Once again, a small personal moment has caused me to reflect on a larger picture.
I cleaned my house this weekend. And, yes, I realize the previous statement doesn’t quite qualify me to be knighted by the Queen. But, as a confirmed bachelor and well known indiscriminate sock thrower, it was quite an accomplishment.
I wasn’t just tidying up either. We’re talking a level-ten Monica Geller-style deep clean that took four days to complete and included not only swabbing the floors but even opening up the closet to find what might be best served by a trip to Goodwill.
Not just any closet either. That closet. You know which one I mean. The one closet in the house where even the most tidy of clean freaks send their loose items to die. Those things that you don’t really need, yet you don’t really want to throw away. That odd t-shirt that a friend gave you when you were five years old that hasn’t fit over your rapidly maturing body for multiple decades now, but whose sight instantly brings back sense memories of the first time you had a crush on a girl.
The random Tupperware dish filled with your old G.I. Joe action figures. You haven’t played with them since your outgrew your short pants. But a city dump seems like too inauspicious a final resting place for toys that provided you so much joy through the turmoil of being a child. Plus, in your head at least, you can always pass them along to your own children one day. Of course, that puts aside the previously asserted confirmed bachelor status, but that’s a story for another day.
Then eventually you find it. We all have one. Well, maybe all of us above a certain age. To the untrained eye it appears to be nothing more than a simple shoebox. The uninitiated may suspect it to contain your then current, now retro, Converse with the fat laces. Or perhaps your original Air Jordans. But you know the truth.
This shoebox is where you kept your photographs. No, not hard drives filled with a bunch of digital files. But your actual photographs. Endless stacks of unorganized 4x6 prints you had run off at the local convenience store. Often in duplicate or triplicate form if the store happened to be running a 2-for-1 sale at the time. If, back then, you happened to have been feeling particularly organized that day, you might also find in the shoebox a small envelope with a proof sheet describing it contents. You may even find the negatives. Although, as these pictures were taken long before you became a professional photographer or had any notion that these pictures may one day have value, the odds are your negatives have just been hastily stuffed into the sides of the box with no regard to their long term survival.
On any other day, I would’ve just tossed the entire box back into the closet that we never speak of and went about my day. But this was my once per decade deep clean and I was determined to rid my house of absolutely every item I could that wasn’t essential to my present day existence.
It was easy to discard the somewhat surprising number of random prints of camera test that I, for some reason, had printed in triplicate. Endless frames of nothing in particular distinguished only by the fact that on some of them I appear to have been trying out a Pro Mist or varying degrees of color correction filters. This is long before the days of Photoshop after all.
Of course, I would keep the family photos. I’ll never be three years old again. And this Polaroid of my sister and I playing tag in the front yard of my Boston home whose image I have long since wiped from memory has no digital counterpart. Sure, I could send it off to one of those places to scan, but as for this particular print that so long ago spat out of the cheap camera my mother had picked up at the local Target? Once it’s gone, it’s gone.
Same goes for the picture of me and Aunt Thelma, who is actually my mother’s aunt despite the misnomer. Despite never being particularly close to my extended family, for whatever reason Aunt Thelma was always one of the relatives whose cross country visits were most appreciated. Perhaps because of the somewhat catchy nature of her moniker. Perhaps because I lost both my grandmothers too early to form any real memories, and Aunt Thelma somehow filled that role. Either way, she always held a special place in my heart.
So to find that picture of her, from a day I only faintly remember, standing next to me at my childhood home in Los Angeles cradling my then puppy, Huxley, in my arms was priceless. Two of the people I cared about the most sharing one frame and looking back at the camera with fondness. Well, Huxley wasn’t quite looking at the camera. It would be several years before he would learn how to properly pose for a picture. He never did quite learn how to play fetch.
Taking this stroll down memory lane reminded me of two things. One, if it wasn’t obvious from my casual reference to Monica Geller earlier, I’m really old. But two, and more importantly, it reminded of the importance and value of our physical legacy as photographers.
Living in the digital age has come with innumerable benefits. Being able to snap an unlimited number of practice frames without having to worry about lab costs was integral to me developing the skills to become a professional photographer. Being able to connect with clients around the globe and instantaneously show them my portfolio without leaving my living room is a massive opportunity.
Of course those benefits haven’t come without drawbacks. Just as I can connect with buyers everywhere in an instant, so can every other photographer in the world. So competition has only increased while the corresponding boom in social media and changes in advertising practices has caused budgets to decrease.
The ever increasing role of social media has made getting your work widely distributed easier than ever. But the subsequent growth in the importance of computer algorithms has also led to the widely detrimental effects of sameness. The algorithm plays a large part in who gets views. Photographers in search of views then learn to create content for the algorithm. With all the world looking to create content to match the same mathematical equation, the inevitable result is a world all trying to take the same photograph, leading to a lack of originality as we are no longer incentivized to do something different.
But, as much as I love to ramble, I have no intention of going on a screed about the pervasiveness of technology. All and all, it is a net positive. And trying to put the genie back in the bottle is a fool’s errand. Our job is simply to navigate the playing field as it is currently laid.
But one thing I do regret about digital dominance is the disappearance of the shoebox. Yes, you can pass down your hard drive to your children and grandchildren. Yes, they’ll be able to surf through your endless stream of social media posts for as long as those platforms exist (although I’m wary that future generations would get a very authentic view of us simply judging by our highly curated Instagram feeds).
Even in the digital realm, larger questions of preservation arise. For instance, I just read a statistic that said that 95 million images are uploaded to Instagram everyday. This generation’s lives are infinitely more documented than my generation. And my generation was greatly more documented than that of my parents. So, as many selfies are taken now, imagine how many will be taken by your children’s children. How on Earth will future generations sort through all of that data? Even if the smartest software code is written, how will a computer know which of those 95 million images is actually significant? How will it be able to tell the beauty of the slightly out of focus image or you, Huxley, and Aunt Thelma versus any other typical snapshot that may contain the same digitally cataloged faces, but lack any of the meaning or historical context?
In the end, nothing beats the shoebox. Nothing beats physically printing the images that have meaning to you. Nothing beats a sudden rush of memories connected to tangible objects that you can have, hold, and pass down to the next generations. Even if those photographs spend most of their lives in the back of a closet where only the bravest will ever dare to go.