Part 1: Autograph Hunting
Between the ages of 10 and 16, I was an avid collector of baseball autographs. Since I was a kid without money, this meant I was actually getting the autographs from the players: doing my homework to know who might be where, being adequately prepared with the correct baseball card,* always carrying a spare ball,** learning how to recognize players without relying on the uniform, drumming up the courage to approach and ask them.
*I was good at this. Whether it was having a Mike Sadek card handy for the free Giants’ clinic at the local park, a Mario Mendoza card for when the minor league team he was managing came through San José, or a Mike Caldwell card for when his Campbell Fighting Camels got assigned to the Stanford Regional.
**Important. I obviously specialized in the more obscure players. But having a ball in case I had an opportunity for a genuine star allowed me to not waste a ton of money on pipe dreams. Buying a Billy Williams, Vida Blue, or Gaylord Perry baseball card was not something I could afford as a just-in-case purchase.
When I was 10, autograph hunting was all about the thrill of just getting anyone to sign. But that quickly changed. I was lucky enough to get to stay at the Giants’ hotel in Philadelphia when they were also staying there for a series against the Phillies. On my first day there, I tentatively approached Donell Nixon and got him to sign a card for me. He did. I was thrilled. By the next day, I knew what I was doing and had become fixated on the reward. And on “completing” the set. Which meant that I was getting more and more upset each time I didn’t “get” a player.
I got a good talking to from my mom that day about greed and appreciating what I had versus fixating on what I didn’t.
Still, autograph hunting was about the thing—getting that signature and having something to show that I saw or met the player. If I didn’t get the signature, the experience never happened. It wasn’t until I started going to baseball card shows that I started to realize there was more to it.
As I got older, I became able to buy autographs—both already-signed items and paid appearances at card shows. Both felt wrong to me. Already-signed items were troublesome because there was no experience there. Something I’d acquired myself just felt more important even if the player wasn’t. I knew how much I’d worked to get the autographs and I started to value the experience and effort I put into it.
At first my objections to the already-signed items was a sense that buying the finished item was cheating. But the card shows showed me there was more to it. Paying for autographs at the card show also felt a little like cheating—though getting to the show and waiting in line were pretty similar to the travel and wait aspects of the rest of my hunting. But it was also just a lousy experience. After all the wait, you’d hand your item to a guy at a desk, he’d sign it, and give it back to you. All without looking up.
When I got his autograph, rather than the usual baseball card, I brought a Tacoma Tigers program which had him on the cover. Since the show was in the Bay Area, he wasn’t expecting anyone to have this and he got a bit excited when he saw it. It was a nice change of pace and drilled home for me how much I valued the interaction and experience as much as the final product.
When I look back on my autograph hunting days or flip through my collection of autographed cards, it’s often the experiences and stories which I treasure. I love talking about meeting Will Clark and how he hated signing for non-Giants fans. I love telling the story about failing to get Willie Mays’s signature because the crowd jostled him and he stopped signing halfway through his name so some poor guy out there has a ball which just says “Willie.” I love the story of Todd Benzinger’s daughter asking from inside the car, “What is daddy dooning?” while he signed for everyone. I loved waiting for Bob Brenly outside the press elevator at Candlestick with our “Bach, Beethoven, Bob Brenly” tshirts.* I loved the Stanford Baseball Alumni game which used to signal the beginning of summer in January. I loved getting Mike Caldwell’s signature while his players crowded around to get a look at his baseball card.
*My mom made them. And sent him one. We were fans of him from his Giants days even though he was a Cubs announcer at the time. Yes I also got Steve Stone’s autograph.
Part 2: Photography
When I started out in photography, I found it easy to become obsessed with the final product and frustrated when that product never matched what I saw in my mind. In many ways seeing something that should make a good photo but being unable to put it all together is still the most difficult experience I have when photographing. There’s always some detail I missed or something I’d prefer to have done differently or something which I saw originally just goes missing.
Similarly, I’ve missed more photos than I can count because I couldn’t pull the trigger in time. This isn’t just about bad timing. I’ve found myself so caught up in watching what’s going on that I won’t even have my camera out and ready to take the photo.
This was especially common when I was birding. I could easily just watch a bird hunt for fish or fly by without ever bringing my camera to my eye. Even though I was out,with a camera, specifically to take photos. Some of this could be excused as watching and getting a sense of behavior so I could take better photos later. But most of it was just getting caught up in the act of seeing.
With my family, it’s the same thing. I’ll see moments and instances which I wish I could capture, but I’m just not able to do so. And this is despite me looking out for moments I consider to be more interesting.
I’m not complaining though. I’ve long since arrived at the conclusion that as much as I enjoy taking a good photo, it’s the everything else which encompasses photography which I actually enjoy. Photography for me has become going for a walk or drive* and just having my eye turned on and my brain assessing what works and what doesn’t. It’s an exercise in active seeing and the resulting images are my feedback.
*Or train ride.
I also like to try things without knowing what the results will be. Sometimes this is gimmicky, but the willingness to cede control adds a lot of the fun back into the result. I can play around and then the result becomes a “what happened this time?” surprise rather than a “did it work out?” disappointment.
Do I get a nice high from making a particularly good image or taking a photo which matches my conception of what it should look like? Absolutely. But it’s the looking and seeing and noticing and playing which makes me continue to shoot. And it’s the process of seeing and playing which I remember when I look through my images.
Part 3: Memory
Sometimes, I’ve noticed with horror that the memories I have of things like my daughter’s birthday parties or the trips we’ve taken together are actually memories of the photographs I took, not of the events themselves, and together, the two somehow become ever more worn and overwrought, like lines gone over too many times in a drawing.
My earliest memories are from when I was two years old. One of them is of my sister being born. The other is of my uncle’s wedding. In both cases, my memories have nothing to do with the actual events.
With my sister, my memories concern the construction around the hospital which we drove through on the way to visit. I have explicit memories of looking through the window of the car at all the diggers and bulldozers. My parents have confirmed over the years, repeatedly, that these memories are related to my sister’s birth.
With my uncle, my memory is holding onto my dad’s neck as he took me through the hotel swimming pool. What a pool it was. It wound around the hotel, went under walkways, and had a restaurant in the middle of it. Years later, my parents recognized my description of the pool as belonging to the hotel where the wedding was. I’d have had no idea otherwise.
There’s no way I would have been able to hold on to those memories without having something specific to pin them to. The result is not really my memory of the event anymore. Instead it’s my memory of being told what my memory was of that I remember and which anchors the earlier fragment in my mind.
This anchoring of my memory with something specific is how photography works for me. And it’s how autograph hunting worked back before I stated photography.* The activity helps me focus on certain experiences and the resulting objects serve to remind me of the experience. Do the objects and memories kind of blend together? Absolutely. That’s pretty much the point.
*Also, baseball-wise, why I keep score at baseball games. It’s not about reliving the game afterwards, it’s to help me focus during the event.
Which is why I’ve been amused about the recent hoopla about the Taking Photos Hurts Memory study. It’s pretty clear in the abstract that the only kind of photography which hurts memory is rote documentation without thought. Focused, observational photography improves it. As it should. You’re engaged in seeing and looking for specific details that make you think. Of course your memory will improve.
Part 4: Means vs Ends
The way to understand photography as it happens on social platforms is not to compare it to traditional photography, which is about creating an art object, but instead as a communicating of experience itself. It’s less making media and more sharing eyes; your view, your experience in the now. The atomizing of the ephemeral flow of lived reality into transmittable objects is the ends of the traditional photograph, but merely the means of the social snap.
I’ve never really understood Snapchat. Well, I get it. In the sense that we experience our lives through the viewfinder, it makes sense that we’ll communicate more visually as a result. I just never imagined that I would be communicating this way. It’s just not how I see the world. I forget the viewfinder half the time.
Then my mother-in-law got a smartphone.
For the past couple months now, there’s been what’s effectively an MMS chatroom consisting of my wife’s family plus me and my concuñado.* Lots of text. Lots of photos. We’re all just talking to each other and keeping up to date as a family.
*Is there an English word for my sister-in-law’s husband (aka my wife’s brother-in-law)? If not, why not?
I’m finding that most of my messages are photo-based. Without comment. Send them out and they become part of the conversation. Not something to discuss. Nothing final. Just a statement the same as texting “just landed” or “it’s snowing!” I’m even taking and sending selfies* now.
*E.g. on Halloween.
Now I understand what Nathan Jurgenson is talking about. And I understand the appeal and use case for Snapchat.
What’s both interesting and confusing here is that photographs can be both the means and the ends of communication. Traditionally, photos are presented as the end product. In Snapchat, or in my family MMS chatroom, they’re the means. At the same time, some of the photos I send eventually become blogposts and things which I consider to be somewhat final. They stop being conversation and instead a record of the event. Same photo, different framing.
Which is why Jurgenson’s focus on framing is so correct. The same image can be presented in multiple ways and as a result, suggest vastly different uses. I tend to view the framing as a Donald Norman style affordance. If I’m in an app which is conversation-based,* I will use images as conversation. If I’m in an app which is post-based,** the images become posts to comment on.***
*I use MMS, private Tumblrs, and IRC for this kind of communication.
**Facebook, Tumblr, and Flickr in my case.
***Twitter is kind of a grey area here. It’s a bit conversational. But it’s also very post-based. And I’m realizing that my usage is all over the map. All of which is probably why I like Twitter the most.
I’ve referenced McLuhan before here when talking about how the context in which I encounter a photograph changes the way I react to it. I should have realized a lot sooner that the same dynamic is at play with how use my own photos.
For someone like me who has a tendency to remember or enjoy the process more than the end result, it’s especially exciting to realize how my process can actually be my end product. I’ve been structuring posts around tweets for a while, but this is something else.
My twitter-based posts are typically straight archives of conversations on twitter which I use as a jumping off point for something else. Twitter makes me think about things and want to respond in more than 140 characters. So I blog.
When I take photos which I’ve been messaging to my family and turn them into blogposts, I’m not presenting an archive but am instead drawing on my experience while shooting and presenting what I feel represents that experience best. I’m not responding to the previous conversation, instead I’m incorporating it into the larger experience.
That I use my process as my end product, and that I value my process so much, also explains why I’m not likely to ever get into Snapchat itself. I’m a bit of a hoarder in the digital realm the same way I am in the physical one. I like all the bits of ephemera—and memories which are anchored to them. I like being able to roll back the chat archives and see what we’ve talked about in the past.* And I know that even in what seems to be an ephemeral medium, that it’s completely possible to record messages.
*As much as I enjoy IRC, this is my main problem with it too. I do however save my AIM chat logs.
Heck, if anything, now that I’ve realized how conversational photos are part of the way I react to and think about my experiences, I want to be able to go back and see what I was thinking even more than I did before.