Fifty years ago I became hypnotized by the world of photography. My then wife was taking a photography course at the university and since we were an impoverished student couple, we saved our pennies, denied ourselves garlic bread at Mario’s, wore out-of-date clothes because they still fit, and still couldn’t afford a decent camera.
Ten years later, on the other side of the country, I loaded a camera bag with all the goodies I could buy, including a modern SLR camera, and surprised my new girlfriend while celebrating her birthday at the local drive-in theater. She loved it; I used it.
What I found myself doing was lugging a heavy bag of extra lenses, beaucoup de film, tripod, filters, flash, and handy instructional pamphlets around New York City in search of the perfect shot. What I got in the end was a sore shoulder and a few pictures of the shadows on a subway grating. Being a self-appointed purist, I used only Black and White film. I also scanned the magazine advertisements constantly for the ideal enlarger and the tools and chemicals I would need to convert my single-purpose bathroom into a state-of-the-art darkroom with a red warning light outside the door.
I never converted that bathroom and all the camera equipment left me when the parameters and participants in my love life changed drastically. I don’t know what hurt the most: losing my lover or losing the Pentax.
I tried again to kindle my semi-professional photographer spirit with one of the newer automatic SLR cameras that were coming on the market. But it was too exhausting to stroll about with a heavy camera looped around my neck, just for a few pictures of shadows. Eventually I discovered the smaller, lighter, mostly-automatic cameras that I could slip in a pocket, always instantly available if an interesting shadow popped up on a sunny afternoon.
Then suddenly my inner Luddite seized my artistic spirit and I went to Disneyland with my pockets empty and nothing dangling from my neck … I was camera-less!
Back at the university I had worked for an older gentleman in the Vivarium raising white rats. One summer they forced him to use most of his accumulated vacation time and he took his wife on a three-month tour of the planet. Imagine going to India and Japan and Australia and Russia and Greece and Spain and England and not taking one photograph. Yes, he explained to me then and I certainly understand it now, that if he had taken a camera he would have been to busy futzing with the controls and struggling to focus that he would have missed seeing half of the sights.
True, today’s Smartphone provides not just instant communications wherever I am, but also a decent digital camera that even takes short films of slowly moving shadows. The Smartphone has erased the requirement for a separate camera, a clunky watch, and even reduced the need for a separate computer.
Annie Dillard, apropos of the philosophy I learned in the Vivarium, writes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:
But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer.