Growing up we had one camera in our family, a Kodak Brownie Starmite, a blue and white piece of molded plastic with a silver disk for the flash bulb. Whenever there was a social occasion the camera would be dug out of the closet, a few pictures would be taken, and the camera put away. It could be MONTHS before the roll of 24 snapshots would be ready to be removed and developed, and a returned envelope of prints was like a mini time capsule of events full of surprise images – some flawed, some sad, some goofy, some tragic – but all of them undeniably historical for the memories they rekindled and the stories they told.
Eventually newer cameras and easier-to-load film formats emerged and suddenly we had multiple cameras in the house. I don’t remember whether we got the Polaroid Instamatic or the Kodak 110 Pocket Instamatic, or where the X-15 Instamatic fell in among these, but with cartridge loading and instant imagery came the idea that photos could be both easier to take and provide more instant gratification. The film cameras still needed to be taken in for developing but the cartridges were easy and guaranteed fewer lost and fogged rolls. But the Polaroid, that was a game changer.
Now when you took a picture you could peel off the backing paper to expose the chemical to the air for development (before you simply shook it until the image emerged) and if for some reason it didn’t look right, someone blinked or the lighting was bad, you could “correct” the memory on the spot. Instead of reliving a moment from the past we now gathered around and shared a moment from a few moments earlier. It was a sweet novelty but the cost of instant film was prohibitive enough that it, too, would only be trotted out to perform on special occasions. For really important moments both a film camera and the Polaroid would be pressed into service, just to make sure the event was well-preserved.
Jump ahead. Jump beyond the camcorder revolution, beyond the point-and-shoots, beyond early digital cameras of 2 megapixel, 4 megapixel, 10 megapixel, into the lap of the smartphone with its built-in digital camera. it’s an old story now, even now, that we have these cameras with us all the time and we can take a picture or video at a moment’s notice. We no longer wait for the special occasion, we capture every moment no matter how small. We review it instantly and decide whether to keep it store in memory or dump it to the digital netherworld. We no longer capture representations of moments for the future we capture the now, send it out to the world in the now, and move one to the next.
We no longer look at photos as moments in a memory, we remember the moments we recorded. The document has replaced the memory.
But a funny thing happened. For her fifteenth birthday J wanted to go out for a “tradition” of taking her elementary school friends out to ice cream. I brought a camera, my little Canon Powershot digital, and dashed off some candids while the kids ate and goofed around outside afterward. Then at home I hooked up the camera to the computer and realized that since I got my new laptop at the beginning of the year I hadn’t bothered setting up any of my photo uploading, editing, or sharing apps. And because the old computer was wonky and out-of-sorts I hadn’t dared load any pictures for some time. Almost ten months in fact, and it was as if I had just developed a roll of film from the old Brownie camera.
There was a combined birthday back in September that included a pig roast, a bouncy house for kids (and some grandparents), first-day-of-school pictures of the girls, a Thanksgiving trip to Chicago, Christmas with the in-laws and extended family, and finally this birthday trip. Other events during that time had been captured via the phone, given various processing and treatments and posted via social media or sent instantly via wi-fi networks to recipients. The photos in the camera, taken as a whole, were like an envelope of mystery snaps fresh from the drugstore. Having not seen some of them since they were taken, I was suddenly awash in memories and stories. Out of sight, out of mind, perhaps, but also absence makes the memory grow stronger.
While uploading these “lost” photos I came across a handful that I decided I wanted to have printed. Such a quaint old notion, to actually make prints of photos that I can always access via a phone or a computer, but with an entirely different message. To record a moment is to say “this happened” but to move beyond that, beyond adding the photo to social media or texting them to friends and family, to print a photo says “this is important, this moment in time, and it deserves more than a digital flit.”
I wonder sometimes, will this younger generation be satisfied to live in a world without these physically printed totems? Has the 20th century’s reign of photographic memory-keeping come to an end in favor of the instant-constant documentation of daily life?
And does it make me a nostalgic old man for even caring?