Sometimes the best photographs happen by accident. This weekend in Montreal, I carried both digicam and pencam: the pencam for rainy shots, the digicam for sheltered ones. The entire weekend as I was snooping and snapping, though, I had no idea which if any of my pictures would turn out: there was no need for me to visit Montreal’s famed casino as I was by necessity engaging in my own sort of photographic gambling.

If you’ve read this blog for long, you well know my penchant for meta-photography, the art of snapping other photographers in the act. Since all but two of the bloggers I mingled with this weekend have digicams of their own, my time in Montreal was an infinitely self-referential web of photo-connections: one photographer photographing another photographing another. When I snapped a Saturday night pic of qB photographing raindrops on a reflective sidewalk cafe table, though, I had no idea that what I’d capture would be the ghost of Ms. Frizz.

Years ago on a trip to Sedona, Arizona, I saw photographers charging hefty fees for so-called aura photos: portraits of the spiritual nimbus that presumably hovers around each individual person. Although the photographers I saw advertised presumably possessed special photographic equipment to capture each subject’s individual essence, it occurs to me that blurred and badly lit images might do something similar. There is something about qB that is breezy and ethereal…and there’s something about a silhouetted shot of the Velveteen Rabbi that captures the numinous mystery of both human personhood and indwelling divinity.

Anyone who keeps even a remotely personal blog has necessarily grappled with the question of what to reveal and what to conceal: how much self-disclosure is too little, too much, or just right? This vexing question is made even thornier when you add blogger meet-ups to the mix: having spent a weekend with a bunch of other bloggers, which secrets should be shared and which sheltered? In some ways, an accidentally blurry picture of animated conversation offers a perfect compromise, offering curious viewers a glimpse of the kind of gestures and gesticulations even the most reticent among us were lured into revealing.

The last time I saw Dave, for example, he was mugging for the cameras…now, he’s behind a camera of his own. Photography is one way of diverting attention from oneself: the person taking a group photo is never present in that photo, and holding a camera in front of one’s face is a socially acceptable way of maintaining distance, the lens sheltering as much as it shows.

Usually, human interaction is a mutual phenomenon: we look at someone, and they look back. When you hold a viewfinder to your eye, though, that normally mutual gaze becomes one-sided: I as photographer can see you, but you as photographic subject can only see my lens. Digital cameras with photo screens make photography a bit more interactive: some new digicams, in fact, don’t even have viewfinders, forcing photographers to rely entirely upon lit digi-screens to compose shots. In an era where even cell phones are photo-enabled, it is possible to take pictures at literal arms’ length, holding one’s gadget out or up to snap photos of oneself or others.

Even bloggers without cameras have ways of mediating life through art. Who can resist a shot of Tom watching while Dale produces another work of napkin art? Neither Tom nor Dale had cameras with them this weekend: both of their blogs rely upon words rather than digi-pixels to create images. And yet regardless of the medium, I think we all are striving toward the same result: a glimpse of life as it happens, time slowed to the ticking of individual moments with images told like clicking prayer beads.

If blogging is a way of capturing personality–a way of sharing with virtual strangers how lived experience looks from my perspective, now–it makes sense to extend our definition of “personality” to include groups as well as individuals. Each of the bloggers I met in Montreal has her or his individual style and personality, and there’s a sort of synergism that happens when you juxtapose those personae. What do you get, for instance, when you throw vagabond Tom in a car for a long roadtrip with via negativa Dave, or when the mysterious Abdul-Walid goes teddy bear shopping with qB? These alluring questions can be answered only in person and in the moment; there’s a certain numinous There-ness that defies the limitations of word and image.

Ultimately, the point of meeting up with bloggers isn’t the stuff that can be blogged. Montreal wasn’t a means of stockpiling more (and more tantalizing) blog-fodder, although presumably we each drove, trained, and flew away with plenty of that. Instead, the point of Montreal’s meeting was the alluring and irresistible chance to put a face behind the blog. Have you imagined Cassandra‘s eyes? Well, I’ve seen them, and now I’ll shield them, the most precious part of any conversation being those parts which you’d never share as mere gossip.

For although I have no qualms about showing my face online, I’ll go to great effort to shield the faces of those who wish not to be seen, cropping and angling to capture a corner of a must-see umbrella while hiding the visage of its holder. There’s more to my favorite bloggers, after all, than their pretty faces, and the best parts of any meet-ups are those un-photographable, ineffable moments of which you later say, “You had to be there.” The slogan “Shit, it’s raining” perfectly describes a drizzly Saturday in Montreal, but it would have taken more than rain to dampen the spirits of those of us who’d gathered to show and tell.

    As my blog-buddies arrive home and get settled in from our whirlwind weekend, they’ve begun the gradual process of blogging the weekend’s festivities. Be sure to check out Rachel’s offering as well as Leslee’s two posts. Since we never agreed that “what happens in Montreal stays in Montreal,” the possibility for incriminating stories and photos is nearly limitless.