I subsequently called Ms. Mark herself in Manhattan. She was running for a plane. “It’s not the technology that makes a great picture,” she said. “It’s the content. I think we’re missing something. It’s sad. I miss content. I think we need more content. Technique and content are not the same thing. Everyone’s entitled to take pictures. But it’s not easy to take a great picture. Too many snapshots.”
Very much too much
of a good thing
Maybe it’s harder to be moved by a photograph these days because there are so many of them. The numbers are inconceivable. Photography has always had its cheesy side – by the 1960s, 55 per cent of all pictures taken were of babies. But there are more than 2.6 billion camera phones on the planet today. Facebook alone has been known to upload six billion photographs in a month. We snap as many pictures today, every two minutes, as were taken in the entire 19th century, another boom time for photography.
The volume alone guarantees that most are forgettable. So why do we take them? For the same reason addicts are addicted to anything: to kill the pain of awareness, the uncomfortable difficulty of actually seeing. I admit that this is just a theory, but I watch tourists take the same four photographs minute by minute, hour by hour, day after day in downtown Banff, and it’s a strangely upsetting experience.
Mr. Habing, my co-adjudicator, explained why. “They take the picture and then they show it to the people in the photograph: ‘Look, I’ve captured us. I’ve captured our moment.’ And after they’ve shown them the picture, I know it will never be put on a wall. It was more about getting the stamp of approval.” (The pictures we actually need to see are the ones on our desks, on our walls, in our wallets, in our minds.)
We crave the instant gratification and collective approval that the Internet deals out to us and photograbs are the fastest way to get it, the visual equivalent of a hypodermic drip.
The Edmonton writer Ted Bishop has pointed out that in a culture where print and ink are disappearing, more and more people get tattoos: They satisfy our desire for permanence, for the stain of the real. As we live less and less physically and more and more virtually, we take pictures as substitutes for the real.
We seldom look at them again (all those iPhoto files, stacked up into the past!) because that isn’t their point: They aren’t memories of where we were, who we were and how we felt, so much as certificates that we physically exist – at least until the certificate expires, and we need to take another photo to re-establish our corporeal existence.
‘It’s the not knowing that drives me to shoot more’
This isn’t to say all digital photographers are forgettable. Look up the work of Paolo Pellegrin and Peter van Agtmael and Christopher Anderson on Magnum Photos’ website. Better still, read The Online Photographer, the blog of Mike Johnston, a digital photographer who writes about his attempts – his successes, but more often his failures – to tell cogent and moving stories in pictures. It’s the struggle that makes visual work interesting.
Larry Towell, a member of Magnum Photos and one of the world’s best documentary photographers, doesn’t use a digital camera. He prefers black-and-white film because it’s “more emotional,” because he never knows if he’s got the shot or not.
“It’s the not knowing that drives me to shoot more,” he told me by phone. “I’m waiting for a certain moment. It’s a feeling. More intuitive.” It’s a mystery – one that makes the rest of us nervous, so we prefer digital.
Mr. Towell has photographed everything from the post-earthquake aftermath in Haiti and the lives of Mennonites in Ontario (he lives near London, Ont.) to Wall Street on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. He recently returned from an extended stay at Attawapiskat, the impoverished and controversial First Nations territory on James Bay.
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