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Essay

Small eye

Photography, once a noble art, has become, thanks to the move to digital, a mental illness
– Nigel Farndale

 

I BOUGHT my first camera, a Kodak Instamatic, in 1973. I was eighteen and about to go travelling in South-East Asia, and the hippie trail was so fresh there wasn't even a Lonely Planet guide. We ‘travellers' took care to distinguish ourselves from the ‘tourists' we so despised: staying in lodgings with as few western facilities as possible, cultivating a blasé attitude toward ailments such as dysentery. We travelled light, scorning big flashy cameras, and made sure not to take many photographs. We were Being Here Now (smile beatifically, pass joint). I suppose this is why I got the Instamatic: it was so little and lightweight as to be almost ironic. Or maybe it was just cheap. Or maybe my dad gave it to me; I can't remember. There are biggish chunks of the seventies I can't remember.

I went first to Bali, for a few weeks, and then to Jogjakarta in Central Java where I stayed for two or three months in ‘the house with the blue door', a rambling bungalow a few kilometres out of town and peopled by a succession of travellers, before moving on to Malaysia and Thailand. In the course of the whole trip I took three, maybe four, rolls of film. When I look now at the few photos I still have, I am delighted by the fragments of the past – those ‘Kodak moments' – I captured. Look: there's me, willow slender, standing by the side of the road between Kuta and Legian; that road is now a traffic sewer, but in '73 there's nothing but rice fields and coconut palms and a smiling hippie chick in a diaphanous dress. Here are the kids who lived across the road from us in Jogja, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as they show off for my camera, holding up their new siblings, their pet pigeons. That biggest boy could shinny up the pawpaw tree in our front yard in an eye-blink, toss the fruit down to an accomplice and scamper off before you had time to feign indignation. Ah: my friend Robin from California sitting with her Javanese husband in the doorway of their modest home, which was in the compound of playwright and activist WS Rendra, the buzzing hive of his Bengkel Theatre troupe. Robin is holding a kitten. I'd just shocked her husband by kissing the kitten on its furry little head as I played with it. Kissing of any sort was, I abruptly learnt, risqué behaviour in Java, and kissing an animal quite beyond the pale, even to a radically politicised actor.

A vivid aide-memoire, this handful of photos – but I remember just as well many things I did not take pictures of. While I hadn't led what you'd call a sheltered life, I was nevertheless a middle-class girl from the suburbs of Melbourne who had never even glimpsed real poverty. To have plonked myself in the centre of not just a developing country but the most densely populated island on earth (Java, two-thirds the size of Victoria, had a population then close to a hundred million) was to invite, however unwittingly – or witlessly –genuine culture shock. Daily encounters with things startlingly unfamiliar ensured that they would be engraved permanently in my mind's eye. Some were magically lovely, like the glass jars filled with fireflies that, for a few rupiah, the neighbourhood kids used to light the way through the dark streets to the localwarung where we ate most nights. In the anatomically vivid image of the pumping calves of a betja driver ferrying me up the steep hill out of town (Jogjakarta betjas being unique in that their drivers pedalled in front of, rather than behind, the carriage) I see my dawning awareness of how bloody hard most people in the world have to work just to survive. I'd grown up with animals as pets, or on plates, while cars and trucks performed all transport duties: how wondrously strange, then, to be silently overtaken while walking along the road by a white buffalo pulling a wooden cart laden with produce, its enormous dark eye (like a whale's eye I thought) level with my own, checking me out as it walked past on hooves protected by black rubber shoes cut from old tyres.

And no camera was needed to burn into my brain the face of the young woman I saw one night walking completely naked and with wide blank eyes down the middle of the crowded street by the railway station (the street, I later learnt, which housed the town's brothels) and the throng parting quietly, almost reverently, around her. We passed her at only an arm's length, but my betja driver gave not even the slightest of sideways glances. I still feel my stunned incomprehension: how could a woman be walking naked and in public in this devout Muslim country? Years later in a book or magazine I came upon a photograph of just such a young woman, and read that this is an acknowledged way girls – specifically, young prostitutes – can express that their lives have become intolerable. What happens next? Do they put their clothes back on, return to the brothel? Throw themselves in the river?

Eventually I traipsed back to Australia where I spent the rest of the '70s wandering restlessly around the eastern seaboard, and north to Darwin. I used the Instamatic for a year or two but then it vanished. Around 1975 someone gave me a cranky Olympus SLR with a dead light meter and a few sticky lenses, to which I became unreasonably devoted. I went all arty and developed (literally, once I'd been initiated into the magic of the darkroom) a quirky oeuvre that was part Julia Margaret Cameron romantic faux-narrative, part Francesca Woodman edgy-feminist-girly angst. It's obvious to me now what I was doing: creating characters and stories on film rather than in writing, probably because it was so much less tortuous, and you could show people what you were doing in ten seconds. They were soulful, questing sorts of images, but making them was fun. When I became a mother in the early '80s however, all of that fell away as smoothly as an unfastened cloak, while I took on a more quotidian obsession: documenting my child's endlessly fascinating early days and adorable ways.

It wasn't until 1992 that I made another longish trip overseas, when my then partner and I, with our ten-year-old, spent two months in Japan, the United States and Europe. We had a secondhand Pentax, a perfectly good camera, but took photos sparingly. Those SLRs weighed a fair bit, for one thing, and my partner was allergic to carrying anything heavier than a packet of cigarettes, while I was awake-up to being the pack-horse. Thus, the photos from that trip are mostly from the windows of hotel rooms or the terraces of inns. But I had other reasons, private and barely formed, for my photographic parsimony. I had become aware that I disliked, and quite intensely, the feeling of disappointment that often accompanied photographing things, especially when travelling. How often did the vista that had appeared so charming or spectacular seem reduced, banal, when captured (or in fact, not captured) by the camera's small eye? Or a person turns, a bird flies away, the light changes and – ‘Oh no, I missed it!' That disappointment curdled the pleasure I took in travel, and my solution was to avoid taking pictures – not entirely, but largely. I convinced myself that if I gazed intently enough at, say, a pair of handsome and venerable wooden doors in a side-street of Paris, immersed myself in their proportions, the grain of ancient timber and dull gleam of brass fittings, then I could recall it all later just as well as if I had a photograph.

On one's first visit to Paris it's thrill enough, after all, just to wander and stare. A city which scorns billboards– how stunningly insouciant is that? (And, how do you photograph something that's not there?) Then, in the Louvre – sans camera, oui – I watched a tall man stride through the endless galleries at a bracing clip, holding up a video camera that was trained on the walls. He wasn't looking at the paintings – he was watching where he was going, as indeed he had to, because the place was damn crowded. I could make no sense of it. When was this guy planning to look at the art? On a home movie screen, when he got back to wherever home was? Still shaking my head, I made my way to the room where the Mona Lisa hangs and was confronted by a seething zoo of people ten metres deep, all yelling and jostling for position as they clicked and flashed and flashed and clicked. I think my jaw may have actually dropped open. Gallery attendants stood around with their ineffable Gallic expressions, all but smoking Gauloises. The din was incredible, and there was simply no way you could get more than a glimpse of the Mona Lisa herself, who was in any case, or at least as far as I could make out, in an alcove behind a sheet of armoured glass. The crappiest postcard would've offered a better image than any of those frenzied photographers could possibly have got.

I think of that as the first time I witnessed travel photography gone mad. And that was twenty years ago, in those antediluvian pre-digital days when people tended to ration their snapping. Yes, before even mobile phones existed, let alone phones that could take photographs.

The first time I saw mobile phones being used en masse for that purpose was in Tokyo, early in 2005. That year, by chance and my good fortune, the cherry blossom was delayed by unseasonal cold, allowing the festival of hanami (literally ‘flower viewing') to begin just as I got off the plane for a four-day visit with a friend who was teaching there. I went with pupils from her school to see the blossoms in the park by the museum, where I was puzzled by plastic sheets spread out under many of the trees. Companies, I was told, had laid them out days in advance, even having employees sleep there to prevent pozzie poaching. That night I was initiated into the custom of yozakurahanami by night. Now, there's a Japanese saying which translates as ‘dumplings rather than flowers', alluding to those who come more to booze than contemplate the blossom, and those Tokyo guys and gals sure know how to party under the lamplit cherry trees. Next day I was forced to skulk indoors with a hangover so brutal I couldn't even raise my head off the pillow when an earthquake made the building sway.

On Saturday, with the blossoms at the height of their deliriously brief flowering, we went to the Imperial Palace, along with tens of thousands of other Tokyo residents all intent on viewing the trees that line the avenues and overhang the moat. The queue to enter the East Garden of the palace was more than a kilometre long; Mary and I sneaked down a side street and clambered over a low fence, alongside respectable grannies and old men with walking sticks giggling like naughty kids at what they were prepared to do for hanami. I had a camera – an old-style film camera, that is – and among the photos I took that afternoon is one of a crowd of young people surrounding a tree laden with perfect blossom. On benches behind them, older folk are sitting: they are gazing up into the tree, but the young ones' attention is plainly fixed on their opened mobiles, which they are holding up to the branches like interviewers asking the flowers for a comment, or lowering to check the just-taken photo on the screen. I suppose I must have known before then that photos could be taken with a mobile phone, but barely. What I was witnessing amused me but also seemed, in some way I couldn't quite grasp, significant.

I shot a single roll of film during our four days of hanami. It was one of those magic rolls where just about every photo is a cracker, but it didn't inspire me to use my camera (a compact Konica with a fabulously forgiving fixed lens) more often. In fact, by then I'd formed the somewhat devious habit of encouraging my travelling companions to take lots of photographs – which I would then get copies of.

I have a digital camera these days; my son and I bought identical models in New York four years ago. He seldom bothers to use his now: so much easier with his iPhone, where he can cute-ify the pictures with various apps and upload seamlessly to the web or cloud location of his choice. (I ask him if I should get a smart phone; he says firmly, ‘No, Mum. It'll just drive you insane.') And I don't use my handy little camera (about the size of that Instamatic) much either, still preferring to just...look. An increasingly quaint preference, it seems. Last (northern) summer, I stood on a crowded vaporetto in Venice and watched a gondola slide by. Sitting in it were five people; the middle-aged man and woman were, I decided, a couple, and two of the young adults their children, plus a friend. All three young people held up their smart phones in a semi-permanent salute, and I had no doubt that the best of the images they were capturing would be on Facebook or Twitter or Flickr, quite likely within minutes. The older woman's gaze was fixed on her camera, which, though digital, suddenly appeared rather old hat. I knew that if she was anything like me, she'd get around to downloading them to her computer in a week or so and there they'd pretty well sit. Maybe she'd email a couple to, say, her sister; maybe print a few out. Not much different to what we used to do with film.

On reflection, I realise that I was witnessing an inter-generational shift in the very purpose of taking photographs: us boomers haphazardly assembling an album of personal memories for later reference, while the digital natives are taking part in a visual conversation in real time with friends who might be anywhere in the world.

But at the time, all I could think was this: They are on the Grand CanalLa Serenissima in all her glory surrounded them – but only one passenger on that gondola was actually taking it in, while his companions could look no further than their tiny screens. Why did this sadden me? It's no skin off my nose what any other tourist does. Especially in a place like Venice, which is a kind of gorgeous Disneyland anyway. Not like the locals are going to be offended if visitors choose to take photos of every blessed thing in front of them every second of the day.

It does offend some people, though. British writer Nigel Farndale began a 2009 article in the Telegraph by describing a man in a cable car ‘climbing high above the cathedrals of Barcelona' who took photos the entire way, not stopping once to stare at the view. ‘The only way I could prevent myself from opening the cable car door and pushing him out,' declares Farndale, ‘was to fantasise about bludgeoning him with his stupid camera, and then opening the cable car door and pushing him out.'

Farndale is a professional journalist and quite possibly exaggerated his antipathy to the snap-happy traveller for effect. He succeeded, if the passionate comments online are anything to go by, though as many rail against the author for being a snob, a busybody and a presumptuous narcissist as agree with him. Why did the non-stop photography exasperate Farndale so much? Because, he says, it's insensitive to the moment, as well as to others around you. ‘At weddings these days, the solemn moment when the vows are exchanged can hardly be heard for the click of cameras.' And what, I wonder, of the photographers' own moment? Am I just an old hippie still trying to Be Here Now when I find that an experience can seem deeper, richer, more memorable for not having tried to photograph it?

Farndale ended with the suggestion (and I'm not sure whether his tongue was in his cheek) that Debrett's bring its guide up to date and ‘offer etiquette advice to incontinent photographers'. Etiquette – the very word has the fragile perfume of a bygone era. So many things have changed, and at such speed that sometimes the very thing we need to show us just how fast, and how far away we are from that foreign country of our own quite recent past, is a whole lot of photographs.

 

IN 1968, THE body of Robert F Kennedy was flown to New York for a memorial service and mass, and then carried by train to Washington DC for burial at Arlington Cemetery. That final journey took place on 8 June –a swelteringly hot, early summer day. A thousand dignitaries, friends and family members were on board the train, as was a young photographer, Paul Fusco, on assignment for LOOK magazine. From the moment the train set out he saw people silently lining the tracks, even on the tracks, and thronging the platforms of every station it passed. Fusco lowered the window and began to take pictures of the people who in groups large and small had come out to pay their final respects to Bobby Kennedy. They were from every section of society – black and white, dirt-poor and well-off. By Fusco's calculation, he took about two thousand pictures in the eight hours it took to make the usually four-hour journey, passing hundreds of thousands of people. (The train arrived so late that Robert Kennedy's became the only night funeral held at Arlington.)

LOOK never published the funeral train photos, choosing instead to go with a retrospective album of Kennedy's life, and when the magazine folded a few years later most of the negatives disappeared. Thirty years after Kennedy's death George magazine (founded by John F Kennedy Jr) published some of the few photos Fusco had retained, and another ten years passed before a diligent archivist located the trove of negatives in the Library of Congress. A book was produced, in association with an exhibition at Danziger Gallery in Manhattan in June 2008, on the fortieth anniversary of the events recorded.

I think the only time I have ever cried while looking at a photographic exhibition – any exhibition – was atRFK Funeral Train: Rediscovered. Looking at the family of five skinny white kids with their young parents in work-stained clothes all standing at rigid grieving attention in the sticks; reading the roughly lettered banner– So long, Bobby – held up by a black couple standing in knee-deep weeds beside the tracks, I felt a belated but visceral understanding of how deeply the nation's sense of hope was shattered by his death. But it also struck me how things have changed.

First, the clothing was so much brighter. Men and women dressed in tangerine, emerald, magenta; patterns are bold, and the default colours are white and light blue. Dark colours are reserved for those in uniform. Second, hardly a person is overweight, and none are obese. Third, no-one, apart from the occasional woman with a small handbag, is carrying anything. Imagine that: they came out and waited for hours on a hot summer day without snacks, water bottles, cups of coffee, or entertainment of any kind. And fourth, of all those people clearly visible in the photographs perhaps twenty are holding up a camera.

Was it that so few of those folks owned cameras? (Not a single black person, by the way, can be seen with one.) Would taking a picture have been thought of as disrespectful? Was it more important to simply bear witness, with eyes and heart and patient body? Can't know for sure. But tell me: if such an occasion were taking place today, how many of those people do you think would be taking photos? Half, I'd say, at least. More?

It's February 2012: late winter in San Francisco, and for a whole week Fog City's skies are clear as crystal. On a sunny day, heading out of town for a jaunt to the Napa Valley, we stop on the far side of the Golden Gate Bridge. My boyfriend checks the map while I join the crowd at the low wall where the views across the bay are at their best. The number of people taking photographs fascinates me. At one stage I cannot spot a single person who is not either taking a picture or having their picture taken. And, I must say, they seem very happy to be doing so: everyone is smiling and cheerful.

But there is something about the sheer volume of it, the excess, that makes me uneasy. It has the whiff of that insatiable urge to consume, especially in the US, where ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' seems now to be interpreted as ‘get out of my way – I need more stuff'. Why stop at one photo when you can take ten, or fifty, or a hundred? At no extra cost! Doesn't matter if no one will ever see them, if your companion's face is just a dark blob against the sky, if your time might be spent more nourishingly on savouring the details. It reminds me of Homer Simpson's insatiable gobbling at the all-you-can-eat seafood restaurant. ‘That man ate all our shrimp! And two plastic lobsters!' says a horrified waiter. When Homer is confronted he sputters, mouth full, ‘Can't talk. Eating.'

Can't see. Photographing.

Goodbye, my little Instamatic. Goodbye, Kodak, you've had your moment. The company that in 1996 had revenues of $US16 billion is now bankrupt, having not so much failed to ride the digital wave as been swamped and smashed to bits by the digital tsunami. Forget about there being particular, special moments that warrant a photograph: now, there is no conceivable situation, no matter how trivial or how intimate, which goes undocumented. This ability to record our lives in such detailed immediacy – every meeting, every moment, every meal – is unprecedented.

And yet, while the technology is new, surely the desire to record our lives, to establish at least the fact of our existence, is not. What after all does the print of an outstretched hand on a cave wall, profiled for posterity by a spurted mouthful of ochre, tell us, if not ‘I was here'? The teenager turning his iPhone around to grab a photo of himself with a posse of pals at their favourite café is not, in essence, very different.

A San Francisco friend whose work and creative life revolves around the internet pays me a visit. On my desk Suzanna spots the Farndale quote about digital photography and insanity. ‘Hah!' she cries. ‘The day before yesterday I wiped six thousand seven hundred photos from my iPhone.' Her expression is one of wild-eyed but nervous triumph. Her Twitter followers are aghast: those photos were the record of her past four years. But she had never formed the essential habit of deleting the junk and storing the gems appropriately, and even virtual excess clutters. It had got so out of hand that sorting them was impossible. And so, yes, she ditched the lot. Now Suzanna is resolved to be more disciplined about both how many photos she takes and how she manages them. ‘A limit of one hundred on the phone,' she tells me.

Half an hour later, admiring a vase of tulips, she says how much she wants to photograph them: a certain friend would love to see them. But no – she is being disciplined. What, I ask curiously, goes through her mind when she thinks about taking photos in this seemingly reflexive way? ‘Share,' she says, raising an imaginary phone, pretending she's snapping pictures of this and that around the room. ‘Share. Share. Share.' And what, I ask, does this instant connectedness and constant sharing do to her own experience? Just her, in the moment? She stares out the window, looking puzzled, then tells me again how much her friend would love to see the tulips. You can see it pains her not to share.

And why wouldn't it? Being connected to others, to our group, is an essential part of being human.

Like most human traits, though, it's a spectrum with, say, hermits up one end and maybe cult members at the other. Perhaps our willingness to take up, or not, the connectedness offered by the digital age and especially social media says something about where we are on that spectrum. Even Nigel Farndale, when I contact him to ask if he has anything to add to his furious ‘digital illness' Telegraph piece three years ago, tells me ‘since writing that I have come to appreciate more the whole iPhoto way of storing images...and being able to make them into books that make good presents.' See, even grumpy Nigel just wants to share.

Another sparkling day. My boyfriend and I walk up to Twin Peaks, almost the highest point in San Francisco. Atop the north peak is a seething tourist trap; atop the other, nothing but a few windswept boulders and a handful of locals quietly taking in the view. From the ocean to the bridge, glowing truly golden in the late afternoon sun, and across to the bay, the whole lovely city is spread out at our feet. ‘Take a photo,' Phillip suggests. I remind him that he left his smartphone at home, charging. ‘But you have your phone,' he says, ‘and it has a camera.' My humble, unsmart phone? I tell him doubtfully that I don't think the camera is, um, set up. He smiles. ‘I don't think you need to set it up. Just give it a try.'

I do. It's surprisingly easy. Within seconds – truly, before I know it – I am taking a photo. Yes, on my phone. Click! It's done. I'm thrilled! I attempt to send it to my son – he'd be proud of me, I think – and fail, which is almost reassuring. Now, two weeks later, I look at that photo again, for the first time since I took it. It's a terrific picture: there's my boyfriend, handsome as ever, and the Sutro Tower behind him, and beyond that, in surprising detail, the splendid vista. And – ah! – there is my shadow, against the rocks, right arm cocked in the photographers' salute.


From Griffith Review Edition 37: Small World © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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