Issue 13: On the Importance of Photographs
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Photos are consistently counted among our most valued possessions. Anytime someone loses their home to a fire, the first question is always, rightly, did everyone get out OK? And if so, the second question is invariably, were you able to save your family photos? We don't ask about the silverware, the Italian leather sofa, or the flatscreen plasma TV. We all understand the irreplaceable value of our photos and the strength of their connection to our past.
If you are lucky enough to have old family photos, take advantage of modern technology and scan them in, back them up on cloud storage or burn them to disc to send out to extended family. Pigments fade over time, paper becomes brittle, oxidizes and deteriorates. Digital storage and back up is critical. And in that same sense, the photos that you now create, are tomorrow's treasured heirlooms. Future generations may hold far more value for the insight into our lives than we do for our own. Imagine being able to look five or ten generations back into your ancestry, and imagine what kind of fascination we may hold for what kind of sandwich they had for lunch. Imagine seeing all the mundane details of their living. For the first time in history, we have the opportunity to provide that insight to future generations. The cost of film photography was too prohibitive to allow for such casual documentation.
Few things are more life-defining than photographs. Some people are taking advantage of online self-publishing services like Lulu or Amazon's Create Space and other similar companies. Hundreds of photos can easily be collected into a volume to be output as a paperback or hard cover book for a relatively low price. Just save your work in a PDF format and upload it to their site. A book like that would be immediately of great value for generations. We are born in this historical time and we are almost obligated to take advantage of what emerges.
But, aside from the future is our immersion in the present, and social media is as close as we have ever come to a collective documentation of our daily living. The mundane is not trite and insipid. Without the mundane, there is not much left. So I don't mind the Facebook photos of someone's new shoes, or sitting at a café, someone's rental car in the parking lot of a beach, or the ubiquitous attempts at artsy shots, many of them nicely successful. All of them paint broad cultural insights in ways that really nothing else can. So keep those phone cameras snapping. Even food photos are part of life's celebration. I personally will not stop until I have uploaded one billion photos onto my Facebook wall.

Tim Sunderman is a graphic designer in the San Francisco bay area who does most of his art without a computer, using traditional techniques in drawing, painting, photography, calligraphy, and even sculpture. He is a graduate of the Academy of Art in San Francisco. He eschews speaking of himself in the third person, as he is here, but doesn't mind too much for shameless self-promotion.
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Photographs occupy a strangely unique place in modern culture. We seem to be inundated in a sea of images, many we’ve taken ourselves. Social media have emerged as the largest magnet for photos. Facebook alone, by 2012, hosted 140 billion photos, and in 2013, it is predicted that another 70 billion images will be uploaded by its members. Photo Weekly, after a bit of clever research including film manufacturing and sales statistics, estimated that 3.5 trillion photos have been taken since the invention of the camera in 1835. That is an incomprehensible number, but it is increasing exponentially since the advent of digital cameras, particularly phone cameras.
Thank goodness we are no longer using film developing and printing for mainstream consumer photo technology. Entire forests of trees can rest a little easier, the rivers and streams no longer carry the enormous toxic burden of photo developing chemicals, and the majority of silver no longer needs to be diverted to film production. There is no question that digital photos are far more environmentally friendly. And perhaps the biggest benefit is that they are almost free to shoot and distribute to as many people as you would like. So, low cost, and the convenience of not having to carry around bulky camera equipment for snapshots have both contributed to the proliferation of photos.
And yet, low cost and convenience by themselves do not explain the motivation behind the desire to create pictures. What is this near-obsessive drive that keeps the camera clicking?
A simple answer might be just plain narcissism. Is it a misanthropic sense of self-importance? Well, a certain level of desire for attention and acknowledgement is not in itself an unhealthy thing. However, we do not need you to post what sandwich you had for lunch. Stepping a bit further back though, it is quickly evident that there are broader motivations for creating photographs than to simply say, "Look at me." Photographs, perhaps more than anything, are the documentations of our lives. We want to share our experiences with our friends and family. We want them to see the circles that are otherwise closed to them. We may value their reactions and their approval. Photos provide a more visceral and emotional attachment than words often do. They often capture the atmosphere that we cannot find the words for. Photographs are the closest thing that we have to a living memory. The same may be argued for videos, but there is something a bit more engaging about photos. Their graphic quality flattened onto screen or paper reaches more deeply into our stored archetypes of ideals. We are compelled to project more deeply into that imagined space.
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Tim Sunderman
Vhcle Magazine Issue 13, Photography