While traveling from hostel to hostel in Australia, this columnist was presented with a cornucopia of information, impressions, advice, and manifestations of another country's culture and, after covering a student demonstration in Berkeley a few days ago, one of the subtle lessons of the journey down under bubbled to the surface.
In Australia, all the young people with digital cameras were taking photos of themselves with various and sundry tourist attractions in the background. In Berkeley, none of the photographers seemed to be taking photos which would prove to their editors that they had indeed found their way to Sproul Plaza and were fulfilling "the chief's" (All M.E.'s secretly love to be called "the chief") order to bring back images that would visually tell the story that the students at UCB were backing the faculty in a protest against budget cuts. "Chop from the top!"
Earlier this month, a visit to the Annenburg Space for Photogaphy in the Century City section of Los Angeles (what gives you the right to ask if I'm a Kerouac wannabe recast in the digital age?) we saw that some of the images in Black & White gave off a heavy nostalgia karma even thought they were taken last year. The only time visitors saw the faces of the various photographers was during interview portions of the accompanying videos.
Shouldn't someone somewhere tell these digital era wanderers that they might want to get the heck out of the way and take quality photos and not snapshots that only their friends and family might want to see?
Andy Warhol said that a good photograph was in sharp focus and was of a famous person. Yeah, future generations might want to see a photo of you looking at one of Manhattan's urban canyons if (big IF) you actually became a famous literary figure, but if not, the chances are that unless its Dorothy Lang documenting the latest Great Depression, no one wants to waste valuable net surfing time looking at a photo of you with San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge lurking in the background.
Life magazine, the New York Times, Slate, and Slate all have an array of the day's best photos. (Slate's are mostly from Magnum's files.) Perhaps they should team up with Nikon magazine and hold a photo contest for the best "facebook" style mug shot? Wouldn't that, at least, get some of them to stop for a few moments and try to capture an image with some composition and esthetic appeal?
Baby boomers will recall a snapshot contest held by local newspapers in conjunction with Kodak, which was held every summer in the Fifties. Where is the digital era replacement competition? The aforementioned photo print competition produced some excellent entries and didn't those contests also help build circulation for the newspapers?
All these digital mug shots would be great if the subject were famous and being booked at the Los Angeles' sheriff's substation in Malibu, but absent those extenuating factors, this columnist can look at pictures taken by friends and other travelers and understand that if they have the image on their digital camera, that indicates that they were probably there when the photo was taken and so attention can be concentrated on evaluating the artistic quality of the image.
Let say, for example, that you are sitting at the rooftop smokers' table at the Sydney Central Backpackers Hostel and one of the group shows you an excellent picture of one of the bats who hangs out at the Botanical Garden (they really do hang upside down). The fact that he had the quick reflexes needed to get the picture was remarkable. It would have been asking too much to insist that he should have included his own face in the picture.
Did anybody who had the presence of mind to grab their camera while Pearl Harbor was under attack bother to take a "facebook" style picture to prove that they were there when the bombs hit the fan deck?
Back in the day, when a fellow had to perhaps botch completely the development of a roll or two while learning to put a roll of 35mm film on a Nikon reel, it took time to learn all the factors that go into a good picture, and since film and processing were expensive, it was a good idea to hesitate a moment and pre-visualize the image that was about to be captured. Now, the digital cameras make all the creative decisions and give the shooter the option of manually doing an override. So the digital beatniks can aim, shoot, and scoot in the time it used to take to focus with a Nikon F and the quality level of the image suffers in a proportional way. The quicker a facebook shot is taken the lower its esthetic level will be.
It used to be that the Associated Press rarely gave a photo credit to one of its staff for doing their job. Every once in awhile, one of them would take a remarkable photo, such as the one Eddie Adams got of the Saigon chief of police shooting a guy in the head, and then the editors would figure that the photographer's name would be attached to that picture when it would inevitable (as it did) win a Pulitzer Prize, so they would figure "why wait" and put it in the caption when it first moved on the wire.
Perhaps, because just about the only time we've seen real "facebook" photos is when they are posted on other sites after the subject has become a person of interest in a notorious crime, we've completely misjudged the quality of that site's photojournalism?
Then again, we did see a lot of the "let's upstage the scenery" type shots in the various Australian hostels. There were exceptions to the rule, as we have noted, but we'll go with the statistical majority.
These days, it seems, even images from a stock shot source include the photographer's name in the photo credit line. Shouldn't bloggers emulate the egomaniac level of self-promotion style of folks such as Thomas Pynchon, J. D. Salinger, (Banksy?) and B. Traven?