A Short Personal History of Cameras

1.

In my last year of high school, I took a photography class. I’d wanted to take one for some time - it was what all the cool kids did, snapping moody photos of each other between classes, disappearing later into darkrooms to develop their relationships. But I had spent the last three years distracted by a misguided devotion to music, culminating in the purchase of a pickup for my violin that only served to amplify my hopelessness, so it was only as a senior that I finally admitted a kind of interest in the visual arts.

For most of the year I used a big black Minolta SLR that my mother had given me. She had lugged it around Italy and carried it to parties and school functions and finally decided that, impressive as the object itself was, clear and striking as the photographs it produced were, it did nothing that a much smaller digital camera - a silver Canon, sleek, practically pocket-sized - couldn't do. Unlike her I liked changing the lenses, the aperture, the shutter speed. I liked the bulk, the extra baggage. I liked the sense of control the camera gave me. I could choose to make a photograph blurry, to overexpose it, or, even more fascinating, to clarify a high-speed object, to freeze a runner, which was the most artificial thing of all: to suspend forever something that, in everyday life, was never suspended for more than an instant. Later in the darkroom were other opportunities to interfere with the image. By taking a photograph out of the developer too soon, you could create the illusion that the photographer had only been half-present, that her attention had been elsewhere; the foggy, not-quite-there quality made it seem like a dream, like a Renoir or a Monet, everything viewed through an impressionist haze. I liked the process of developing film (gently groping in a blacked out room), of making contact sheets. I liked the chemical smell, the faint glows of light, the clinical precision.

For my end-of-year project, I took photographs of things I found washed up on the shore. It was a short series - three, maybe four black and white images, each item (driftwood, half a styrofoam cup) alone, against a sand backdrop, quite close up, framed carefully. I printed them in the darkroom on 8.5” x 11” paper and matted them on foam board. The Minolta - built more to look impressive than to withstand the pressures of use - broke shortly before the project was due, so I shot the series on my grandfather's old Nikon. This was a beautiful object: black and silver, simple, small but appealingly heavy in the hands. I took it down to the beach; I took my photos. It was a very bright sunny day. I shot just one roll of film, taking one or two photos of the sea itself, not for the series, but for personal context, perhaps. Context for the memory of the day.

The photographs turned out better than I could have hoped. I don't mean that they were technically very great, or compositionally even competent. I don't know about that. I am not and never have been a Photographer, though I am, as so many are nowadays, a photographer in some sense - a documentarian of my own life. What I mean is that these were the clearest photographs I had ever taken. Whether it was because the Nikon was made better than the Minolta or simply that the way it felt to handle my grandfather’s camera made me better at taking pictures, I don't know. Either way, the photographs were, in their own austere, adolescent way, rather beautiful. I mounted them proudly; I don't think I had been particularly proud of any of the work I had done that year, although I had enjoyed it, but I was proud of this series. You could feel the heat of the day, though you had no idea what sort of day it was really.

2.

On a recent family visit to New York, I read this:

"Photography is a medium of inescapable truthfulness. The camera doesn't know how to lie. The most mindless snapshot tells the truth of what the camera's eye saw at the moment the shutter clicked."

It's from Janet Malcolm’s profile of the German photographer Thomas Struth, which appeared in the September 26, 2011 issue of The New Yorker. I find it an unusually, almost disturbingly aggressive article - it's as if Malcolm the interviewer is actually Malcolm the interrogator. At one point, describing his education with the artists Bernd and Hilla Becher, Struth says: "For example, a typical thing Bernd would say was 'You have to understand the Paris photographs of Atget as the visualization of Marcel Proust.'" Malcolm responds:

‘"I don't get it. What does Atget have to do with Proust?" "It's a similar time span. What Bernd meant was that when you read Proust that's what the backdrop is. That's the theatre." "Did you read Proust while you were studying with the Bechers?" "No, no. I didn't." "Have you read Proust since?" "No." "So what was the point for you of connecting Atget with Proust?" Struth laughed. "Maybe it's a bad example," he said. "It's a terrible example," I said. We both laughed.’

Although it is a false image, I picture this conversation taking place in a tutor's rooms at Oxford, Struth the student upon the settee, sleepy and hungover and possibly very brilliant but unable to overcome the vast chasm of academic hierarchy. "So what was the point for you of connecting Atget with Proust?" is the tutor's way of inviting but not inviting a commentary, a way of curtailing freedom to speak by tempting it. Naturally the student nervously concedes the point, and they both laugh about it. I feel an automatic, undeserved sympathy with my fictional version of Struth and an even more undeserved animosity towards my fictional version of Malcolm.

Struth’s photograph of the inside of the SolarWorld factory outside Dresden has been reproduced for the article. ‘How will your pictures show that what is being produced at SolarWorld is good for mankind?’ Malcolm asks Struth:

‘"Just by the title." "So photographs don't speak." "The picture itself is powerless to show."’

I observe the image. It makes very little sense to me; I don't know what's happening, except, in a broad sense, because of the caption, that solar panels are being manufactured. The photo is quite small on the page, surrounded by thick blocks of text. It is industrial and futuristic; lots of horizontal lines, blues, whites, silvers. I feel virtually nothing when I look at it; but as I continue to look, I get the impression that I want to like it, and the reason I want to like it has nothing to do with it and what it means. No; I want to like it in spite of Malcolm, a woman I do not know who has written an article about a photographer I had not even heard of until today. I choose this reason arbitrarily, and it is no doubt influenced by external factors: I have had more coffee than usual, it is unseasonably warm for October, I am broke, I am a writer, searching for something to write about, I am on holiday. All of these things which have so much to do with me and virtually nothing to do with the photograph. A medium of “inescapable truthfulness” - but what kind of “inescapable truthfulness”, exactly?

3.

A few days later, I encounter the question of context again, this time in a midtown gallery. The exhibit - "Beyond Words: Photography in The New Yorker" - is a selection of photographs that have appeared in the magazine, curated by former visuals editor Elisabeth Biondi.

"Every picture in The New Yorker, even a portrait, makes an editorial statement," Biondi writes. "When published, the pictures are bound to the written word, illuminating and strengthening the context of the magazine. After publication, strong images assume a new life, beyond their original context." Even this exhibition is not devoid of context, of course; someone has placed certain pictures in certain places, created an invisible narrative. But I deliberately do not take a copy of the guide, so that I can view the photographs, at least at first, without any extra insight.

I pause next to a portrait of Agatha Christie in her old age. My eyes are drawn to her thick, elderly ankles, juxtaposed with Amy Winehouse's fragile-thin legs, bent under her as she smokes a cigarette on a hotel bed, in the next photograph. And there are the Romanovs (I have to consult the guide later to identify them) in a rowboat, seemingly quite adrift. And there is Gertrude Stein, at her desk, looking like she's in an Edward Hopper painting. In some instances there is no context even to be offered by the guide: anonymous children in an anonymous park, blurred as they leap over a wall; men, women, rooms without names.

Later that day we visit the International Center of Photography, but I am all photographed out. I spend an hour on a bench, taking advantage of the free wifi, checking emails on my phone, sending tweets to friends I want to meet up with while I’m here. My shoulder hurts from carrying the extra weight of my DSLR. I have hardly used it; the only photos I seem to take nowadays are with my ubiquitous iPhone. And maybe that’s the fairest way for me to photograph things now: using the device with which I communicate, consume and create, often simultaneously, seemingly constantly. The real camera feels artificial. The photographs I take with it do not reflect my experience, only what’s there on the other side of the lens; they reflect back to me what, as Malcolm writes, “the camera’s eye saw at the moment the shutter clicked,” but what the camera’s eye saw does not always have anything to do with what I saw, just as what is there to be seen does not always have anything to do with how it’s understood.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had in the summer with a friend of mine, a skilled amateur photographer who finds the proliferation of high dynamic range imaging applications for smartphone photography a little disconcerting.

“It’s practically defying the laws of physics,” he told me. “A camera shouldn’t really be able to do that.”

“Yes,” I said, myself an avid user of just such an app, “Maybe. But sometimes - often - that’s the only way for me to capture what it is I am seeing.”

4.

Back home in England, I assess the contents of my memory card and realize that I forgot to take any pictures of New York. I apologize to people who I might otherwise have bored with a protracted viewing of my holiday photos. I say I was distracted, I was busy seeing my family and my old school friends and telling cab drivers that I was sorry I couldn’t give them directions, but I don’t live in Brooklyn, either.

But this is not entirely true. I did take photographs. I did not take the sort of arty shots that a person like me, who dallies with but has never had enough patience or passion for photography, takes in order to feel that she understands or at least appreciates the form. But I took a blurred photograph at Coney Island of family friends, arms in the air, mouths open in joy or horror, coming down a ramp on the Cyclone roller coaster. I took a photograph of my mother in a green field, bending over her father's grave, holding a red umbrella against the grey sky. I tried to take a photograph of the deer running through military rows of little white cemetery crosses, but the deer moved too fast; they were not even blurry, they had simply left the shot by the time my finger had found the button. I took a photograph of a painting I liked at the Brooklyn Museum. I took a photograph of some fake-denim leggings (“Chic Style!") for sale in a CVS, some fishermen on a windy beach in Montauk, a neon sign outside a café where we had BLTs and mugs of sickly sweet coffee.

5.

One morning I come across Andrew Motion’s review of Magnum Contact Sheets in the Guardian. Motion quotes editor Kirsten Lubben:

“The contact sheet...embodies much of the appeal of photography itself: the sense of time unfolding, a durable trace of movement through space, an apparent authentication of photography’s claims to transparent representation of reality.”

I often feel that I have devolved as a photographer, since those first heady days when I wielded my mother’s discarded Minolta and spilled developer on my hands and learned that patience and luck were as integral to taking a picture as a good eye. Then I was eager to explore the science and logistics of the art; now I cheat, I download applications to manipulate images that are being taken on my phone - my phone! - and upload the finished products to the weak and weary acclaim of my Facebook friends and Instagram followers. I have not held a physical photograph for years; I see my own images exclusively on screens, expandable, rotatable, contextualized with my own text. And I don’t know what process professional photographers use to select their images now, but I do know Motion is right about contact sheets - the advent of the digital camera made them “instantly obsolete”.

But then again, maybe my current camera of choice has, in its way, actually improved my photography. My photos are not and never have been very good - not very beautiful, not very interesting, not very thought-provoking, not very well thought out. But now, taken and stored as they are - impulsively, on a multi-use device - they are nothing more or less than a perfect record of my time unfolding, a kind of never-ending, interactive contact sheet.

6.

Now it is winter, or nearly winter. Night falls at 4 pm; rain falls all day, sometimes. It is hard to find the desire, let alone an opportunity, to get out and take pictures. All my photographs of this place are repetitive anyway - always the same views, the Merton playing fields, the Radcliffe Camera (of course: the biggest, most beautiful camera of all), the telephone wires on my suburban street, over and over again. These days I don’t even need to leave the house. I realize I’ve been unwittingly working on a series of photographs for a few months now: shots from my desk, taken through the study window, of the cherry trees and the painted pink wooden chair in the garden, rotting and unstable after a year in the sun and rain.

I mean to juxtapose the photos, to observe the reddening and yellowing of the leaves, the falling of the leaves, the bareness of the branches, happening quickly, in these still shots - to speed up time, or clarify its passing, at least. But I don’t. I don’t need to, I guess, because I know that on my phone, interspersed with shots of the tarte tatin I made the other night and the bit of cornicing that fell from our living room ceiling earlier this month, is this linear, visual representation of the march of time, the change of seasons, the thickening of the weeds in the garden we don’t tend to enough.