The archaeologists unearthed the dwellings of an ancient civilization and in each dwelling found vast collections of photographs depicting life in the distant past. It was a find of staggering value, an intimate and detailed glimpse of what life had been like in that time. But that glimpse ended abruptly somewhere around the year 2004 C.E., with only a smattering of snapshots dating more recently than that. What had happened? Why had the photos ceased? How could such an advanced civilization seemingly just vanish like the Anasazi? Was there a war? An asteroid? A pandemic?
Nope, nope, and yup—sort of. But it wasn’t a biological plague that erased all photographic evidence of the civilization. It was an epidemic of digital photography.
This scenario won’t actually take place in the distant future, of course, since we won’t be around that long, and that’s because of—and here, you pick the reason that accords with your own beliefs—1) Global warming, or, 2) Extremists with WMD, or, 3) An asteroid strike, or—and this is the one I’m hoping for—4) The Rapture, at which time the righteous will be sucked up into heaven like dust bunnies to the almighty Oreck, leaving the wicked behind where we’ll finally get some damn peace. But a more immediate, if less ominous, unearthing of a similar nature took place just a few minutes ago as I was riffling through one of my big boxes of photographs, wistfully revisiting the way I was from about 1984 to sometime in 2004. About 80 percent of these photos portray bikes and bikers in settings all over the country; lots of hair and leather and ratty machines and dangling cigarettes, clutched beer cans and the occasional boob. Call it a life. And then that life ends at the dawn of my digital age. I’ve taken plenty of photos since then and, as you might expect, they’ve also got a lot of hair and leather and the rest of the gestalt, but they’re not in a box. I can’t riffle through them. They’re all lodged deep inside my computers, some of which are obsolete or just no longer functioning.
I could retrieve a good many of them and take a look if I wanted, but it’s hard to get wistful looking at galleys of low-res thumbnails or waiting for a 3 meg file to load onto the screen. It’s also not terribly impulsive or random; I can’t just reach in and grab a handful of snapshots and get a quick blast from the past. I suppose I could also load them onto a disc and take them down to the photo processor and get a nifty envelope of prints, but I never do because, well, I’m lazy and there’s just no urgency involved. I’ve already seen the images. The surprise is spoiled; the suspense that once accompanied taking a roll of film in and waiting for the results is gone. Sigh.
On the other side of the ledger, digital photography has been a real blessing professionally. In that capacity I don’t need suspense; I don’t even like suspense when shooting against a deadline and happily emailing photos to the office right from an event, or shortly thereafter. And when shooting a bike feature I can get immediate feedback on lighting and composition, shoot the shit out of the target and be done. But that’s not what I’m talking about here.
I’m talking about the moments of my life and how they once had a formal importance that was reflected in the ritual of capturing them on film and treating the resulting photo-finished snapshot like something of substance; something so tangible and valuable that, I’m told, some people actually keep them in albums instead of big jumbled boxes. Digital images have no such weight to them. They come easily—you can take them with a damn phone—they edit quickly and often irresponsibly, and then they get warehoused on a hard drive. They capture the moment, but usually only for a moment, and thus they devalue the moment, which is all you really have. They’ve made photography disposable ephemera in much the same way as email has made correspondence a brainless slap-dash exercise, devoid of thoughtfulness, thoroughness, penmanship or perfume.
And while I’m getting all misty about emulsion, I’ll tell you another thing that I miss and that’s the roll of film that somehow got misplaced—dropped in a junk drawer or stuffed in the pocket of a retired leather—and hid out for years before being rediscovered and processed. That’s happened to me any number of times which might tell you something about the way I’m organized, and the last time it happened I took the film in and waited in giddy suspense, wondering what past chapter of my life it might illuminate, and hoping it didn’t contain anything the processors would call the cops about. It turned out to be black and white film taken during my black and white period, which would put it about 15 years ago, and it was photos from a poker run I’d gone on with some friends including (cue the spooky music, here) one who died five years ago.
And so in spite of all the hype and occasional convenience of digital photography, I’ve decided to pull my film cameras back out of mothballs. I’ll use them for personal road trips and social gatherings, get the film developed, flip through the snapshots, share them, and then throw them in a big box. I feel better already.
It’s all right here in the diaries…