Friday, September 12, 2008

On our visual world

JAN: At Illumination night on Martha's Vineyard, everyone in Oak Bluffs decorates their Gingerbread houses with candle or electric-illuminated paper lanterns. On the last note of a sing-along concert at the Tabernacle, all the houses light up at once. Its a beautiful event that transports you to back to earlier, more innocent days.

As usual, this year, the massive crowd strolls down the streets oo-ing and aw-ing. But what was different was bottlenecks in pedestrian traffic as every single person, it seemed, stopped and photograph each house.

Even me -- which is weird, because I'm not a visual person. But I've got a new digital camera that I finally understand, so I used the night-setting to capture every little detail. Even as I was doing this, I was wondering what the hell I was going to do with ALL these photographs -- aside from including a few in my blog, of course.

Still, I snapped and snapped, as if to give purpose to the experience. And then I realized what was going on. In the old days of photography, you had a 24 or 36 frame roll of film. You had to be judicious in what you decided to photograph. Now that there's no film involved, there's no discrimation. Everybody just photographs everything

Because I'm both non-visual and a Luddite, I take the photos and they sit in my camera for months until I finally upload them to my computer where, for the most part, they remain, useless.

But everyone else, it seems, is incorporating photos into the communication of even the most minor events. For example, last week, we were cooking crabs that my daughter and her boyfriend, Mike had caught. He grabbed his digital camera, snapped the crabs before boiling and immediately emailed the photo to his parents in Houston. So clearly digital photography is altering all our lives. For good mostly (see link below to Roberta's terrific video) but as writer, I naturally worry about its long term effects. Eventually will we no longer need words to describe the world because everything little thing is communicated visually and instantly? Or am I an alarmist to believe there has to be a verbal loss for all this visual gain?

RO: Whoa, that's a lot to chew on. Yes, every picture tells a story, don't it? There is this absolute conviction some of us have that everything we do should be in a reality tv show, or least memorialized digitally. Now that I have a blog and a website, I find myself snapping away and asking others to take my pic. I didn't even have a photographer at MY WEDDING I'm so averse to pix! But people are more likely to spend a few seconds looking at something than they are reading something. So I'm guilty too. Maybe when I've written a few more books I'll have fewer pix on my website!

To your point about a verbal loss, I would hope that the picture serves as a headline, not a substitute for content. I know that's naive. Anyone who remembers the pic of Michael Dukakis in the tank knows that, But I can hope.

JAN: And in the-picture-as-headline-department, let me rave about Roberta's video - her trailer for her new book, Deadly Advice. Being the non-visual type, I'm tough on book trailers. I usually think they are too long and purposeless, but Roberta is making me rethink. This video is brief and intriguing Of course, that goes for the very concept behind her books -- advice columnist protagonist. Who can pass over the advice column in the paper? Who can't be drawn to Roberta's mysteries?

CHECK OUT her trailer either by clicking below for a QuickTime version or at this link:

And give me your thoughts on this increasingly visual world. Has anyone else but me noticed that no moment goes unphotographed anymore?


  1. This blog has been so exciting over the last few days that it was my first stop this morning!!! It's like a book you can't put down :-)!!!

    Speaking of books you can't put down - Wow, Roberta, nice job on that trailer!! It has a certain austere, mysterious look to it that really draws you in. And, talk about a visual bite - it's only 1 min. long!!!

    Let's face it - it's a media centric world today of 8 second sound bites. It's just the way it is. I see it as an oppportunity to become more aware of ourselves.
    Jan - did you become more aware of your shooting pictures? And, also, that in the days of film there was a film budget that held you back. For some photogs I know that budget was not even in their consciousness. I have a friend who dives and thinks nothing of shooting 100 rolls of film. In fact, on his last 'digital' dive he shot 2400 pics. These were huge files 19 megabytes each. Tons of data. The pics he got in Bali were awesome. He found a cave and went in over a half mile and shot the bones of sea turtles that had gotten lost in the darkness and died. Talk about interesting.

    The issue I see with it all, is that it can take you out of the present moment. When I was a very active photog - I saw the world through my Nikon viewfinder. One day I said to myself - What are you doing? Why does every moment need to be memorialized? Like who cares? By the way there were many explitives deleted in my self-talk because I realized what a slave to habit I had become. Now, yes - I take pics AND IF I choose to go further, great, and if not - so be it. Who cares? What's important is acting on the impulse of self expression. I usually copy them to a CD then erase the card and start over.

    At my first level of awareness when I have a camera in my hand is - am I in the present moment - am I here now? Then, I am chosing to take this picture - in this way - for this reason. If the action is hard and fast - then that block of time is committed to getting the best shots I can. After the pic, I make a new choice about where to focus my attention.

    Attention is what runs the universe - my uinverse for sure, and I would argue all of our universes. So it is very important to be aware of what we are engaged with all the time. That then allows us to have a conscious life.

    So, I see digital pics as a vehicle to enhance our self awareness. It is a two edged sword - it can equally be an opportunity to get lost in the mind - in thoughts and ideas - in habit - in impulse. Or, it can be a clarion call to consciousness! It's our choice. It's always our choice!

  2. Hi Mike,
    I was hoping you'd like this topic. I guess the point I was trying to make, wasn't that there weren't always dedicated photographers snapping 100 rolls of film, but now EVERYONE is snapping. And believe me when I tell you, I am the LEAST visual person in the world, and when I'm snapping photos all the time, something's wrong.
    Plus my good friend, who is single and does all sorts of fun, group events (ski houses, beach houses, en masse concert attendance) tells me she sometimes wants to just swat away the non-stop photo snappers.
    I'm of two minds on this, though. For me, taking the picture might actually PUT me in the moment -- force me to focus on a visual detail I would otherwise miss.
    But the sheer level of picture snapping is making me wonder if anyone elseis listening to the music or feeling the breeze.


  3. Thanks Mike! The trailer was quite painless because the woman who did it was so easy to work with. She read the book and then we brainstormed a bit and I sent her photos. Low budget all the way:). Tess Gerritsen did an interesting post on the making of her trailer--she actually had a script, and hired actors--it's quite a lovely product too.

    Jan, they ARE listening to music. They have iPods in while snapping...

  4. Roberta -

    One of my interests is plot development in commercials. I became interested after I watched a show on TV for commercial awards. It is amazing what can be done in 1 min. That's what impressed me about your trailer. You basically summarized the book in a quality way in 1 min. That is very impressive. In fact, there are people that would pay lots of money to achieve the look and content you got with that. Hey, if it happens organically that's good. No one said it had to be hard - it just has to do what you intend it to do!

    Jan - I get your point. I was contrasting the 'old' film picture restraints vs. the new digital mentality - shot first, ask questions later. Very true, the shear level of picture taking is staggering. Funny story, I was on Pao de Acucar in Rio as the sun was setting and I got into a picture duel with a guy from Korea. Who could get the best early night shot - he'd take a pic and come over to me and grunt and point, admiring the quality of what he had gotten. Then I took a pic and go over to him and grunt and point and we'd admire what I had just done. The international grunting and pointing was hilarious. Neither of us spoke really good Portuguese. Still, it was clear we were both excited about what we each had done with our digital cameras.

    I can see your point about pic taking being assistive in noticing things. Of course, in some ways I find that a little like religion - when you meet God - he doesn't ask how you got there or what religion you are, it's irrelevent in that moment. The only thing relevent is that you are there...
    So, it doesn't matter how you notice things - it only matters that you notice things...

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  7. Maybe I'm an optimist, but I don't believe the visual will ever truly replace the verbal. As a teacher of film, it's interesting to me that 90 years ago, we were worried the other way-- about the advent of sound and with it, dialogue, and what it would do to the 'art' of silent film -- tying the visual, universal language of cinema down to bound cameras on rattly soundstages and words over faulty microphones that would be clunky to dub or caption for foreign audiences.

    Of course when film began as a viable form of narrative, there were plenty of writers who looked to their manuscripts and saw what they believed would be the end of the day for literature. Maybe it's coming (read Publisher's Marketplace and the financial woes of the big houses and one might chew a pen and wonder), but on the whole ...

    I appreciate the recently-accessible, universal camera. As Jan and then Mike suggest, it forces us to 'attend', and I think the impulse to shoot something and the interpretation we make of that shot later is often an interesting friction. Last week I took a very ill friend out for a drink, and I took a shot of her chocolate martini and my black-and-blue mojito side-by-side on the wooden bistro table. It was a quick shot to mark the occasion after we'd had the drinks on the table awhile, but a day later I noticed that my mojito was half gone and her martini was almost untouched, when usually it would be the other way around, and that this lovely, dashing girl facing her fourth round with a potentially fatal condition had polished her nails, which were chewed to the quick. That day I was so busy attending to her face that I completely missed her hands.

    I shoot a lot--especially the thousand shades of my love and my partner, my search dog. Daily pictures of her in all moods, on- and off-command, and it does encourage me to understand her better and as a writer to relook at a chapter visually and get back to showing versus telling. And often a photo tells me some fleeting something about her that I was too busy and too hasty, in life, to pay proper attention to. Or maybe she was moving too fast, and without the speed of the shutter, I am unable to see the first shadow of difference between her when I reach for her leather lead (neighborhood walk) and when I reach for her SAR lead (heading out to work). I'm grateful for those revelations. I think of myself as an attentive person, but I'm glad for the photograph that catches her first shiver of anticipation.

    All of this said (and my, I did go on), as Jan noted, there is value in putting the camera down and attending the other senses, too.

    And someone who speaks well to that, NPR's John Burnett. Now here's a man who knows how to listen. Uncivilized Beasts & Shameless Hellions: Travels with an NPR Correspondent, Rodale Press, 2006.

  8. Hey Susannah,
    Along the lines of your point about silent films facing the innovation of sound, a friend recently pointed out that when communication went from Morse Code to actual voice -- the telephone -- no one could have predicted that Morse Code (AKA the new phone texting craze) would EVER make a comeback!

    Your duel sounds like it was fun -- more about communicating than in winning. And man, you go to a lot of really nice places...

  9. Roberta
    Viewed your visual and though well done and absorbing, I am a speedy reader and probably would not have the patience to stick with this option. The music was great and the visuals are good reinforcements for those with less imagination than most writers. I am not the best person to critique this as I am photo challenged and can't even figure out how to use my digital much less load film in a brownie. Best Ann