There was a very sweet little old lady that lived in the house near me when I first moved here, in 2001. The first day I moved in I had been up since dawn unloading boxes and getting stuff done. I walked down to the end of the driveway to put up the mailbox, and it’s a good three tenths of a mile. I’m sweaty, dirty, aggravated, and carrying a post hole digger, and this woman, who was about 90 at the time, ambushes me, makes me go into her house for a glass of water and cookies, and proceeds to show me ten thick albums of her family history. Literally, two hours later, fighting off diabetes and a sugar buzz, I escape.
But I think I learned more about this part of the world in two hours than I have in the following nineteen years. Once upon a time, people did that, they showed you their pictures, and everyone had a ton of them. It was a ritual, a way of getting to know people, and you understood their history by what they took photos of and who was in their photos. It was something that kids grew up learning to do, learning who was in photographs, and why that person was important. I met that woman through her memories, stored in a book, while sitting next to her and eating cookies.
It took some effort, back then, to make a photo. You had to have a camera, you had to buy film, you had to hope when you pressed the button, the photo was going to be okay, because there was no way to tell until the film was developed. It might be weeks before you got the photos back, and there was the thrill of a great shot, balanced against the ever present possibility that you screwed it up somehow. Cameras, for a very long time, were not cheap and they were not easy. One hour film developing became a thing, and disposable cameras did, too. But the cell phone ended all of that, and digital photos could be taken instantly, and seen by millions of people, in seconds.
Videos were rare, and about the time good solid video cameras became easy, the cell phone got them, too. You have no idea how badly I wish that I had videos of my dogs who are no longer with me.
At the end of the day, digital storage replaced the photo album, mostly. If you want to look at someone’s photos, just go online, and there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of them. But the narrative isn’t there, the side by side sitting and sharing isn’t there, and the pointing finger, “Look, there’s Duke in the background, he was a stray that just showed up one day and Uncle Bob started feeding him so Duke just hung around. Died when he was twelve years old, that dog did.”
I miss that woman, she’s gone now, she was 95 the last time I saw her. She had a mind that was still sharp and her memory was unclouded. I can remember her telling me once that she’d leave everything she owned in her house and let it burn if it caught fire, but she’d die before leaving her photo albums.
There hasn’t been enough time yet, to figure out how this will change us, this ability to have a photo or a video, of every single second of our lives. But somehow, it’s cheapened the experience of photography, while improving the quality of photographs.
Mike writes regularly at his site: The Hickory Head Hermit. Opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the management of this site.