Fragmented Thoughts On Photography

I enjoyed the conversation between Om Malik and Cole Rise at on the intersection of photography and technology and our evolving relationships to our picture-taking gadgets.

I was drawn to a number of thoughts, and I left the piece feeling contemplative, but also a bit scattered. On Twitter, Maya Baratz compared the read to a long walk; there’s a lot to think about, and since I go back and forth on how I feel about digital photography, Instagram, and my relationship to my iPhone, I’m not sure what shape my musings below will take.

At one point, Rise says that we’re remembering more because we’re taking more photos. I don’t quite agree — I think we’re documenting more, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re remembering more. A bit later, Om says:

I think we confuse photos on our smartphone as memories.

And I agree. I’m reminded of when I moved out of my loft earlier this year and gave away most of my belongings in a first step of downsizing. My furniture, my clothes, my stuff — it felt good to be free of these things. Parting with most of my books, however, was a challenge. I held irrational attachments to even books I’d never read — abandoning so many potential stories, so much knowledge.

I’d thought getting rid of old film photographs, negatives, and contact sheets would be difficult as well. But I was surprised: I found myself tossing entire sets of photos spanning middle school and college — pictures of family, of close friends — but then saving random, meaningless images:

On the other hand, I was surprised by some photos I kept: snapshots of insignificance, of anachronism, of no value to me. Photos with acquaintances whose names I don’t recall or crushes from my first year of college. Pictures with strangers on dance floors. Moments I’ve forgotten — that haven’t been swirling and reshaping in my head all these years. I was more interested in these pictures, as they weren’t an active part of The Past.

While sentimental, images aren’t everything. They record specific moments, yes. But I don’t think photographs truly preserve memories in the way that we’ve been told, in that warm and fuzzy Hallmark card-sort of way. I might look at an image from long ago to remind myself of tangible details: the color of a shirt, the faces in the background. But in my mind, the insides of that moment have melted away: the sounds, smells, and sensations have long transformed into something else. The image is a byproduct, a shadow of a memory.

So, I like what Om says about confusing the photos on our smartphone as memories. I’m not saying that the images we take on our phones don’t matter, but I don’t think that having so many, tucked away in our pocket, makes us any richer.

* * *

A green door in Malta
A green door in Malta

Om mentions being inspired while traveling:

It’s like you go to a place, like I went to Italy for a few days, and suddenly photos start happening.

Photos start happening. I had a similar thought last week, when I’d returned from Malta. My Instagram feed came alive for a week when I was in Valletta, but after I left this lovely city, my account fell dormant once again. When I’m off exploring, I share more pictures, my eyes awakened in a new place. Everything feels fresher, and worth capturing — even the mundane, from street signs to mailboxes.

Everything becomes two-dimensional in the San Francisco Bay Area, says Om. I feel similar, as the Bay Area, my home, is a comfort zone. A familiar place. There’s always room to be curious, to explore right in my own neighborhood, but I often forget this. And so I like what Rise says in response:

Really, photos are stories. I don’t care about the visual. It’s more about what it says. If you open yourself up to that thinking and spend five more minutes just walking around and exploring a little bit more, you find things, find moments, that you wouldn’t have found normally.

Last month, we ran a photoblogging course on The Daily Post, one of the blogs to which I contribute for Each weekday in November, we posted a shooting assignment, in which we prompted participants to take and share a photo that interpreted a different theme: Mystery. Bliss. Warmth.

But there are no landmarks in my town, said one blogger. I have no subject to shoot for solitude, said another. I can’t drive to a place to get a good architecture shot, commented yet another.

Upon receiving this feedback, I told participants to try and interpret these themes in different ways: to break away from the literal, to feel free to twist definitions and meanings. They didn’t need an exotic, faraway place as a backdrop to take a good picture. Explore your backyard. Embrace the mundane. These were my suggestions, though I realize I could have gone further, as Rise suggests:

Going out and searching for a photo is the wrong way to think about it. You should just have an interesting life, and tell the story through hitting a button.

It’s less about the photo, and more about the story behind it: the story of the subject in front of you, of the scene you’ve stumbled upon. The story you’ve created from the angle of your lens.

When I complain that I have nothing to shoot, perhaps my eyes aren’t open. Perhaps I’m not living.

* * *

I am the burnt sienna, and he is the magenta.

They also chat about photo apps, including Litely, Rise’s iOS app that commercializes his Lightroom presets and Instagram filters. I’m intrigued by the idea that an image editing app can package one’s creativity — one’s essence — rather than simply act as a picture-taking tool. To open an app and do more than pick a filter: to use a photographer’s style.

I think about what my photographic style would be, if it were packaged. A user uploads their original image, then clicks the “Cheri” icon. What would happen? The image would rotate so the angle is low, at street-level. The horizon line would shift: no longer level, but at a diagonal. A slight vintage layer, and very faint vignette effect, are applied. The contrast is bumped up a bit; the details are sharpened. Some detail — a bold sign, a bit of street art, the color yellow — is added.

It’s so interesting how the iPhone is an extension of our eye. How we are our photographs. How, as Rise says: “My iPhone is really me.” In this sense, images are precious and meaningful; they’re not things to be discarded or deleted so easily.

* * *

If you’re interested in photography, read the conversation with Cole Rise at  

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Senior editor at Longreads / Automattic

23 thoughts on “Fragmented Thoughts On Photography

  1. Really, photos are stories. I don’t care about the visual. It’s more about what it says. If you open yourself up to that thinking and spend five more minutes just walking around and exploring a little bit more, you find things, find moments, that you wouldn’t have found normally.

    Each photo does have a story. And mostly when I used to tumble through tumbler you could see plenty stories in digital imagery, but I also saw plenty visual photos that were copies or unoriginal of a particular visual style. Some were just art in the sake of art itself to describe a visually compelling image that contributed to an artistic label to put in a tag.

    I’ve been photographing things for a long time now, and when I get the chance to travel, I as well find myself needing to point and shoot as does everyone mostly, only creating the story or seeing something different is a task. I don’t care to shoot and shoot some more, but try to capture a moment, it’s what I strive for in improving my photography. (I can’t do Instagram anymore, I get too distracted, got rid of Facebook too)

  2. A thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Cheri!
    This was a beautiful paragraph:
    “I might look at an image from long ago to remind myself of tangible details: the color of a shirt, the faces in the background. But in my mind, the insides of that moment have melted away: the sounds, smells, and sensations have long transformed into something else. The image is a byproduct, a shadow of a memory.”
    So true.

  3. I agree that photographs don’t quite hold the full memory of any event. For me, it’s music. Every major thing that happened in my life comes alive in my mind whenever I listen to a music that I was listening to in my subconscious mind when that event actually took place. For me, tracks are like memory sticks. If I need to get back and feel something — good or bad — from the past, chances are, I have a song that holds the feeling from that memory.

    As for photos, candid ones are usually the best for keeping memories, in my opinion. I can take a look at the posed shots from years ago, and go ‘hmph, okay.’ But when I see a candid shot from decades ago, from before I was even born, I can almost feel the environment of that moment. It largely depends on the person taking the photograph, though.

    Thanks for the link, by the way. It was a nice read.

    1. For me, tracks are like memory sticks.

      Yes! I love this — and I feel the same about specific tracks, and even albums and old mixes from tapes that no longer play. They capture past moments, and even help me remember previous versions of myself. Music is so powerful in this way.

  4. Lots of interesting points. I had to comment about your trip to Italy reigniting your photography, then causing a corresponding slump. There’s something about the light in Florence and Tuscany – especially just after dawn of before dusk – that makes everything look sensational. It’s like comparing an ordinary girl to an airbrushed, beautifully painted super model: the beauty is there, you just have to re-educate your mind to find it.

  5. I have no talent for photography. I wonder if taking and keeping digital pictures comes from a different place with people like me, who use the medium solely as an aide to memory, helping to trigger a certain time and place.

  6. Wonderful post! You had me at ‘hello’……well at least your first few sentences 🙂
    I do enjoy this theory!
    I think my photos serve as a memory cue – a cue which leads me to remember more about the single photo – where I took it, how I was feeling, what happened next, other significant events related to the photo etc. I also use other inanimate objects as memory cues – coffee mugs, souvenirs, entry tickets etc.
    I have a dreadful memory, so need all the help I can get!
    I look forward to investigating ore of your posts!

  7. I really liked the thought behind this. In some instances recently I have had incredibly opportunities and experiences, where I’ve deliberately stopped myself from taking photos just so that I could relish the moment (which does mean I might not have a photo to use in a post about it!). Perhaps the most valuable thing about the photo is the memory it conjures up and the feelings it brings back to you – but sometimes it is just about having a delicious memory, with only the filter of your mind.

  8. Having attended a funeral two days ago, I have found that one’s old photos are much more interesting to their grandchildren than they ever are to them. They lived it, but their loved ones don’t visit so often, and the photos really help supplement the story of who they were before their descendants were born. Good, bad, highlights, common days. It’s about getting to know you through what you left for posterity.

  9. Just the other day I was talking with a friend about this ~ and I agree with you, we are documenting more. All this documentation gives us a sense of holding fragments of memories, and this allows for us to build up stories in our minds. Imperfect memories, and with your last comment in the post I realize that these memories are made even more “imperfect” with all the filters that are easy to apply…not a bad thing, as creativity is great, and if it helps us hold onto just a small glimmer of a true memory that is fine with me.

    1. I like this idea of “filtered memories” — this morning, I scrolled all the way back to the beginning of my Instagram feed to see the types of images I posted then. I notice that I used the blur/tilt shift tool a lot, and used more pronounced filters (and always used frames). Interesting to see how my pictures have evolved — I still like to use these tools, but now I tend to pick just one at a time, for instance. So: I use less layers/effects now, and maybe try to show more of the setting as it *truly was* (whatever that means…). Thanks for the food for thought — I might write about this when I get a chance!

      1. Filtered memories ~ a nice title that would make a great blog post… My ND filters are some of my best friends 🙂 I do remember my first forays into HDR, and while not filters, it allowed some relatively easy access to highly manipulated shots that showed a reality that wasn’t really their. Wish you a great weekend!

  10. This was a very interesting post – I will come back to it I’m sure and read the original conversation. Meanwhile on the subject of photos being memories, that has certainly happened to me from watching my father’s old cine films. I have a vivid memory of playing in a patch of sand near a river with my brother. I can almost remember the atmosphere of the place. However I have no idea whether it is a real memory or whether I am just remembering the film. Knowing my bad memory I am pretty sure it is the latter, but does that matter? The fact is that I know that happy occasion happened and it is part of my childhood memories.

    1. Knowing my bad memory I am pretty sure it is the latter, but does that matter?

      I don’t think it matters!

      Thanks for sharing this thought. My strongest earlier memories, from childhood and through college, are the ones without images. They are the ones that are the most three-dimensional and rounded out — the ones where I can still place myself *inside* these moments and move around the spaces. I think, because I’ve not relied on physical photos to freeze these moments, they’ve transcended into something else entirely. I’m glad for these memories, many of which continue to morph in ways that make me happy, that allow me to grow.

  11. I have often wondered along these lines…why do I take pictures now? I didn’t before a smartphone was delivered into my hands. In many ways my life is less interesting than it used to be, yet I chronicle it more. I make it look bigger than it is, somehow. In this context–‘my phone is me’–then every picture we take is a selfie. Whether it is our pleasure in the grand vision of epic landscapes, our constant need for fresh inspiration, fresh vistas, or our delight in small, everyday curiosities, the ‘camera obscura’ is capturing a bit of ourselves and reflecting it back. Thought provoking post–thank you.

  12. Some interesting thoughts Cheri; do I cherish an event/a scene/a person because I have the photo to remind me or are the photos in my mind better as they have been created (distorted?) by my memories? It seems these days that everyone considers themselves a photographer and smartphones have certainly had an influence on that. I’m yet to decide on whether this is a good or bad thing – I suppose it just is what it is. As I look around Instagram I’m constantly impressed by other people but I’ve noticed it’s mostly those who take the time to look at something a bit differently, that slowing down of the process that I encounter when using film.

    Lots to think about, thank you for your post!

  13. I too, had to downsize being that we recently moved to a smaller space and it was surprising that photos from 30 years ago weren’t as difficult to let go of as I had anticipated. Yes, it brought back memories (I have always considered myself a sentimentalist), however, things have changed…the past is past. I think that I am having an easier time “letting go” now because of my desire towards living in the present as much as possible. “Photos are stories”, yes, and they help us remember those special moments but to cling to them is another story.

    1. I understand about downsizing and agree with you wholeheartedly. Being a caregiver of 94 year old in-laws has opened up my eyes. When you have to be the ones to say your ‘let go’s’ have to go was one of the most difficult moments for me to go through, knowing that one day my turn shows up. I am trying to get rid of those things that I am not using as fast as I can pack them. As far as photos go, they are reminders of what I used to look like and where my mind was back then – I much rather hold on to my quilts that I have made. I guess everything becomes a memory or a thing of the past. It doesn’t take long to bring about a change. Seems like they are happening much faster than back in the day. I am trying to live in the present as much as I can and enjoy each day as much as I can.

  14. I agree that the themes in the photo101 (the photoblogging course) was about interpretation. With literal interpretations you can always see a lot of great shots (shots that are technically great), but it’s more interesting when people use their imagination and come up with something original, or at least try to push themselves into the unsafe grounds.

  15. Great article and I think you’re right: photos aren’t memories. To me they are memory invokers or pictorial evidence or more so art 🙂

    I love the concept of being an app that is fun.

    Thank you for opening my eyes during 101.

  16. “It’s less about the photo, and more about the story behind it: the story of the subject in front of you, of the scene you’ve stumbled upon.”
    I’m neither a photographer nor a visual artist but what you wrote applies to writers as well. I’ve met people who believe that if you don’t live in an interesting place you cannot write anything remotely interesting. It’s simply not true.
    Remaining interested in a familiar place is like remaining curious about people we have known for years. Certainly not easy, but worth the challenge.
    As always I enjoy reading your pertinent thoughts about our new communication tools and our modern journey.

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