When I was growing up in the 1980s, my parents, I remember, were particularly snap-happy during the summer.
Typically, their cameras would be trained on my siblings and me, a trio of potbellied kids in their bathing suits, cavorting in the backyard.
In one memorable shot, the three of us are splayed on a concrete turtle in the sun.
Other photos, taken when we were a little older, show us reclining on our family’s set of identical tufted-velvet water beds, which arrived after my older sister Tami, who has the persuasiveness of a mobster, convinced my parents to overhaul our sleeping arrangements, giving our house the feel of a suburban bordello.
On the backs of all their photos, my parents would invariably write a note indicating where and when it was taken, occasionally adding a brief postscript, such as: “Uncle Leon’s place in Philadelphia!” Over time, these pictures ended up catalogued in a variety of albums or temporarily stashed in an old suitcase. As the years passed, those albums, which my parents still keep in their bedroom closet, grew in both height and importance.
Today, they are as treasured as museum artifacts, which is only appropriate, since an archive/museum such as the Ryerson Image Centre, opened with much fanfare at the Toronto university almost a year ago, is becoming one of the few places to see an actual photograph.
(I highly recommend, incidentally, the Gabor Szilasi retrospective currently on view there; it is titled, aptly enough, The Eloquence of the Everyday.)
Over the past decade or so, smartphones and digital cameras have resulted in the death of printed pictures – and of the kind of nostalgia they inspire. Unlike their precursors, digital images have no real staying power.
How can they? They rarely if ever transcend their viewing screens; nothing is solidified into matter. For many, this is a good thing, contemporary thinking holding that cyberclutter is preferable to the material variety. (Books tend to fall into the bad column, too. If the tech mad had it their way, we would all be in bed with our e-novels, making love to robots.)
I am not, of course, the first person to point out that the modern world has no time for the romance of the hard copy, be it a book or a photograph. It is also almost certain that people in previous eras rued the passing of the quill pen. What is surprising as the digital world grows to dominate the physical one, however, is the escalating vigour, even mania, with which humans are feeling the need to document their lives. In previous generations, cameras were mostly brought out to record special occasions – birthdays, weddings, trips to Walt Disney World. Now, though, the artificial lens really is an extension of the eye, ever ready to serve the demands of posterity (or at least Instagram).
And what is being captured with such zeal?
You name it, the more banal the likelier: a pair of shoes, a bowl of noodles, a “witty” wine label, the botched spelling of your name on a Starbucks cup, a neighbour’s cat, several dozen selfies.
(Say cheese, indeed.)
Even when an actual event, such as a concert, a parade or a child’s recital, is being recorded, there is an increasingly mechanical quality to the proceedings, as if the occasion isn’t real unless it is snapped, uploaded and disseminated among the masses, known and (mostly) unknown. Speaking in another era about other innovations, Albert Einstein said:
“It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”
Call me crazy, but I doubt that he would have “liked” our substance-deprived age.
Of course, I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit that I also own a smartphone, on which I have taken hundreds of inane shots. (A recent one captures the back of a dog’s head and is captioned, for its similarity to the back of Ving Rhames’s head in the movie Pulp Fiction , “Marsellus Wallace the Second.”) As temporarily amusing as such pics may be, though, they are of no real value to me. Overly composed and edited – “Delete that one: I have a triple chin!” – they’re too perfect, soulless. And they don’t have the advantage of tangibility, something I can bring up close to my face, flip over, meditate on.
For that, I will have to visit my parents’ bedroom closet.
Iris Benaroia is a writer and editor in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @iris9.