Sunday, June 25, 2006

Snapshots, Electrons and Film

Having been involved in a week-long car trip vacation to southern Colorado, and having been involved in that venerable vacation past time called "snap-shot" photography, it perhaps may be an opportune time to make some observations.

One travels, perhaps by car, for long distances, through arid or unmemorable distances, and then happens upon a location or setting that one deems important enough to "capture on film". This becomes an essential categorization process, as if one were sorting memories into various bins.

This one is not worth remembering; we'll toss it out. This other one, however, deserves a special place. We'll mark this special memory with the iconography of the snapshot.

Of course, the phrase "capture on film" has now become a mere turn of a phrase, like the way in which we use the phrase "run of the mill" to denote the average or ordinary, even though few of us have ever seen or worked in a true mill. Phrases such as these are derived from our past, which seems too slow to change with the pace of the present moment. Thus, "capture on film", as a phrase, seems to have been linguistically captured on film, as if it were a specimen under glass, a moth whose wings are delicately pinned to the backing board, for future generations to marvel in its quaintness.

Two photographic processes were at work during our vacation; both similar yet distinct. The first one involved operation of a film-based, point-and-shoot (P/S) camera by my 6-year old grandson. The other involved operation of a P/S digital camera by myself, a long-time film shooter.

It seemed obvious upon direct observation that each and every time my grandson would desire to pull out the camera and take a picture, that it was in direct response to an emotional moment, induced by some physical artifact of the surroundings. The fact is that the camera was limited in controllability over the photographic process, and my grandson untrained and inexperienced to render exact technical control of the image recorded onto film; nevertheless, what he had in fact actually recorded onto film was more akin to an emotional image, or to borrow a phrase from the computer world, an "emoticon" or emotional icon that, when subsequently viewed, would impart an analogous emotional re-response.

What my grandson was partaking in was a time-honored tradition of capturing images as personal icons, within which would be imparted, as if by talisman, the true essence of memory itself.

Interestingly, these memory icons that we call snapshots, as of this writing, do not yet exist. That is, they are only latent images, icons-to-be. We have a sense of hopefulness that they will yet emerge from the larval stage of the photographic process to become images, prints, that can be handled and smudged and mutilated and stored in boxes, and within the pages of seldom-viewed albums become future memories of events past.

For my grandson has discovered the terribly unmerciful laws of physics that, immutably, determine that should the camera back ever be opened mid-roll, all those hoped-for memory icons will be forever erased, as if a final, cruel trick by some unmerciful god.

With the film-based photographic process, the final outcome is always a latent hope that we, almost superstitiously, mix with equal measures of preparation and luck. And then, sometime in the future, we wait on the developing and printing to reveal whether, in fact, our endeavor has been met with success or failure. It's with an almost religious sense of faith that we approach the taking of images via film, by recording an optical wave front as latent electronic disturbances within a light-sensitive gelatin emulsion.

Contrast this with the electronic photographic process, whereby images are immediately previewed, previsualized in their final form, prior to capture. And once captured, can be immediately reviewed and, as if by whim or fancy, immediately deleted forever.

As a process for the capturing of memories, this tendency can seem to border on the insane. For memories seldom achieve a sense of true value without the added benefit of time. Like the aging of fine wine, time is an essential ingredient for the proper mental perspective required to assess the photograph as emotional memory icon. One has to be removed from the milieu of the original setting, far enough displaced, so as to see the forest through the trees, as it were.

There would seem to be, therefore, several points of discipline required when using electronic image-making apparatus for the collection of emotional memories. First and foremost is the essential rule that images not be deleted. There is a necessary gray area here, where images that are obviously so badly composed or ill-illuminated or poorly focused, so as to totally detract from the point at hand, need to be deleted and immediately reshot.

The second rule is that context should not be a determining factor in the deletion of an image, until a considerable distance of time has been placed between the taking of the image and its reconsideration.

This begs the question of adequate short and long term storage capacity. Adequate capacity is needed within which to archive images over a long period of time, until they can be better evaluated, and portable media within which to temporarily capture all the possible images one may encounter during the course of one's travels away from home, which now becomes redefined as the location of permanent, long-term storage.

It becomes obvious, upon comparing film-based and electronic image capture processes, that the film-based process provides a natural time-shift, required by the nature of the media for processing and printing, that offers an adequate interval of time so as to facilitate the objectivity that emotional memory icons require. On the other hand, it is also obvious that electronic image capture devices must purposely be retuned in their usage modalities, so as to mimic the film-like process, in order to function properly as an instrument for the capture of emotional memory icons. Their immediacy of use, and misuse, renders them fundamentally inadequate for the capture of the ephemeral, without a more thoughtful approach. ~


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