August 18, 2011

Stop Taking Pictures Of Things

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What is the issue?

I’ll admit it – for a while I thought I was the next Annie Leibovitz. I took a photography class armed with my mom’s Nikon N80 with the malfunctioning light meter caused by a dent incurred when it was dropped on my parents’ honeymoon in Venice. I, of course, kept my film in the freezer and ran around speaking eloquently and obsessively about F-Stops and apertures.

For my inventory subject I chose “Flora” and I very seriously and vigorously trekked through gardens and landscapes in pursuit of my subjects. I spent hours in the dark room, painstakingly developing first the negatives and then the prints – all of which were inevitably and woefully overexposed.

After two summers of this – I can’t even remember the photo project I chose for the second photography session – I took a hard honest look at my collection of prints and threw down my hat. I accepted defeat and admitted to myself that I just wasn’t a good photographer and I walked away. I was fourteen.

Ten years later and everyone except me thinks that they’re the next Annie Leibovitz. With the advent of Hipstamatic for the iPhone, everyone on my Facebook feed is constantly taking visually stimulating photos of the most mundane of objects. Or their cats.

Before that it was food porn – pages upon pages of the internet were devoted to glorious, gluttonous food porn. You couldn’t sit down to a meal without experiencing a blitz of flash photography that assaulted the atmosphere of even the smallest café. There was a high-tec digital camera equipped with a macro-lens and a flash at every other table. When the food arrived there was the inevitable wait for everyone at the table to get “their shot” before anyone actually – imagine! – ate the food. I’ve even seen diners stride up to another table with their cameras and request a photo of a dish they didn’t order but just had to get a picture of.

Just when it seemed like finally, this wave of compulsive capturing was beginning to ebb, the age of Tumblr dawned. All of a sudden, everyone was a fashion photographer or a street style savant. If you weren’t taking photographs of yourself in eccentric outfits in weird places (yes, that hot pink turban does go perfectly with that grimy cobblestone) – then you were taking photos of other girls who didn’t seem to do anything all day except wander around in weird outfits waiting for “street style photographers” to take their photo.

Now, it seems, the epidemic has spread again. Of course, there have always been people who take photographs of paintings and sculptures and things in museums.  I can remember being at the Pompidou in Paris with a friend while studying abroad and shaking our heads at the tourists who whipped out their point-and-shoot for every Picasso.

“WHY?” We groaned. We were tourists of a sort, too – and we took our fair share of obligatory Paris photos; the view from the Sacré-Cœur, the steps of Montemarte, the bakeries in the Marais, smoking a cigarette with a glass of red wine at a café in the afternoon, etc. But we would have never thought to take a photo of the paintings.

The other day I skipped over to the Museum of Modern Art on the early side of a Thursday afternoon. Because it’s August, I knew I’d be outflanked by tourists 24-1 but at least, I thought, it was better than going on a Saturday. The crowds were okay. Living in New York, you get used to crowds—they’re not so bad.

You know what was bad? The fact that every single painting had someone taking a picture of it. Sometimes it was just a quick iPhone click-and-go, other times it was a full-fledged staging that required a squint, squat, and snap. The worst were the moms forcing their adolescent daughters to stand awkwardly next to Starry Night or Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and bare their braces to the camera and the world.

Everywhere I looked, in every gallery, there were people taking pictures of various paintings – and it wasn’t limited to the major works. They were even taking pictures of a series of very old photographs of people taking photos. That’s people taking pictures of photographs of people taking photographs. Mind-boggling. It made me sad to think that these people felt like they needed to record each painting or photo instead of just taking the time to enjoy and experience it.

Did they feel like they needed to post these photos on Facebook to prove something? And haven’t they rolled their eyes at enough of their friends’ boring “look what I did/saw on vacation” photos to know that no one cares? I wanted to yell, to scream, to instruct everyone in the gallery to stop taking a picture of the painting in front of them and to just look at it.

And what’s worse – what do they do with these photos later? Most of them probably get deleted and forgotten, and then what are they left with? The vague memory of taking photos of paintings at MOMA rather than seeing the paintings at MOMA. If they dared to put the camera down and actually look at the paintings, they would also, perhaps, realize how unique an experience it is to see these amazing art works in real life and how different it is than looking at a photo of them online or in a textbook.

So stop taking photographs of your food and just eat it. Stop dressing up so that someone will take your picture and just get dressed. At some point, we need to put the camera down and look at things with our own eyes. I guess it’s tempting to capture all that you’ve seen and experienced and it’s especially easy to do online, but resist the urge to contribute to that virtual stockpile of images and just experience the things that are right in front of your eyes, right here in the real world. TC mark

image – Orin Zebest

Caroline Helper

Caroline Helper is a 20-something writer living in a walk-up on the ugliest block of the Upper West Side of …

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