There’s a scene in Idiocracy where one character turns to the other and says something like “I like food, sex, and sleeping” to which the other one, amazed, says “You too?!”
Of course, the joke is that everybody likes those things. We’re all going to end up being zombie consumers of cheap sensations.
So when I say I like images — specifically photography — there’s a danger that I’m not saying very much. Or at least much that’s new.
When I was 13, all I wanted for Christmas was a 35mm SLR camera. Specifically, the Minolta XG-7. My parents couldn’t afford the entire purchase, but they told me that if I saved up a certain amount, they’d see that “Santa” would make up the difference.
Christmas Day came, and there was my shiny new camera. I’ll never forget it. The first picture I took was of my sister Joy carrying out empty soda bottles. I had to carry in firewood and take out the trash. She had to feed the cats and help clean the kitchen. Oh the horror! Making children work on Christmas Day! I was sure I was already onto a great media prize. Maybe the Pulitzer.
I took pictures of everything. Stairs. Food. Dinner tables. Clouds. My shoe. Bugs. Various self-poses involving mirrors. I had a job, a newspaper route, I saved up money, and I spent it on ASA-400 speed color film. I had a dresser drawer just for pictures. Within a year there were so many pictures you could barely shut the thing.
And it just got worse. I would spend my time looking at photography equipment in catalogs. I could tell you the difference in specs of various equipment and exactly what I’d want to use if I could. Because of my love for photos, I ended up on the High School newspaper. It was a good gig — I got free passes into any of the sporting events, and the pretty girls always wanted to appear in the paper. Why I never parlayed this into a masterpiece of a youthful social life is a question for another day. Youth is wasted on the young.
It was there I met the workhorse of professional cameras, the Nikon FM2. That thing would shoot in just about any conditions. Wayne Joness, who was a, gasp!, senior at the time, took me aside one day to show me how to develop black-and-white photos. If I remember correctly, we watched TV while we did it. Wayne, as incredibly senior-ish as he was, wasn’t too careful about light discipline. But I learned a good lesson: some things you should be anal about in art and some things not. It’s up to you to decide which things are which.
A few years later, when I lost everything I owned, the things I missed the most were the pictures. Most material stuff isn’t important, you see, but memories are. And good pictures remind you of good memories.
I went on to work as a freelance writer, sometimes taking one of the newspaper’s FM2′s along with me on the story. It was great fun interviewing folks, taking pictures, and putting it all together into a narrative. A hundred years from now, when somebody wants to know what happened in sleepy little Bedford, Virginia, they’re liable to be reading a story with my byline on it, with a picture I shot sitting above it. Neat.
So I was very happy several years back when I bought my second SLR camera, this time a DSLR. It was the Nikon D80. This time, coming from a bit of experience, I wanted to get the technical details exactly right. I picked up a nice 80-200mm zoom lens. You can compose more with a good lens than you can with a good camera. Lenses rock. I remembered my lesson. Concentrate on the important things. The other things will follow.
I’m having a lot of fun with my D80. I wish I had time to play around with it more. I’ve gotten into HDR work, landscapes, and even some extreme low-light work. Lots of unusually challenging setups. As I get older, it also fascinates me how photography can have such an emotional impact — even when we were never involved in the picture-taking to begin with. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think I may have missed the point all along.
When we talk about photography, most of us gravitate to the technical details: the type of camera, the resolution of the CCDs, the lighting available, the exposure, the composition, the bracketing. Seems like there is a million technical details we can kick around. And we love doing it.
But that misses the entire point. Images take us places, combined with our own imagination, that we’ll never actually visit. Take some pictures I was looking at over the holiday weekend. As I was thinking about the invention of photography and how much I love it, it occurred to me that it’s really a lot older than many of us think — the earliest photographs were taken in the late 1830s. I think most folks associate photographs with the Civil War period or later, when in fact people were taking pictures for 25 years or more before the Civil War even started. Could I find some of these really old images on the web?
Take a look at this fellow. All dressed up in his Sunday best, it’s 1839 and nobody he knew had ever heard of anything like a photograph. What? A painting? Except it’s an exact replica? How is that possible? Sounds too good to be true.
He went in, sat very still for the photographer (exposure times of ten minutes or more were not uncommon) with his best award-winning smile. Perhaps he was a celebrity, or an actor. Like many, he probably spoke with a slight British accent. It’s obvious, to me at least, that he knew he was making a recording that people many years away would be viewing. He was probably a man of some means. We’ll never know.
But in 1839, when this picture was taken, when our subject sat there smiling holding his cane, there were people alive who knew George Washington, or Thomas Jefferson. He himself may have been a revolutionary, although it’s highly unlikely. He lived in a time where the United States was just a small collection of cities mostly along the Eastern Seaboard. “Indian Country” began just a few hundred miles to the west, long before you got to the Mississippi.
Out of all the people he knew, he is most likely the only one of his age group to have his image recorded. And I think he knows it.
Looking at it like that, using some creative speculation to put yourself in his shoes, it’s incredible.
Here’s another picture, this time of an house. Nothing much to see here, unless you think about the time this picture was taken — 1840s or thereabouts. There was no electricity (of course), no telephones, no paved or gravel roads, no electric cookstoves or microwaves. When it got hot in the summer, it got hot. When it snowed, there was no snowplow to come and clear the roads. Being in the countryside like it is, this house had to exist entirely as an island — in ways that modern houses do not.
So look again. Check out the upper windows. The large spread of buildings — cooking was probably done somewhere far away from where people lived. Servants or slaves made all this happen. A large family helped out.
Visitors approached on carriages, or just on horseback. Horses and people had a much different relationship back then. Jefferson used to ride many hours in his time off between his house in Monticello and his summer home in Poplar Forest, near where I live. He and his horse were one. It was a much more personal relationship that people had with transportation than we do today.
I imagine, but don’t know, that this picture was taken soon after the house was finished. It seems the kind of thing you would want to have, especially if you had spent a lot on something. A nice image to hang in the foyer. Something for guests to look at. See! This is what I created!
How many sunsets were viewed from the porch of this house? How many people came for holidays? How many birthdays? Today the people that built this house, the people that lived in this house, hell, the people that even knew about this house are all gone. All we have left is the image of somebody’s dream. Like many of the images from this period, we don’t even know where the picture came from.
But we know it was important.
Here’s a typical rich family of around 1840. The man — what a cranky-looking old fellow! — is holding his bible. You’ll find many pictures from these times had folks holding their bibles. They wanted future generations to know how important the good book was to them. He even has his finger in a certain spot, perhaps a favorite passage. Was this man pious? A reverend or a pastor? I don’t know, but I doubt it. He was just a product of his time. This was a time where “literature” consisted of the good book, and “music” was something people either learned how to make for themselves or spent a lot of time and money watching. Social events revolved around church and civic organizations. The way we gathered, the way we shared, the way we remembered — all much different than our age of Facebook.
Check out the kids in the back. Look how short the two older sons are! As I understand it, people of 150-200 years ago were noticeably shorter than folks are today. Both of the older boys have that Napoleon-hand-in-the-vest thing going on. I never understood that, but it was a big thing to do in that time when you had your portrait done.
The girls are up front, as they should be. Little sister, on the right, couldn’t be much more than seven or eight. That means she was born sometime around 1832 or so. She was in her mid 30s when the Civil War broke out and. Assuming an average life, she never saw the year 1900. Maybe her grandkids fought in the Great War. If she lived long enough to have any kids.
Mom is on the far left, dressed in a darker color and wearing gloves. Beside her, in a very cherished position, is a portrait of another daughter, lost to illness as a child. Mom looks sad and weary. It was not unusual to lose many children early in life in those years. You had to have large families just to make sure that somebody, anybody, would be around to remember you after you were gone.
Is the daughter recently deceased? Perhaps so. Perhaps this family picture was something they decided to do while everybody was still alive. A way to remember the lost daughter, to remember all of them, before it was too late. Before they were all lost to time.
And that’s the kicker. You see these scenes with people or buildings and can’t help but think that not only did these people see and do things you could only dream of, not only did they live lives that you probably would have problems understanding, but it’s all gone now. These images are all we have of anything at all to do with these folks.
So when I think about how much I love pictures — heck I love them so much I even recently started a new blog just for my funny picture collection — it’s not just the mechanics of images, or even what the subject of the images are. It’s the stories that the images help us share, many times in ways that moving pictures or other forms of simple data capture never would.
I thought good pictures came from good equipment. It was the technology. As hackers, many times we think of picture uploading and sharing as primarily being about data collection. It’s as if we think of currently-popular social networks like Facebook as being successful because the allow the easy transfer, organization, and sharing of data. But, as anybody that knows and loves images will tell you, it’s about the experience — the stories, the emotion, the friendship, the creative imagination. The data in the images themselves have little to do with anything.
I like images because I like the emotional role images play in my life.
Successful technological startups, just like successful images, don’t deploy technology; they hack people’s emotions. These companies are no more about bits and bytes than these images are about daguerreotypes or the chemical properties of various silver compounds.
Very neat stuff.
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