Here’s my relationship to photography these days: I point my phone and tap my screen. With reckless impunity, I tap and tap and tap. The photos get stored in the gallery app on my phone, then backed up to the cloud, and every once in a while I scroll through my gallery and cull the photos that are poor quality or meaningless or redundant. The rest stay in the gallery where I’ll see them the next time I scroll and some of those won’t make the second cut.
Every now and then I use one of these photos, perhaps in one of my blog posts or to send to someone. Once or twice I’ve even had a photo printed and framed.
What world away my photography process is today from when I bought my first SLR film camera back in 1980, the Canon AE-1, a high quality and popular tool for an amateur photographer. I took that camera with me on a backpacking trip to Europe, and because film and developing weren’t cheap, and I had little money, I had to be stingy about the decision to take a photo. Still, I took a bunch of unremarkable shots.
In terms of creative expression, I realized I was a much better writer than a photographer. It wasn’t just the framing or the lighting or the camera settings, it was the concept itself: using this device to see and capture the world through a lens. When you’re looking through a camera, your focus is by definition on a narrow target.
We all view and filter the world through various psychological lenses—our hopes and ambitions, our doubts and fears, what captures our attention and what doesn’t. But the viewfinder wasn’t my natural way of seeing the world. I needed a broader view from my observation post. I didn’t want to miss what was going on beyond the camera’s focal point. I wasn’t one of those Dads who was always behind the video camera capturing the moment. I wanted to participate in that moment.
Writing has remained my creative expression. Yet I’ve always wanted to take great photos—and I’ve always admired people who can. I know this is a fallacy but it seems easier to produce art with a camera—for every picture snapped I’d have to write a thousand words!
I saved that old Canon camera, probably didn’t touch it for thirty years. And then Owen found it. What’s this? An old film camera. He took an immediate interest. The shutter button needed rewiring and he brought the camera into a shop for repair and a new battery. He purchased film and started taking photos.
I talked him into taking one of Julia and me for his first photo. He judiciously worked his way through his first roll of 36 shots, carefully choosing his subject, and then said he messed up rewinding and overexposed the film. Now he has to begin again.
Such is art. You mess up and start over. If you’re a photographer, you take many photos to get one good one. A painter paints over her canvases. A musician works to perfect the melody. A writer goes through draft after draft.
With a camera phone, you scroll and delete, and end up saving a few good shots. I can’t wait to see Owen’s first set of prints. Too bad that photo he took of Julia and me will not be among them.