Wednesday, May 28, 2008

We are all in each other's pictures now

The digital camera is a wonderful thing but it has encouraged an infinite number of people to take an infinite number of infinitely unremarkable pictures. We were in Barcelona this weekend and visited the Casa Battlo, a rich man's house designed by Gaudi that has become one of the city's premier tourist attractions. Here you find yourself in a room with, say, twenty people, at least half of whom are taking pictures. This results in a strange new process of triangulation whereby no matter where you stand you are in somebody's picture. I was brought up in an era when photography was rare enough for you to be able to keep out of people's shots. It doesn't seem to be possible anymore. And photography is one of those things that increases in inverse proportion to people's competence. I have a friend who is a professional. It's very instructive to be a tourist in his company. He'll walk into a place where all the amateurs are snapping away as if they've got a once in a lifetime opportunity to capture a unique image and immediately say "there's no picture here".


  1. Anonymous10:57 am

    I'd also hazard a guess that there's a directly inverse correlation between the number of photographs taken on a digital camera and the amount of time spent looking at them.

    I remember the hours we used to spend poring over the 24 photos (or 48 if we'd been REALLY extravagant and used two whole films) of our family holidays in the 70s and 80s. Now we probably watch a slide show on the PC of the 240 photos we took once and then never look at them again.

    It's hard to form a sentimental attachment to something that's so easily gained and so readily disposable.

    David, Liverpool

  2. I have to disagree with both Davids here. I agree you might spend ages looking at your 24 photos but what if you have your fingers over the lens, forgot to put the flash on, the photo was out of focus and you accidently had it go off three times in your pocket. A waste of the a third of your photos from your holiday / party / wedding. Now you can take 200+ and yes while you may not look at them as often, you have a far better record of an event. Secondly it's part of the growing creative world created by technology - such as youtube - that allows people to find new avenues and outlets for creativity. For all the people snapping away in museums how many are out finding interesting and unusual shots that would have gone previously untaken, or even unseen, because photograph was too expensive. Having an eye for a photograph is a skill but you surely don't need a professional to instruct you as to when to take, or not take, a photograph?

  3. Anonymous11:36 am

    I'm with Liverpool David. I'd argue that the very disposability of digital photography is detrimental to the medium. Having film meant that photographers would wait for a shot more often, and although the lack of instant recall meant a few out of focus shots on the contact sheet, there was a lot more overall care.
    Many of these 'second best' shots are now being unearthed, and the value of film (and its relative permanence) allow us candid photos of politicians, musicians etc that were overlooked or deemed inappropriate at the time. These days photos are edited and deleted quickly, often on site with the use of a laptop. The idea of a 'lost' picture appearing in public 30 years later (as happens with the big names of the sixties a great deal) has gone.


  4. Anonymous2:29 pm

    I fail to understand the whole tourism/photography deal anyway. The world’s become so small, why do you need a photo of Nelson’s Column, Taj Mahal etc – there’s plenty available. If it‘s a picture of yourself with said iconic monument in the background – again, why? If it’s merely to show the folks back home what a place looks like, well I could understand it in pre-internet times, but not now. Or is it a desire to tell the world “I was there”, as though the import of a place or event somehow increases our own importance? Look how eager we are to tell people we were at the scene of a particularly newsworthy happening…

    I do agree that if the number of available of shots were limited, the frantic desire to record everything, and the associated snapping frenzies, might be reduced.

    My beef is that people are so busy recording the event for future reminiscences (or not), that they are neglecting to ‘experience’ it in real time. Witness the people roaming around theme parks observing everything through their video camera, or clicking away at gigs.
    I remember approaching the Statue of Liberty on a boat once, and the mass reaching for cameras was like some sort of Pavolovian response. They were all snapping away, but how many were actually ‘looking’ at the thing, and considering what was in front of them? I’d rather have the memory than the picture.

  5. One hates to be a terrible self publicist but there really is a chapter about this exact topic in my spiffy new book 'Sod Abroad' out on June the 12th.

    Actually, that was a lie: I LOVE to be a terrible self-publicist.

  6. The thing is, your professional friend came away with no photos, whereas all the happy snappers came away with *some* photos. They're not aiming for art. They just want to document what they've seen.

    I have thousands of digital photos, which I look at all the time. I don't have room to store that many prints; I don't have the patience to keep that many prints catalogued adequately; I couldn't afford to develop that many prints. Yet I carry all my digital photos in my backpack (on my laptop) and can idly relive memories during a coffee break.

    When on a sightseeing holiday, I take photographs and keep a diary. I go back to these quite often. I deeply regret the holidays when I've not done this, because I find I just can't remember as much detail as I'd like to.