“You could take a picture of all this, but you’d lose the pictures. You look at it with your eyes instead, and it’s in your head forever. There’s not that many people can understand that.”
The sentiment was expressed by a hobo named Pete to apprentice hobo/author Ted Conover in Conover’s 1984 book, “Rolling Nowhere.” Pete made the observation as the boxcar livingroom they shared rolled through the northern planes of Montana.
Who needs a camera? philosopher Pete wanted to know. If you take in a scene, truly take it in, the image will last long beyond those Polaroids, those slides, even those digital images (which, yes, are ephemeral) that you shoot with abandon: five shots in a row — one is bound to capture the right light. But … what was the right light?
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I first came across the notion of photos obliterating memories about a year ago, in a magazine called “NewPhilosopher.” (B&N was out of “Mad”; this seemed a good alternative.) We’re obsessed, posited the author, especially in the digital age, with viewing the world through a viewfinder (and often the viewfinder isn’t trained on the new and unfamiliar, it’s trained on us.)
Digital photography is to blame. In the days of film, we had to think long and hard about whether a view was worthy of one of our precious 36 rectangles of film. We’d study the scene, frame it, study it more, check the light. By the time we’d committed the shutter, the image was committed to memory. The photo itself may have long-since disappeared, but the look on the face of my hiking companion from a long hike (I may have suggested it was shorter) years ago in Rocky Mountain National Park remains happened-yesterday fresh: she was not amused.
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I can’t say that certain existing photos — those taken digitally, with the camera phone — don’t have a similar affect. One in particular, taken from the summit of Tennent Mountain on the Art Loeb Trail comes to mind. Ten or so hikers gaze in various directions from the open summit. The photo reminds me that on a clear day from its 6,040-foot plateau you can see just about everything worth seeing: Shining Rock to the north, Graveyard Fields to the east, Black Balsam to the south, Sam and Little Sam knobs to the west. What’s missing, though, is just what the landmarks themselves look like from the top of Tennent. So obsessed was I with waiting for the hikers to get just so — and the light as well — that I didn’t take time to savor what the spot was offering: truly memorable views. Views that will have to wait until the next time I’m there under perfect conditions.
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Focusing on the photo, and not the moment, is often for the benefit of others. Sure, there’s some boast value involved: I was hear and you weren’t. But we also take pictures to encourage others to share an experience. A picture speaks a thousand words, and who has time to read a thousand words anymore? (Though hopefully you have time to read 563, the length of this post.)
It would take a good 12-step program to keep most of us from taking another picture. Fortunately, this isn’t a cold turkey proposition. Take the picture. Then take a moment to make sure the image lasts for good.
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