One of the things I do is take pictures: lots of pictures. I carry my camera at all times, everywhere, because you never know when you’ll see something interesting, unusual, or intriguing. The more you look for ordinary beauties–my stock-in-trade–the more you see them everywhere. I don’t consider myself a photographer, just a collector of images. But like any collector, over the years I’ve come to an understanding of my personal thoughts on photography, the thing I do to help me notice my neighborhood.
Originally published March 4, 2004
Yesterday I was trapped inside all day. After conferencing with intermediate writing students from 8 until 2, I met with my freshman comp class to discuss Susan Sontag’s essay “On Photography,” which is included in our delightfully quirky anthology. Sontag suggests that there are three main reasons why most amateurs take pictures: photography allows us to create and maintain social bonds, photography helps us face our fear of death and our inability to control our own destinies, and photography is a way of exerting power over the scenes and people we “capture” on film.
To a certain degree, of course, I agree with Sontag’s assessment. As a rank amateur, I too practice photography not as an art but as a pastime akin to both dancing and love-making (Sontag’s own examples). Like sex and dancing, photography is a fun thing to do even if you’re bad at it. There’s a certain entertainment value (Sontag uses the term “voyeurism”) in looking at other people’s pictures, even bad ones; even awful pictures (like bad dancers and perhaps terrible lovers) are fun and funny to look at. Sharing pictures gives us something to talk about, and it helps us while away time that we know is fleeting: someday, all these scenes (and we their viewers) will be gone. So Sontag’s right, I think, in claiming that photography is both a “social rite” and a “defense against anxiety,” and the very fact that I am hesitant to take (and post) pictures of people suggests that I do indeed agree that photography can be used as a “tool of power.”
But nowhere in Sontag’s essay does she talk about one concept that is key to all of my photos: love. To me, there is something not merely beautiful but heart-rendingly poignant about empty clothes carefully arranged in a sunlit shop-window: these clothes (and the unseen person who hung them there) cry out for notice and for love. Ignored alleys and the towering backs of buildings demand to be noticed just as their unnamed, unknown inhabitants do: cities and even modest-sized towns like Keene are filled with strangers and outcasts, and photography is one way I reach out to these overlooked lonelies. “I don’t know you, but I’ve seen you.” In this sense, photography is more than a social ritual: photography is a promise. “Having seen you, I won’t forget you.”
Although I have many delusions, considering myself a Photographer is not one of them. Having a former brother-in-law who is a photographer and a former sister-in-law who runs a gallery of fine photography, I know what Art Photography is (or is supposed to be). When I first started keeping this blog, I hesitated to post photographs because of my rank amateur status: there’s no greater cruelty, I thought, than sharing Bad Poetry or Bad Photography. Since I have no ear for verse, there’s no risk that I’ll inflict poetry on hapless souls…but armed with a digital camera, I can be a danger to myself and others.
In time, though, I began to think that amateur photography (like amateur prose) can have a certain charm. Part of the allure of blogging, of course, is that it is a democratic genre: you don’t have to be good in order to do it. Blog-reading is addictive because like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get. There’s a random delight in hearing an average writer suddenly soar or a wondrous poet lament a bout with writer’s block. We read (and write) blogs not because our writing is great everyday: we read (and write) blogs because everyday it’s great to be writing. Both writing and photography are ultimately human acts, expressions of our human need to notice and be noticed. A blog doesn’t have to be good to be engaging; it simply has to be true.
And so I post pictures not because I fancy myself a Photographer. Nope, I’m just as the tagline says: a collector of the quotidian. If you enjoy these photos, it isn’t because they are artful. Instead, you probably enjoy these photos because you too are curious, intent on noticing, a connoisseur of the random. Like a bottlecap collector or hoarder of old dusty bottles, I keep images because I love them. Our world is, after all, a huge found poem in search of a poet, any finder, who will notice and love it. This noticing isn’t Art; it’s Ordinary.