The technology that’s utterly altered the way people deal with pictures, of course, is the digital camera, with its ever-multiplying capacity. There’s no need to economize when your memory card can handle 2,000 shots in one go. And there’s no need to wait: Digital images are now more about what happened two seconds ago than they are a record of life a decade past.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, what are a hundred thousand pictures worth? It seems like a calculus of diminishing returns.
“We are living in a time of unprecedented visuality,” says Martin Hand, a sociologist at Queen’s University, and the author of the new book, Ubiquitous Photography. “The irony is that having a photo doesn’t mean you are going to remember. It feels like you have a vast repository of memories. But the number of photographs prompts a certain kind of forgetting.”
The romance of photographs once involved discovering them tucked in a dusty album in your mom’s closet: The sudsy, bathtub baby picture you didn’t know existed. The yellowed family photo of a great uncle you can’t name, but whose nose looked just like yours. Shutterbugs of a certain age will even recall the surprise inherent in the trip to pick up the pictures from a roll of film and finding the solitary magical shot in a stack of red-eyes and blurry exposures.
But today, when a hundred pictures require little more storage space than does one, we can skip the painful process of deciding what to keep and what to toss.
“I have a hard time deleting anything,” confesses Susan Murray, an associate professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, who has lost count of the number of photos of her young son she has stored on her devices. “Even the ones that aren’t quite perfect I can’t seem to delete. … I keep buying more and more external hard drives.” Someday, her son will have a library-sized visual archive of his childhood.
Are thousands of pictures amassed on iPhoto, however, really the same as a few dozen carefully chosen and pressed into an album?
Perhaps some day, suggests Columbia Law professor Tim Wu, a Canadian-born Internet analyst and occasional fashion photographer, “we’ll ask: ‘What happened to that whole decade? We didn’t take any great pictures.’”
Stop – don’t shoot
A few years ago, Michael Cooper gave up his camera. For 12 months, the professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, stopped taking pictures. An avid traveller, he had begun to notice a worrying trend: He was spending more time staring at his camera than the scene around him.
“You can’t do both things at once,” he says, “there is way of looking without the camera, of understand the ambiance of a place.”
He came to appreciate the freedom of moving without cumbersome camera gear or sightseeing without the pressure to snap a shot. “The pleasure it gave me to sit on some stone wall and look out at a field, and not have something in my hand,” he says. “It was very liberating.”
When he returned to picture taking, he found that something else had changed: His subjects shifted to the people he saw on his travels, not the buildings. It was as if his camera-free year had awakened him to the faces of a place rather than its bricks and mortar.
‘Slow photography’ on the rise
Prof. Wu has noticed a similar pattern while visiting the tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem. People would step up, snap a shot and walk away, as mindlessly “as dogs marking their territory,” as he later described it in the online magazine Slate.
He is among a small but growing group of bloggers and photographers who are making the case for a “slow photography movement” – a reaction, like that of foodies before them, to the gluttonous habits of a camera-captured culture. It advocates taking fewer pictures, more carefully posed and with reflection on the process of photography as much as the result.