On (New) Ways of Photographing and Consuming

I’ve been wondering what a digital photograph now means to me.

It used to take weeks, sometimes months, for me to finish a 36-frame roll of film. Each frame was worth something, as I recall some of my rolls cost around $25 to develop, so I took more time to plan a shot. I remember, when I looked through my contact sheets, that most of my photographs were awful: over or underexposed, blurry in the wrong spots, not quite the compositions I was going for. But that trial-and-error process was enjoyable. Now, I think about the permanency of those mistakes; I’ve kept these photographs, and their contact sheets and negatives, stuffed in shoe boxes and envelopes.

A visual archive of imperfections.

Fallen Leaf Lake

I don’t know why I’ve kept them. It could be I just haven’t had the chance to toss them. But I am somehow satisfied by this collection: it’s a physical reminder of what it takes to create one genuinely good photograph. A record of the lapse between the initial camera click and a finished, framed shot.

Because today, I don’t use my camera in the same way. (In fact, ever since I started using an iPhone 4 and posting to Instagram, I hardly use my Canon and my Nikon.) But despite which camera I use, and the subject of my photographs, my process generally goes like this: I take four to six shots of the same angle, then take just as many vertical shots. And then I walk around it—whatever it is—and repeat, and then I crouch or lie on the ground, as ground-level shots are especially wonderful, and repeat again.

Or I take advantage of my smallness and slide in between crevices, or climb something if I can, or find reflections and textures, and radically off-center or ostensibly uninteresting focal points. (I don’t care for sunsets, for instance; I’d rather focus on the graffitied garbage bin in the foreground.) And in each position, I take numerous shots once again.


I upload these images and sift through them on my computer, hoping to find, pluck, and post at least a few shots I like, and then drag this “album” into the trash, as if this process is no longer important, or at least not enough to keep a record. Given my active polishing of my online profiles, perhaps it’s no longer necessary to acknowledge these iterations.

The default photo is what matters.

And I place “album” in quotes because I’ve seemed to move away from taking a cohesive set of photographs, which is something I’ve noticed ever since I stopped regularly posting to Flickr. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with my friend Robin in Los Angeles a few weeks ago not about photography, but music—particularly, the dying concept of the album. She had overheard a conversation in a movie theater about the Beatles, and one of the kids uttered, “I like the Beatles; I have all of their iTunes.” I’ve heard these kinds of exchanges before, but this one is fresh in my mind. These days, we may download a single track, unaware of or uninterested in an entire album.

I show a similar disinterest in my photography. Process and context are increasingly less significant. I’m preoccupied instead with creating the perfect shot for any given moment—worthy of an avatar, of a Facebook cover photo—and discarding the rest.

A single unit is easier and faster to create—and consume.

* * * * *

Even without the camera in hand the world becomes transformed into the status of the potential-photograph.

Nathan Jurgenson has written about our developing Facebook Eye, a mode in which we perceive moments and experiences more and more as snapshots, Facebook updates, and tweets to be documented, shared, and ultimately “liked.” I was reminded of his thoughts while reading Michael Sacasas’ wonderful piece on tourism and pilgrimage. Recently abroad, Sacasas writes about suffering from a case of camera eye and visiting a place, “taking it all in,” and absorbing and consuming it:

I kept thinking that in the end it is all still driven by the impulse to consume, precisely to take in and take away. It was as those tribesmen feared; with the camera I was hunting for the soul of the place, somehow to disassociate it from the material space and absorb it into myself.

His piece is worth reading, as it discusses much more, but for now it makes me think about how I have taken photographs lately: How I hold my iPhone in my hand while I walk to snap quick pictures that require no setup or little thought, sometimes taking them simply because I can. How I can make any moment of my day ripe for consumption. How easy it is to absorb a place, strip it of its elements, and run the X-pro II filter over it to make it mine. How those steps of learning in between—the mistakes and outtakes and nuances—are no longer preserved.

And I’m not sure how I feel about this shift. It’s not always about the result.

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

I am an editor at Longreads. For over a decade, I've worked on curation, editing, and storytelling projects across Automattic, including WordPress.com.

36 thoughts on “On (New) Ways of Photographing and Consuming

  1. Interesting post. I’m a bit of a hoarder when it comes to my images. Like we all do I want to “take the best shot” and yet I don’t think there really is “a” good shot because it all depends on our personal perspectives. Even once I find my shot it’s so hard to simply throw out the others because once they’re gone they’re gone and I’m always thinking there’s potential for other sorts of projects.

    I do miss, to some degree, the days of film. I used to love the mystery of taking a roll in (or disposable camera) and waiting for it to be developed. Sometimes I would wait so long between finishing the role and getting it developed that I would forget half of what’s on the roll, then it’s a grand mystery!! Plus I loved having physical copies of my images from the start, now we have to cross our fingers that nothing happens to our files like what happened to my Namibia photos: THE FILES BECAME CORRUPT…sigh…little cry…more sighs…awwwww

    It does seem that everyone is a photographer now a days because literally everyone has a camera with them all the time. I have to say I like photography as a creative outlet first, as a means of expression just as I do writing. Sharing with the rest of the world is a bonus, an opportunity, a privilege even. I started my first Project 365 in order to commit to the craft and learn and practice more. Sharing with everyone else, like publishing my poetry book, provides a chance to connect and to give back. I can only hope that my poetry and photography provide people with something.

    It is awesome that with digital photography we can check the shots we got right then and there and decide whether or not we need to stay to get the shot we need . Although sometimes I don’t look till later!

    Thanks for sharing this post. You raise and excellent point. I wonder how much we overlook – articles, quotes, posts, images, art, etc – thinking about how quickly we can get it passed on.


  2. I guess I do the same thing photographically, but I’m not thinking so much about the perfect shot but rather finding something different, something a bit unusual. This process of looking from each angle is a valid exploration of the subject, I think.
    I don’t think of it as consumption at all really but a way of understanding.
    Interesting thoughts.

  3. You are right – it’s not always about the result. But in today’s society, it seems that way. I have a hard time letting go of drafts of articles I write, or the 5 boxes of negatives that will never see full development because they were rather horrible. But I find it so important to keep – to remind myself where I started, how I improved, and to remember it’s ALWAYS a process – nothing ever just happens – WE make it happen. Thank you for your lovely post on this. You put into words what a bunch of people (I hope!) are thinking.

  4. An interesting description of the value of digital photographs. The ‘process’ you use now is a process lots of photographers used when using film. And still do but digital negatives are cheap! I recognize your economizing on films; I could not afford to shoot more film on subjects. So I tried and sometimes got disappointed or low hearted. But also happy for something coming out well in black and white! All those tries made me to the amateur I am now. I still have them all these negatives; some are crap but of some of them I am proud. And once a while I turn to my negative archive to dig up old stuff to scan. And work on digitally. Digitally I throw away shots I do not like or do not work out. But I myself now what steps and mistakes and tries I made to come to the end result. Digital shooting makes that possible. Maybe it is more important to ourselves as a creator to know which way we took to come to a result. I do not think that has changed. For the viewer of the end result it might never have been important to know how the end result was reached.
    Besides snapping shots is not new. Cartier Bresson was a master of it. And present street photographers still use that technique. After all: it takes a good eye to see the picture before it is shot. No matter what equipment is used.

    i sincerely do hope this makes sense 🙂

    (Most common silly gesture of me is to look at the backside of my Nikon F90 while shooting Kodak TriX! Reminding myself that films take patience to view the result and cannot be seen immediately 😉 )

    1. “Passionate and good quality work will still rise above the rest and be rewarded with eyeballs.” Yes, I agree, and I’m feeling this now in particular in a new job, which requires me to sift through so much content just to find the “good stuff.” Thanks for visiting and commenting.

  5. Thanks – good article. I can remember when I found it most important to keep the drawings, photos or social commentary that I so badly wanted to throw away. Your mention of sending the unusable photos to the trash reminds me of the vast difference between the expediency of today’s digital media and cherishing each frame of TMAX film. I’m tryin to come to terms with adapting my old practices with new media.

    1. The lack of sensation each time I throw JPGs — or any files, I guess — into the trash…it’s a bit odd. It makes it easy to discard. Meanwhile, I’ve got a shoebox of contact sheets and dusty negatives of images I can’t bear to lose!

  6. Pingback: Notes on Memory
  7. One of the things I do love about the digital age we live in is getting to see so many amazing and talented folks’ work that we might not have been able to before. People can so much more easily share their work with all of us. This also exposes us to lots of poor photography a lot of the time but when we sift through the immense amount of content out there we find pretty awesome stuff, like yours!! Keep up the great work.

    1. Tanner, I totally agree with this: “This also exposes us to lots of poor photography a lot of the time but when we sift through the immense amount of content out there we find pretty awesome stuff…” It’s a given that now we must sift through noise to find the good stuff.

  8. Wow – so true. As a musician, I’ve been fully aware of the return of the “single” and the death of the physical cd, but outside of books, I’ve never really considered how other arts were affected. It’s really interesting to hear how photography has changed in your experience and your thoughts on the whole matter. It will be interesting to see how things continue to evolve…

    1. This shift in my process of taking photos has been subtle and gradual. After taking a few trips, to Istanbul and Vegas and Los Angeles, I realize how my “shooting mode” has changed, how I’ve grown more concerned with recording the moment instead of capturing the entire experience to create something cohesive and complete later, as I used to do.

      My last pre-iPhone trip was to Egypt last fall. I have hundreds of photos from this trip, and I’m glad to have these — looking through them, I get more of a full picture of my time there, which I don’t sense from the several Instagrammed shots, plucked out of context, that sum up my more recent trips.

      1. I think that when I travel I still stick to using my Canon because I often think of photos as the best souvenirs, but as far as day to day life, I have stopped using a camera completely and just use my iPhone. I used to have my camera out at every family gathering – now, not so much.

  9. I like what you say, and I find it scary. For the last weeks, I have been taking countless numbers of photographs of the flowers in the garden, in morning light, at noon, at dusk, as blossoms, in full bloom, … And while I don’t throw the less-than-perfect ones away, I never look at them again either. I don’t even put them together (you know, a series of one flower in different light, stuff like that…). Often it’s really less about the beauty of the flower and trying to show that, than about me taking the best picture away from it – the most unusual, the most vivid, the most whatever-other-people-will-look-at-and-like.
    But, sometimes looking at something closely to see if it’s ‘worth’ taking a picture of will make me aware of the beauty that I might not have seen otherwise.

    1. Ah, I identify with everything you say here — and interesting how it’s less about the beauty of the subject and more about your ability to show it. I feel this urge, too. I particularly like making the mundane interesting — and making the ugly into something pretty.

      1. Making something beautiful and unique simply by looking at it carefully. But I do wonder why you don’t feel the need to look at things again…

  10. I honestly cannot find anything you have written that I am not in love with. I have been thinking about how the art and craft of photography has changed with modern technology. As you may know, I have a 365 photography project and I noticed in a recent blog post that my curation is at times lazier because I prefer my iPhone and X Pro II to crouching behind trash cans with a Nikon for the perfect image. [more about this here: http://www.storiesofconflictandlove.com/2012/04/lessons-from-measuring-life-in.html%5D Thank you for articulating the complex choices and challenges in such an insightful way.

    1. Becoming lazy — I hear you on this. Although perhaps we are being too hard on ourselves for simply adjusting to and experimenting with the tools thrown at us, no?

      I have seen your 365 photography project, and I think it’s a wonderful visual record of your days, especially because you’re able to see these changes in your art and craft.

      In the end, at least we are still creating something, yes? Perhaps, when we decide to stop taking photographs entirely, we should worry.

  11. I have nominated you for the Versatile Bloggers Award. Please check out my blog for details – judysp.wordpress.com

  12. This post reminds me in many ways of your last, on information overload, as well as some (old) writing by Znet founder Michael Albert on the way in which Facebook (and Twitter) “nuggetize” communication. It seems that “reduce & consume” has become a common means of expression. Don’t have much to say about the photography–I’m not a picture person. But I appreciate the honesty of this post, and I love your pictures, however you arrive at them! I suppose the process has changed, but is no more or less interesting or ‘valid’ than before. Just different.

    1. Right, I was still thinking about my last post on information overload while writing this, as well as a few comments Rob Horning makes in his essay on information inundation and social deskilling: “The faster we can turn what we consume into a form of information, the more our consumption efforts are recouped as a form of labor for capital.”

      I didn’t link to that piece above because he is talking about consumption in ways I don’t quite grasp, but my takeaway from this line is that I find myself consuming my surroundings, with iPhone in hand, and using the least amount of effort to produce something “meaningful” which can then be packaged in a manageable unit shared with others.

      As for not minding *how* I arrive at my pictures, thank you. Again, I’m not sure how I feel about it — but at least I’m still taking pictures, creating something, expressing myself in a certain way.

      1. Spot on! Thank you for finding the words to describe something I’ve been feeling uncomfortable about for a while now. I used to write a poem (or piece of prose), then polish at it for days, weeks, even months. Now I do one or two edits, thinking all the while about where I could post it online as quickly as possible.

Leave a Reply