Better Living Through Technology?

When it comes to photography, technology is certainly the great equalizer.

We can take pictures on our cell phones, with our big fancy digital or ultra-thin super high-tech cameras that we can slip into our shirt pockets and go casually on our way.

By the time my daughter is full grown, I’m sure, she’ll be able to simply blink her eyes, access a chip implanted in her cerebral cortex, and take all the pictures she wants, which she can then store in her head until she chooses to download or delete them. She won’t ever need prints or an album. She’ll simply beam or broadcast them to whomever she chooses.

Okay, so maybe I’ve read a little bit too much sci-fi, but I don’t think I’m that far off. The fact is that modern technology has given us all the tools to efficiently take decent pictures. You don’t need to worry about proper exposure, film speed, color balance, nothing… Point, click and let the computer do the rest, or tweak it with a variety of programs. There’s not a tremendous amount of skill involved, just a basic technical knowledge.

The problem with this glut of tech, as with so much in the modern age, is that the novelty quickly wears off, giving way to a particularly contemporary form of ennui. Part of the attraction of taking film pictures, for me at least, was the artistry involved. If one picture on a roll of 12 or 24 came out great, then I was pleased and proud, especially if it was for a story I was writing and it effectively conveyed the heart of my narrative. Now I take pictures by the dozen on my digital and don’t look at them for weeks and months, even years.

When my daughter was born almost two years ago, I was adamant about taking pictures, downloading, tweaking and putting them on a Web site for friends and family. As she’s grown, however, and as she’s become part of our everyday life, that urgency has subsided. We still take plenty of shots, but I can’t tell you the last time I downloaded them. The ease with which it can be done is the very reason I don’t bother; they’re on the camera, they’re relatively safe – I can see them anytime I wish – so what’s the rush? Why even bother?

When photography first came about, almost 175 years ago, it was a highly specialized field. The technology was cumbersome and the process was difficult. People saved for months and sat for hours to have their likenesses reproduced. The images, however, were – and still are – spectacular in a way modern pictures can’t be, and no process was more spectacular than those pioneered by Louis Dagguere, the subject of Judy Penz Sheluk’s cover story. Judy does a fine job of reminding us of the revolutionary start of the process that’s led us to a life of such ease – and complacency – with our technology. It wasn’t always this way, to be sure.

Old Daguerreotypes now command top dollar, hundreds of thousands in some cases, and present us with images of our past so crystal clear that it’s as if the figures might get up and berate us for our laziness. Today we have ever more pixellated images that try hard to represent the physical reality they’re digitizing. They do not, however, jump with life. Daguerreotypes didn’t have to try at all; they captured a piece of the soul of their subjects, bits of vivacity that survive more than 150 years later.

I’ll see if any of the hundreds of pictures on my camera do that when I get home tonight. I have a feeling, though, that I already know the answer.