I was recently visiting friends in the Youngstown, Ohio area when I stumbled across the Greyland Gallery. It’s a great little spot with vintage clothes, albums, artwork and a Swedish theremin player performed there while I sifted through some old photographs in a basket. I purchased 5 of them.
I love looking through old, discarded photos in vintage stores, trapped in street vendor frames, at garage sales. I always wonder how they got there, who would get rid of family photos? For whatever reason, I can’t pass these photographs up. Maybe it’s because when I look at them, I realize that particular moment was deemed worthy of preservation. Someone gave it thought, and placed value on that moment. In fact, years ago there was a murky joint in New Orleans called Dead Mozell’s Café. It has since gone out of business. But this place took it’s name from a vintage black and white photograph from the early 1900’s. One of the Mozell sisters had died a day before their scheduled appointment with a photographer. But photography was such a status symbol back then that the three sisters dressed in their finest attire and propped the dead one up in between the living.
Now that we’re in the age of impermanent digital photos, security cameras, traffic cameras, value and permanence are up for grabs. Far from being reserved for special moments, we are photographed all day long. Our every moment, no matter how mundane, is likely to be caught on security cameras at the grocery store as we shop for ground beef, take cash out of the ATM or run a red light.
Christopher Isherwood once famously wrote, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all of this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”
Were he alive today, he might have to re-write that line. After all, “I am a camera” implies that one person is the subject and another person is the camera. Isherwood’s camera is removed; there is a separation of camera and subject. Not anymore. Technology has made us both cameras and subjects 24 hours a day. But none of it has to be “developed, carefully fixed, printed.”
Digital cameras have given us the option of taking photos of the man shaving or the woman in the kimono, e-mailing it, then disposing of it. If photographs are snapped and deemed too ugly, they are deleted. That moment did not exist. People who are too superstitious to shred a printed photo have no trouble deleting them. No value judgment is made. No one runs out of film, or has to question if the shot is worthy. The importance of image is no longer examined. Anything can be recorded. And no one has to fear losing their photographs in a fire, as long as they’re stored on a hard drive.
So with this digital revolution, something that was at one point so important that the Mozell sisters would prop up their dead sibling has become ephemera. As for me, I’ll keep trying to preserve these moments, one photo at a time…