Thursday, April 2, 2009

In which our heroine contemplates blind travel

Blind, because so many people don't use their eyes -- they use their cameras.

What strikes me the most through my travels is the sheer volume of photographs taken by tourists. We know of all the cultures of the world in which a photograph is believed to steal a bit of one's soul, to trap it in the image. Does photography have the same effect on places that we love? Is a piece of the world's wonderful places stolen by every photograph, until even the greatest treasures don't mean much anymore? (Do I have an angle, or what?)

[Note: We could debate here the implicit assumption I am making that an immediate physical experience is "better" than an experience one stage removed from the experience, like a photograph. But our heroine may get a headache.]

Maybe; certainly photography can have the opposite effect -- there are millions upon millions of photographs of the Mona Lisa, or the Charles Bridge, or Big Ben, all of which may very well serve to heighten our sense of wonder when we finally visit these photographically famous sites.

But just try actually visiting any of these places, and all you get is people clicking their damned shutters. Going through the Sistine Chapel, with announcements in multiple languages asking people to stop, was a crowd of people taking photographs, and of course calling to their friends -- and in the preceding art exhibits on the way there (a maze of collections one must walk through before the chapel), I was constantly shuffling out of the way of someone's picture of a piece of art. (Well, by mid-way through I was frustrated and deliberately putting myself IN the way.)

Whether photography actually takes away value from the image's subject is debatable, and, I'm sure, highly personal. What is true, though, is that the more time one spends looking through a lens, the less time one spends looking at the subject itself. As if to say, "I'll photograph everything in this museum and look at it when I get home," (ah, the Portable Age!) despite the specific care of a curator in arranging an exhibit in a specific way. Or the context and surroundings of a building. Or whatever is prompting your friend's big smile.

Just sayin'.

I know I'm pretty old-fashioned, a bit of an anachronism as my friends tweet and twit themselves around. No one has to be like me. But you do have to allow others to enjoy the world in their own way. Take a picture! -- it's wonderful to keep these images -- but come on, not in a church. Or in the middle of the road. Or for fifteen straight paintings.

Because otherwise no one else will be able to take a picture, either.


I didn't own a digital camera until a year and a half ago -- a birthday gift before my big gap semester. I toted old (very old) film cameras with me previously, which meant that I was one of the last few Americans to conserve the number of images taken, so I wouldn't have to buy and develop more film. That is one thing about the advent of digital photography; it has made photographs so expendable to us, and this is especially clear for the traveler. We are able to capture every angle of a building, the light at every time of day, every single entree ordered by every member of the family, every pub at which we were called "mate"... you see? The time to actually compose an interesting image has been replaced by the ability to take many photos and assume they will turn out. We preview all of our pictures on our cameras, delete any that are not to our liking (how many pictures in the world wouldn't exist if everyone had always had the ability to delete one that was less-than-perfect? We would live in a photographically poorer world, with less texture and less reality), and sometimes spend more of our time while traveling looking at the screen than at the landmark we are trying to remember.

But that has most likely been said before. Photography has the capacity to show us life in a way we would not have expected, and thus to add layers of meaning to it -- take war photography, portraiture, photojournalism, Edward Weston, Annie Leibovitz.... But it also has the ability to flatten our world.

And where would we be without the texture?

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