Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The Purpose of a Photo

Story by Austin Sailsbury

Not long ago, the average person did not carry a camera in their pocket. People brought out cameras only for special occasions, not everyday life. Those old enough to remember taking photos in the pre-digital and pre-camera phone era will also recall how complex it could be: There was the expensive arsenal of lenses and camera bodies, the bulky tangle of accessories, the setting and adjusting of exposure levels and shutter speeds, the buying of film, and the cost of having that film developed in a lab and the pictures printed. Even when you thought you had done everything right, you always went to pick up your photos with a touch of anxiety. In the early days of photography, images were made, not taken, by craftspeople with a mastery of both art and alchemy. 

Since the days of sober-faced portraits imprinted on silvered plates, the power of an image to stop time and capture a moment has been the stuff of magic. Whether developed on glass or tin or glossy Kodak paper, it took time to process a single image. And that meant fewer photos in our possession. 

Today, that magic happens with a tap of the thumb. We snap selfies commemorate our travels, document the wonderful insanity of childhood, capture and create the news, and illustrate stories like we’ve never done before. We take and share more photos now than at any other time in history, yet most of those images will never find life outside the digital confines of our camera roll or be shared beyond the social realm of Facebook or Instagram. 

When rare, photos were considered treasured artifacts worthy to hang on the wall and then hand down to future generations. Holding an old photograph in your hands is remarkable beyond the nostalgia it invokes. Whether it's a black-and-white curio found at a flea market or a wavy Polaroid from your own childhood, both hold power over us: the power to light our imaginations and to sharpen our memories. Experiencing these images in a tangible way helps us to time travel, to hold history in our hands and look it straight in the eye in a way that scrolling through photos on our phones likely never will. 

These relics are proof of people and places as they once were, the past speaking to the present through shadows and light, helping us to remember, reminding us to reflect. If we take a step back and reconsider the tool at our fingertips, we might discover the power to turn even our most spontaneous snapshots into something with lasting beauty, something worth bringing into the real world. Physical objects with personal stories to tell. Objects worth passing on. Objects that capture just a bit of life’s vast magic. A photo with personal meaning, one that encapsulates your youth or memorializes a perfect moment in time, will always hold special value. It glows brightly-memories captured like fireflies in a jar. Why wouldn't we carry this light into the physical world around us? Perhaps the ideas we share here will help us all do just that.


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