Everybody is a photographer today. Practically everybody owns a smartphone, even kids from affluent families, and there is no smartphone worth the name that can’t take pictures. They are improving fast too, and many are developing sophisticated features to help the picture-taker.
Alongside is developing the expectation that people ought to record all that is happening around them. My neighbor is no exception. If I attend a wedding, I am expected to be able to show shots of the couple, famous guests, a dancing crowd, the ceremony, even the wedding cake. If I attend a funeral, I must attest to my presence by shooting, if not the deceased, the grieving widow, moaning family and collapsing friends.
No amount of recycling can solve the problem of the huge amount of trash we create in the world, besides what we dump in lakes and oceans. Do we really need more? Any Facebook and Instagram enthusiast, not to mention the TikTok and SnapChat aficionado, who attends any event of consequence – which apparently includes the last pie that emerged from her oven or the first hamburger that went into his maw – must document it abundantly, gratuitously and “to the last syllable of recorded time.” Where one shot of a smiling face would suffice, we are supplied a dozen.
If surfeit weren’t enough to bother, the abysmal quality of the photos distracts. The vast army of new-born photographers have no concern with ‘exposure value’ and haven’t possibly heard of ‘depth of field.’ They happily defy the rules of framing and composition. They press a button and publish the eyesore results. The surprising thing is that they don’t seem to notice the difference between beauty and blight. Why don’t they ever edit their insufferable output? Every phone has an app to crop the photo, change the lighting, increase the sharpness and improve the contrast. The avid shutterbugs never seem to bother using it. Granted that not all photographers need to reach a professional standard; one expects though they would not take leave of their eyes and eliminate the clearly hideous ones.
Since digital cameras make it easy and inexpensive to take photos, I have a simple rule. I promptly delete eighty percent of the photos I take; of the rest, I heavily edit at least one-half.
What beautiful things photos can be! When good cameras costly and bulky objects and photos were expensive to print, we seemed to take some minimal care in taking pictures of people and things. When new technology removed the need for an exposure meter and gave us a huge latitude in light-sensitivity, we forgot to pay attention to the light; now most people let their cameras decide the exposure for them. When further technology gave our cameras the capability to calculate the focus, we forgot the whole business of focus and never learned that focus too, like light, is a matter of judgment. Yes, technology has made photography easier if your goal is to consistently produce mediocre stuff. Good photos still require a modicum of effort: some learning and a touch of skill.
And then, in a flash, came to me the real difference between then and now. Then we took fewer pictures with greater care. Now we take tons and tons of pictures, with scant concern about the process and no care. We have replaced scarcity with plenty, which may seem a good thing, but we have also replaced attention with indifference, an eye for quality with a taste for crudity, a preference for vulgar abundance over discriminate choice.
I look at my home and realize the huge profusion of things that I have not used in a long while and probably never will. Whether it is shoes or clothes or razors, I have many more than my father or grandfather could have dreamed of. Does it add to the quality of my life any more than it could have enriched my forefathers’? I have strong doubts. I have trouble finding what I need, I waste time making choices that hardly make me happier or my life more worthwhile.
More is not necessarily better, though people dogged by memories of scarcity are liable to be tempted by it. More pictures might have pleased my curious neighbor, Mrs. Gillibrand, but they would have added little to the world.