THE BLOG

New Developments: What Photos Mean Now

05/26/2015 06:38 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2016

Photos of the meal you are eating, the dress you might want to buy, the garbage cans left out on a neighbor's driveway, a car crash on your street, the rash developing on your face -- all examples of photos that will probably be deleted from your phone after they have fulfilled their purpose. Because in our age, the ability to carry a camera has changed the way we think about photos and use them. It's a new development in our society. But is it always a good thing?

A Book About Facebook Photos and More

In his new book, Terms of Service, Jacob Silverman, referred to as a "thoughtful critic of our evolving digital lifestyles," points out the negatives (excuse the pun) in our picture-snapping culture. "Photos become less about memorializing a moment than communicating the reality of that moment to others." He develops this idea by claiming that often the purpose of the picture is not to live in the moment, capture the moment, but to deal with the anxiety we may feel that others are doing things more interesting and more fulfilling than we are-at that same moment. The photo has entered into some timeless competition. And he claims, and I think rightly so, that some party goers forget about experiencing fun as they angle to get into a Facebook Photo that tells people, "Yes, I'm having fun! Look at me!"

I do find it interesting that in this current time (which probably will become even more frenetic and not go away) we feel the need not only to send photos of all that we do, what we eat, where we go, who we are with, what we buy -- but but also to go somewhere and practice mindfulness, listen to our breathing, so we can learn to live in the moment.

MINDFULNESS: live in the moment? Really? How ironic. Do we even now know what a moment is?

A Brief History of the Photo

So let's all take a step backward, because before all of THIS -- the constant need to capture an action or some object in time and shout it to the world -- there was the mind, the thought. The thought!
Let's try to sort it out this way:
1. The purpose of a photo, of taking a picture was to PRESERVE a human's image so we would know that person and remember them. Previously, those with wealth sat for a portrait painted by either a really good artist or an itinerant one -- but in any case the job got done and so we know what Elizabeth the First of England supposedly looked like as well as George Washington etc. You get the picture. (oops, pun)
2. The purpose of a photo also became its ability to record history. Yes, there are paintings of battles, coronations, but they took months. Photographs was more immediate and allowed for a variety of views. Thus we have Mathew B. Brady (May 18, 1822 - January 15, 1896) a photo-journalist, one of the first American photographers, whose name became synonymous with photos of the Civil War.
3. As the decades progressed, the daguerreotype and the tintype gave way to a process where a dry gel on paper, film, replaced the photographic plate so a photographer could take photos without the clumsy boxes of plates and the toxic chemical previously needed. Film was developed by George Eastman, of Rochester, New York, in 1884. As early as 1888, Eastman's Kodak camera was available to consumers. His slogan: "You press the button, we do the rest." By 1901 the public could take photos using the famous Kodak Brownie, a great little camera that took pretty decent photos.
4. And that was truly the beginning -- because you didn't need to hire someone to paint your portrait. Families framed photographs and hung them on the walls of their homes to honor grandparents and remember weddings and births or to help the aching heart that missed those who were miles away. In some cultures, people even took photos of their loved ones lying in coffins surrounded by flowers. But it was all about remembering. It was all about preserving and honoring the moment -- being in that moment.

A Talisman of Memory -- Mindfulness, Anyone?

In some ways, you could say that holding a photo of your sweetheart as a GI during World War II or glancing at one taped to your flight deck as a pilot during any conflict became a moment of mindfulness. The photo carried you away from the trauma of where you were and for brief moments you could be present to the person that you loved. Photos were and for some may still be -- a talisman of memory. Photos ignite thought.

But now there's the plethora. Taking photos and of so many things that are truly worthy of remembering and combining that with things you might forget in 15 minutes -- has changed our attitudes toward the photos themselves. We take a photo and delete. We worry about how we look, so we take bunches -- we probably always had that worry, but film was costly and you didn't SEE the photo until after it was developed. Photo phones changed that whole process and thus truly changed what picture-taking meant in the moment. Because it's not a moment -- it's a photo-shopped or deleted moment until the right moment comes along.

The Polaroid or Let's Get Naked

And let's not forget the Polaroid! It saved folks from the following scenario: you take your roll of film to the drugstore to be developed and when you return for it, you have to meet with a manager and maybe even a policeman. (This happened to a friend of mine as recently as the 90's. She took some photos of her children naked in the bathtub and too much anatomy was showing.)
But the Polaroid allowed people to take such photos -- because they developed right there in your home. Now of course, the concept of privacy isn't even on anyone's radar and thus some young people have been labeled sex offenders because they were not aware of the dangers of clicking and sharing without thinking first. Those images could hardly fit into some nostalgia category or talisman of memory or thought. Again -- change, change, change.

So What of My Photo History?

I have taken photos and my husband has, because we love family and want to remember our life with them. I didn't take such photos so I could put them somewhere for "Friends" to see and say WOW. (Well, maybe they wouldn't say that anyway)

Photos of family should be protected and treasured. I don't think everyone needs to see them and I don't believe that we are that protected online. Silverman would probably agree with me. Jacket copy on his book reads: Social networking is a staple of modern life, but its continued evolution is becoming increasingly detrimental to our lives. Shifts in communication, identity, and privacy are affecting us more than we realize or understand... (the books discusses) the identity-validating pleasures and perils of online visibility; our newly adopted view of daily life through the lens of what's share-worthy; and the...(ability of ) social media platforms -- Facebook, Google, Twitter, and more -- to mine our personal data for advertising revenue...(is invading our privacy)

And in his recent address to the graduating class of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, Ken Burns took the opportunity to reflect on past history while stressing the major points in his talk--fight to keep history from repeating itself and fight to change human nature for the better. While doing so, he took a swipe at Facebook and social media.

Do not allow our social media to segregate us into ever smaller tribes and clans, fiercely and sometimes appropriately loyal to our group, but also capable of metastasizing into profound distrust of the other...

He has a very valid point. Possibly it's time to reconsider what each photo means and how to use it, honor it. The fact of instant photos can be helpful and it can be damaging. Maybe we need to think as we use such technology.

What do your photos mean to you? As a dear friend of mine once told me in her practical and knowing way: if your house catches on fire, grab your photos albums. Everything else can be replaced. Well people, I guess you better take your phones!