Reflections on Photography: Seeing and Feeling

“An unknown relative.”

Roughly the first two weeks of this semester’s anthropology senior seminar we are taking a brief look at photography, perception and representation. My idea was that before we discuss visual anthropology or ethnographic film we should take some time to examine the human eye and the representational power of photography.

Since different parts of anthropology broadly look at humans biologically (biocultural/physical anthropology) and as meaning-making creatures (sociocultural anthropology), I thought it would be interesting to juxtapose a biological/neurological description of human vision and its connection to brains and perception with a poetic, literary exploration of photography.  For this I chose a very fascinating and detailed chapter from Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works called “The Mind’s Eye,” and juxtaposed it with the thought-provoking reflections of photography in Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes.

While Pinker’s chapter does a brilliant job of describing the physiology of the brain’s ability to make coherent images from the incomplete and imperfect data transmitted from our eyes, Barthes carefully describes the emotional impact of photography as he examines its essential nature. The two authors’ works were supplemented by newer essays by anthropologists that look at the documentary and evidentiary uses of photography in anthropology. My goal is that we would get a quick introduction to photography, vision and the sociocultural contexts of seeing.

This week, while we were discussing Barthes, I asked students to go through their personal collections of photographs and images and bring to class a few that were meaningful to them. I hoped that some would, perhaps demonstrate aspects of things Barthes wrote about. In class some described the estrangement they felt looking at other versions of themselves as they had been in the past. A few folks shared particular photos that captured something meaningful in their subject. A theme that nearly everyone in the class clearly “got” was the relationship between photos and death—the way moments are captured, cut off from the present and “embalmed” through photography.

The Slick Digital, The Scratchy Analog

As we go through this semester, I intend to do all of my own assignments with the class.  Before our discussion of Barthes I also went through my own collection of photographs—reflecting on them and choosing images that moved me in some way. Something unusual happened, however.

I began reviewing the photos on my desktop computer, where I have a collection of tens of thousands of images in iPhoto. With a cup of coffee in hand I began to look through the digital images. For probably twenty minutes I moved from collection to collection of photos, through years and years of images. I stopped briefly to look at interesting subjects I had shot, or paused to remember a specific moment that I had forgotten. There were a few photos that I thought would make nice screen savers or desktop images.

Curiously, however, not a single photo captured my attention.

My attention was never arrested by an image. I never looked at an image and clearly felt that it was one that I needed to choose to bring to class to discuss. I had managed to scroll through thousands of photos and couldn’t even find one that I could use. I actually started to feel worried. It would be embarrassing to go to my own class without finishing my own assignment.

After going through my digital collection, I decided to dig in the back of the closet for a few boxes of actual photographs—from the pre-digial age. Looking through those photographs—actual physical photos—was a different experience entirely. As I grabbed handfuls of the photos and began to sift through them, they all seemed to be valuable. I would glance at one or two photos only to linger on the third or fourth.  I saw myself in high school (with the bad hair), in college (blurry and out of focus, with a beer in my hand), in graduate school (anxious to succeed), in China, in Japan, in Seattle, in New York.

I saw old friends that I haven’t seen in years.

Well, that isn’t exactly true. I am “friends” on Facebook with many of my old friends and “see” them now through status updates and images online. I see them as they are today. I don’t, however, see the people from the old photos. Those people are gone.

The feeling of looking through the boxes of photographs was entirely different from the screen. They all seemed so valuable—and the value wasn’t just the subject of the photo but the physical thing. The images were old—but so were the prints. The paper was aging, some had stains and scratches. A few of the final photos I developed were still in the envelopes from the store.

Suddenly it was clear that I would never be able to choose a few photos for my assignment. It was a strange feeling to move from the smooth digital organization of tens of thousands of photos that I slid through with great ease in twenty minutes, to the analog paper and chemical photos in which I kept getting stuck. Seriously. I spent nearly an hour looking through just a few dozen images—enjoying them, reflecting on them, and thinking about them.

It is possible that the difference between my experience on the computer and in the box is a factor of age. I went digital in 2002, so the photos were all at least a decade old. All of the physical photos were more valuable because of age. The physical experience of touching the photos, of moving through them and realizing they are physically old was important.

But I think there is something else. It is almost as if the massive amount of digital images that I have produced in the past decade is too large—there are so many images that it is difficult for individual photos to be “special”.  The iPhoto collection is like a documentary collection. The photographs were, well, photographs. Their physical presence is a kind of bridge to the past—in the sense of a souvenir.

In any case, I’m still thinking about the exercise. The experience of looking through the photos was intriguing. It was difficult to choose just a few important photos. If I had had more time to move through them slowly I might have come up with a way to really evaluate the photos and choose the ones that really were most meaningful in some way. In the end, however, I needed to finish my own assignment. So I did my best to at least pick some that, in Barthes’ words “pricked” me—affected me, made me pause, made me think, and made me feel in some specific way.  So, in no particular order, here they are:

My Photographs

“Who is that person?”

It is interesting how the form of the photograph—the physical traits of the object itself, its black and whiteness, its paper, its scratches and the contrast and saturation of the image—”date it” as being from a specific time. In January of 1990, while traveling alone in Shanghai I bought a roll of cheap black and white Chinese film, shot it all and had it developed for cheap by a little family-owned corner shop. I did it to save money and was not expecting the photographs that I received. All of them looked as if they had been taken in the 1940’s. In fact, I remember Shanghai in 1990 in black and white and being like the 1940’s.

One of the photos I chose for the class assignment is an image of me from that trip. I had been walking in some back alley on a cold, dreary day when I crossed a small stream. I had been wanting to take a self-portrait, but it was difficult to do so when traveling alone. Fortunately the bridge over the stream had a railing that was quite high—a good height to balance my camera, set the timer, and take a photo.

When I look at the photo I remember the red, wool lumberjack coat I was wearing. I remember my favorite army surplus black wool sweater. I remember my round eyeglasses and the knotted beach bracelet that I used to wear. When I look at the earlier version of myself, however, I don’t recognize him. I don’t recognize the earnest look, but I remember the long hair pulled back in a ponytail. The black and white image with the scratches, hand developed on crappy paper makes me feel even more removed from the stranger in the image.

“You too will be like me.”

When I bought my first brand new computer I remember how cutting-edge the technology was. The laptop was so small. It had a color screen. It was an Apple PowerBook 165cI shared the excitement of buying it, bringing it home, and unboxing it with my friend Greg. It felt so cool to spend a lot of money on the newest technology.

Here is Greg in the basement of my parent’s house posing next to the new machine. The box is just behind him. It was so exciting that we took a photograph of the event. It cost nearly $4000.

While I know the subject of the photo—its studium, in Barthes’ words—is the new computer. When I see it now I only see old technology. I see the old cream-colored telephone with the curly cord. I see the little box of 3.25″ disks. I see the clunky 1980’s tube television.  I can’t believe how small the laptop screen is!  Is that a trackball?!

This is no longer a photo of a new computer—it is a photo of ancient technology. Interestingly, the museum of old technology captured in the photo makes me all the more aware of the old ice block tongs leaning against the wall behind the television. The tongs are the punctum that provides an entirely new reading of the photograph. The tongs say, “you too will be like me” no longer useful but simply an empty, nostalgic referent of a past use value.

In fact, it is fitting that the photograph itself is from a Polaroid Instant Camera once the cutting-edge of modern photography, Polaroid stopped production of the film in 2008.

While making my way through the box of photos I stopped and smiled when I came to the final photograph that chose for this assignment. I smiled because from among the hundreds of photos in the box, this photo greeted me. From across the span of nearly two decades three smiling Japanese faces peered through the frame of the photograph waving at me saying “hello.” I lived with the Nagatomi’s for over a year while in Japan in the mid-1990s. They opened their home to me and taught me so much about the world. My time in their home continues to be a very memorable period of my life.

In the photo I can see the striking resemblance between Mr. Nagatomi and his mother. When I met her she was in the final years of her life. A sweet old woman, my Japanese never got good enough to really communicate with her very well, but we exchanged lots of glances and smiles.

The photo of the Nagatomis moves me most, however, because Mr. Nagatomi died very suddenly and unexpectedly a few years ago. I had always hoped to return to visit him and his wife, Kazuko, but never managed to make it back. The last time I saw him in person was the summer of 1997 when he looked very much like he does in this photo. Recently retired he and his wife were enjoying cruses in various places around the world and nice meals with friends and family. Their cat, Chippo, lived the high life with regular meals of tuna sashimi.

Until I discovered it among the photos in my box, I had completely forgotten that I had taken the photo. As if through a small window to the past the Nagatomis are smiling and waving at me. Now they are waving at you too.

“They are saying ‘Hello’ to me.”

One comment

  1. Matt

    After reading this post I was thinking about the difference between tangible photographs and digital ones, and I was trying to figure what photos I have (physically or digitally) that matter to me. I can picture photos (no pun intended) that matter to me, even if they are not in front of me. Photos of my parents or grandparents. But only the physical photos. It’s difficult for me to conjure up an image of something saved on my hard drive or something I’ve sent to the cloud.

    Even after acquiring a digital camera, and good one at that, I still love the photos I take with my Dad’s old film camera the most. The machine itself is a piece of history that he carried with him before he went digital. A connection forms in my mind between the camera and my family and physicality of the whole process.

    Anyways, I saw this post and was reminded of this entry on your site. When I look at those photos of men and women in the military their *worth* or *value* seems greater because I know that there are real and tangible photos out there. Additionally I can see the connection, through the process the photographer uses, to military portraits of the past and this adds greater weight to the photos.


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