I attended a wedding over the weekend. (Congratulations, Derek and Dianna!) I wasn’t just a guest, I was a bridesmaid – and wife of the best man, and mother of the flowergirls. So, I made it into alot of pictures. Thanks to the miracles of digital photography and social media, some of these pictures were available for viewing by anyone with an internet connection even before the big day had drawn to a close. Several wedding guests have already created and shared whole digital albums with all their e-friends (including me) – and the pictures keep coming. Some are beautifully arranged, with clear lines and true colours. Others are blurry and askew, streaked and dotted with mysterious flashes of colour. In fact, I have a few of my own to share – of varying quality – whenever I get around to uploading them.
Clicking through all these pictures got me thinking of …. well, pictures. Over my lifetime, I have taken thousands. I received my first camera for Christmas when I was ten years old. It was a Safari 35mm Accushot:
I loved that camera, and spent most of my allowance on film and development. I took pictures of everything and everybody around me. I have albums filled with sneaky shots of unprepared people looking odd, and follow-up shots of angry people who have just had a goofy-looking picture taken of them by a giggling brat. Painfully posed groups of people waiting with glassy smiles while the same brat fiddled with the settings on her camera, accidentally turning it off, then imploring everyone to stay right there while she turned it back on and aimed again. Ok, everyone – smile! Oh, you’re weren’t looking – let’s try it again. Say “cheese”! Aw, come on, just this one picture …. One more. My friends making funny faces, my many invariably red-eyed pets, grudgingly captured images of my little brother because he begged me to take a picture of him. When a roll of film was finished, I posted it, and some cash, to a photo development company, and waited for pictures to arrive in the mail. In the meantime, I’d wonder if any of my pictures were duds, and I’d think of that one special picture that just had to turn out right. When I discovered walk-in, one-hour photo huts, I was very excited – though I rarely chose the more expensive one-hour option, at least I didn’t have to trust the postal system with rolls of film and wads of money anymore.
I didn’t jump on the digital camera bandwagon right away. I liked the anticipation of waiting to see my pictures in print rather than peering at a tiny screen, deleting, rearranging, retaking. Then, in 2004, Walmart lost all thirteen rolls of film from an amazing road trip. Ryan and I tented all the way to the Grand Canyon, then crashed Vegas for a couple of crazy nights, then tented home. I cried when I found out that we wouldn’t have a single picture to show for it. Derek gave us a digital camera for Christmas that year. We’ve used one ever since. I’ve become accustomed to checking pictures to make sure they’re good, and retaking when they’re not. I don’t mind taking five pictures to try to capture just one moment. I also know that when I take a picture of Fiona or Bridget, each girl’s automatic reaction is to say “lemme see”, and wrench the screen toward her face. They’ve never known a time when they had to wait to see a picture.
Digital photography is a good thing in many ways. You don’t have to waste time, money or paper on pictures that don’t do what you want them to do. You can instantly share any moment, event or expression with your dearest, even if they’re not-so-nearest – and these days many families and groups of friends are scattered across the globe, their only connection being the internet. You don’t even have to carry around a camera to take pictures; you can take them with your phone (although it must be said that most phones take shitty pictures). On the other hand, digital photography has cheapened pictures. Ok, ok – the reams of pictures I took with my little Safari were not high-quality. They weren’t even that good. But I couldn’t wait to get that bulky envelope in the mail, rip it open and pore over each image twice, maybe three times, before lovingly pasting it in an album. I still have them, and I’d probably cry if I lost them.
Pictures from the years before that were even more precious. I liked to look at me as a baby, a toddler, and then a big sister gripping my new sibling with an evil – I mean, er, loving – smile. I relished pictures of my parents before I was born – grainy, brown-tinged images of them as children, teenagers and then newlyweds. When I stumbled across black-and-white photos of my grandparents and great-grandparents, I felt like an archaeologist discovering a lost civilization. Because pictures were so rare and expensive, each subject was carefully arranged in their best clothes, with a solemn expression and a steady gaze. They knew these pictures would be framed and given pride of place in the family home for decades – these pictures would be their legacy to descendants they would never meet. These pictures were special.
I still have pictures printed, but I’m one of the few people I know who bother. Fiona and Bridget like to look at our albums, and so do we. Because printed pictures cost money and take up space, only the best images are selected for print. Years from now, will their children or their children’s children experience even the mildest flush of excitement over flipping through our albums? I suspect not. They’ll already have seen dozens of selfies, twosomes, crowd scenes – and my entire wardrobe. They may not ever meet me in person, but they’ll have seen every smugly displayed, carefully captioned culinary achievement since the mid-2000s. Great-Grandma Beth will be as accessible to them as pictures of themselves, and they’ll be bored of her grinning mug. Maybe this isn’t a bad thing – but it is definitely banal when compared to my childhood relationship with cameras and pictures.