I enjoyed the conversation between Om Malik and Cole Rise at Pi.co 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.
* * *
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 WordPress.com. 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.
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 Pi.co.