can be mass-distributed, photographs can often transcend their recently awarded status as art. Although still an indoor, two-dimensional, portable, exhibitable, collectable, and endlessly manipulatable medium, photography has another life. Its modest background has allowed it to outpace "high art," to embrace scientific evidence, journalistic witness, hobby, performance, and the interactive arts. Photographs are about memory- or perhaps about the absence of memory, providing pictures to fill voids, illustrating our collective memory. So they are an excellent means with which to trigger concern and soothe anxieties about history and place, even when the means they employ resemble conventional landscape art. In fact, landscape photography could have it both ways- at once subject to personal vision and attributed the objectivity of scientific precision.

I'm not an artist or an art critic, but I am a hobby photographer, and a hobbyist observer of society. Lippard wrote the above before everyone had a digital camera (I believe the first digital cameras were in the late 1990s, and Lippard's book was published in 1997) and before everyone had access to the internet where digital pictures are widely reproduced. I am a little young for the slideshow, but I do remember seeing one or two family slideshows on my grandparent's wall- they pulled out slideshows of old trips they had taken, and I'm sure they had shared them with other people when they initially got back from these trips. The urge to document and share exciting events has always been there- photographing memory or filling in the absence of memory.

I contrast this memory with a slideshow my parents' friends recently showed us- they hooked their digital point and shoot camera up to my parents' High Definition television with a small cable and pressed a button and we watched their travel photos from a recent trip to Australia. How much easier, and different, than taking pictures on slide film, hauling out a slide projector, and manually clicking through the slides, projected on a wall in a darkened room. Something has been lost in this production, and obviously, quality and ease has been gained. The cycle was full circle when my parents asked me to show my grandfather and his partner a slide show of my own photographs on the TV when he came to visit. I hooked up their laptop to the TV and pressed a button and gave him my own modern slideshow.

In 2002, I was still shooting with a film camera. I took this picture in Oaxaca Mexico, with my grandfather's Canon AE1. I was limited by the number of rolls of film I brought with me. About two years ago, I started to scan a few of my favorite pictures from the past and post them to my flickr stream. I quickly gave up on this project as it was hugely time consuming. It was time consuming partly because of the mechanics of it- scanning and cropping and uploading is tiresome- and partly because with film, I never knew how the photos were going to come out, and some were good, and some were bad, but I needed to take them to know. Like I said, I'm not an artist, and my skills aren't that good. With digital, I can look at my shot, see what might be fixed, and edit immediately. With film, it was guesswork. Also, when I was traveling in 2002, I was documenting, mostly- my friends, the scenery, etc. I was documenting- for memory? for posterity? I wasn't taking artistic shots, I was trying to capture what I was seeing, like this girl on the wall. I love the shot, but I think at the time, I knew this girl and liked her, and wanted to catch her essence. I wasn't trying to take a creative shot.


On the other hand, when I traveled to New Orleans in 2008, I went partly to take pictures of the city, the destruction and the recovery. By this time, I had a fairly nice digital camera, and I intentionally chose my lenses. My pictures were more about collective memory, this time, not filling gaps in my personal memory. And they lied, like Lippart writes. I captured individual scenes, with necessary gaps, using my own vision. Others, even the people with me, saw totally different things. And looking back on my pictures now, which I do, these are the things I remember, which is an obvious lie. This is not all that I saw, or experienced. This is my created memory. The pictures are colorful, because my pictures emphasize colors, no matter where I am. They feature my favorite subjects- dogs, cars, people. There was so much more to my trip, and to the city, and to the destruction left by the hurricane. These pictures are false, and true.

This leads me to my last thought, for now. I often walk around with my camera around my neck, or glued to my face. Just In Case. I destinate to places in order to take pictures. Every week I try to participate in Utata's Thursday Walk. I seek out events ahead of time that I can attend with the goal of taking pictures. It's what I do. It's my hobby. It's what I do to prevent burnout. It's fun, creative, and exciting. It helps me see the world in a different way. I appreciate life more visually. I don't really like processing my pictures, but I like looking at them, and looking at other people's pictures.

But everywhere I go, everyone is taking pictures. Of everything. And I wonder if they're experiencing or documenting. Because of the above, I feel hypocritical wondering. I document, I take pictures, I go places just to take pictures. But there are times when I wonder. I went to an A's game that had a fireworks show afterward. Lots of people moved onto the field to watch the show. As soon as the fireworks started, the whole field lit up with LCD screens: I think 80% of the people were taking pictures of the show, with their handy digital cameras or their cell phones. Were they watching the fireworks or documenting the fireworks? And why were they documenting the fireworks? Were they going to look at the pictures later? Show all their friends? Fill in gaps in memory? Would they look at the pictures in years to come, on a high def TV and remember what it felt like to be sitting on the field, watching the fireworks in the cold August night? Or would they just remember the picture. Or see the picture and think they remembered? Did it matter? Everywhere I go people are posing for pictures, handing their camera to other people and posing for pictures, holding their cameras at arms' length and taking pictures of themselves. What are they feeling? What will they feel later? What lies are the pictures telling?

I take pictures to take pictures. To document, to lie, to see. I take pictures of people I don't know, of people I do know, of things that interest me, of scenes I think are quirky and beautiful and odd and wonderful and of my home. There's no wrong, only wonder-making.


Anonymous said...

All this coming from someone who came from a family which did not take pictures. The male parental feeling that "documenting" changed one's interaction with the event and the female parental wanting to document, but not if no one would ever look at her "lie". Your pictures present interesting stories and your analysis great insight!