Seeing Through Photographs

Ním Wunnan
Jan 27, 2015 · 10 min read

The other night, I passed a yellow fire hydrant bathed in the now-endangered orange glow of a sodium vapor streetlight. The chunky-edged, heavily-painted surface of the fireplug would be a great entry in an ongoing catalog I kept of objects and buildings with that certain chunk to them. I had my iPhone with me, of course, but I hesitated. Something impeded the natural flow from the imagining of an image to its light capture, and I wondered what it was. I remembered the first digital camera I owned, and how much I valued its capacity to capture the images I wandered into, like that hydrant.

That camera came to me through a circuitous route towards the end of a foggy plan to “see America” and “meet people,” that I had been working on since I was 16, which seemed like a hell of a plan then. This hazy notion to pause in cities around the country on a permanent, overshooting trajectory was my compromise with a world that overwhelmed me as intensely as it intrigued me.

Atop the usual set of lefty, artsy notions that sideline young men and women who did their growing up in novels, art, and ideas, I had a complex layer of unignorable sensory disorders which had played a major part in sending me to the psych ward for most of my freshman year of high school. After some very bad times, I stopped taking my medications and replaced them with scavenged and stolen art supplies, and ignored the instructions of every adult in my life in favor of what dead Russian authors were telling me. I’m not exaggerating when I say that those two methods of treatment saved my life, not half because the other ones were killing me (and I saw them kill or cripple a couple of the other kids in the hospital with me, saving some others, and softening the rest). Even though I was the one doing it, I was a bit shocked when this approach started working.

It was evidence of a power behind art and critical thought that I don’t think I fully believed in and still, stupidly, doubt. This power operated by alien rules, and I wanted to know them. Like most young men who wear outdated hats, I had some very funny notions about the world where paintings and Russian literature and music and the people who made those things mattered. The “trip” was my plan to find that world. I’d be good there.

Also when I was 16, I had an unoriginally romantic obsession with a girl named Andi, and she owned a handheld DV camera. Now she’s a professional videographer, and one of my oldest, dearest friends. Over the decade and a half that I’ve known her, she’s had the guts to keep pointing her camera at things and people she cared about, all while inserting herself in or simply refusing to retreat from the situation. I once lived on her houseboat while she tried to make a documentary about boat punks on the Mississippi with a codirector who believed in total objectivity behind the camera. He later sank her boat. It was orange, and called the Tsatsuma.

An important part of the plan was that I would somehow have a camera like Andi’s. I would move through the world, and I would record those movements, and that record would matter. I would become one of the producers, and my product would cohere and rationalize my incoherent and irrational experience. I was so hellbent on manufacturing a my own “artistic” context that I planned on getting a tattoo of a maltese cross as a symbol of a dedication to film and documentation that I did not have but intended to develop.

By 2001, I was 20 and my plan had taken me to Portland where I reverse-commuted an hour into the misty hills of McMinnville to work for a high-end antiquarian book dealer, a charming and extremely well-researched man. At the end of the year, I got a my first ever bonus — $400 (a number which is cornflower-blue-with-indigo-underpainting according to the grapheme > color portion of my severe synesthesia). Before I got back to the city that night I knew what I’d spend it on.

Some of my older friends, real adults who traveled often and made their living with things they made or thought about, owned this little silver brick of a camera. Wherever we were, at a party or a bar or camping, they had this magical ability pull out a device that would capture the moment. Later we could stitch together our shared experience while scrolling through lists of files together on their desktop computers, velocitized with a sense of living in the future. Otherwise they’d process and email them to us weeks later. That the sharing of photos required deliberate action, or even physical proximity now seems quaint and kind. Generally the only people who saw the photos were in them, and this glowing trail of images created this secondary presence that felt like an abundance over a social life without conspiratorially-small cameras.

I had imagined circumstances in which I could become someone who acquired a camera like that. I wanted that camera because I suddenly had a life worth photographing. I was sure of this because I had been learning from my friends. I went on the hiking trips, I went to their warehouse parties — I even organized some of them. I still had a day-job, yes, but it was interesting! I spent most of my days in quiet awe, delicately turning the pages and reading the surfaces and crevices of books much older than America and modern medicine. I would not waste a camera that I could keep in my pocket all the time.

Later, that job took me to the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, an event that felt not just adult but positively geriatric. While visiting, I hung out with my friend Lenara and her cadre of equally glamorous, international, ambitious friends. I may have been one of the only mono-lingual people at the table, but I was one of four who had the same, solid camera. My photos of Lenara in the anonymizing and sharp-colored crannies of Manhattan were so unassailably external that they even felt a little cold, like they were still warming up from coming in from the outside. Here was evidence of a place I had been, metropolitan proof of my participation in a larger, alienating world.

That camera managed to separate me and draw me closer to my situations at the same time. The etiquette of recreational surveillance was still being formed, mainly by the people with the funds and interest for small cameras. And that glowing trail of images, that definitely became a thing. The good and the candid shots valorized their subjects, and the unphotographed times dwindled in their shadows. (Writing this in 2015, I feel obligated to remind you that this was a novel experience at the time. Until I got that camera, I did not own a visual monologue robust enough to compete with my memory.)

Between age 16 and the time I spent my days in that quiet house full of old books, my notion of adulthood meant pointing myself down every trail that seemed to lead a little closer to that world that produced the books and music and pictures that seemed like they saved my life. Thinking of it as a destination, a place to be achieved, let me keep the security of separation from a dissonant world. My efforts could be towards a fantasy of a life more coherent and picturesque than whatever my current position was, instead of being applied to that position in all its incoherence and overstimulation. The contradictory push-pull of the camera’s presence amplified the same conflict I had with staying in Portland instead of moving on.

Daydreaming about the journey, at 16, always included imagining how I would record it. The anomie of the situation made it inherently worthy of documentation — having no place that sticks, that glowing trail of images would be the only context broad enough to contain the experience.

Collating incunabula in the hills of Oregon, it was dawning on me that I could get closer to that world by traveling within a place than I could by traveling between places. That knowing more about a few people taught me things I could not learn by simply knowing more people.

This was a crisis of fixedness, of decision. Of picking an image, a person, a place and interrogating it, letting it in, becoming part of it. My little device that aspired to complete documentation just became an argument for incompleteness. Every picture taken is just a sliver shaved from the infinite block of pictures not taken. That glowing trail of images didn’t contain or complete my experience. It just ran alongside, and when I looked at it, the events in the spaces between the images became harder to see.

No one has solved this problem. Despite that, I kept taking pictures, my friends kept taking pictures, and cameras got smaller and more numerous. And everyone was taking pictures, and then they were taking more pictures. We are now on the second or third revision of the etiquette of social panopticonism. We no longer really ask the question “who has a camera?” because everyone has a camera, and they are probably already reaching for it. These weightless, printless images we make have condensed into a giant mass in their glowing secondary world, and the people who made a way for us to hang out in that world on the internet became billionaires.

When I first met her, Andi had a SLR she’d named Umberto, and she wore it hanging from a colorful guitar strap. For a couple of years I wondered when I’d be the sort of person who wore a camera on a colorful guitar strap, and then I found one in the alley behind the first bookstore I worked at. It’s carried every Real Camera I’ve ever had — which meant film until 2011. The other night, after spotting the hydrant, my knee-jerk reaction was to think “come back with your camera” — i.e. the device that is attached to that strap. I took two steps past the hydrant before reminding myself that the device in my pocket, which I call a phone and not a camera, produces images roughly 10 times more detailed than that little silver brick I wanted so badly in 2001.

The pictures we take on phones are liquid, and there’s an enormous gravity to the social mass of photos that parallels our lives. As soon as we take a picture on a connected device, that mass starts pulling on your image. Your picture is of a multitude, it’s probably more of a referent than an image, and it’s going to go somewhere. Wherever it ends up, it will be subject to the rules, mechanics, filters, and framing of that platform.

The major difference between the camera I carry in my pocket now and the one I so deliberately carried in 2001 is that my iPhone shoots pictures through this veil of exchange, and the conventions of the markets where those images are traded. We develop our photos now by sending the images to one of these markets and carefully tracking the responses. Think of how much more real photos are when they have been liked, shared, and commented on. They may follow you IRL, to be mentioned first thing by the people you’ve tagged. And we must remember that this activity we perform on our images is labor. Our activity, using the same devices we use to work, produces value for the owners of those markets. Our images are like kids with too many scheduled activities to have time to play.

I don’t think this is the inevitable outcome of what started with people deliberately carrying cameras everywhere. It skews to one side of the conflict I encountered with my impulse to document. The hesitation or guilt that we sometimes feel (or wish upon others) when we reach for our cameraphones isn’t because the physical interface of the camera destroys the experience. We are using some of the most unobtrusive recording devices ever made, and they’re more common than ever. They are not the burden, their systemic transformation of our images is. It’s because when we pull our phones out, they unfurl the Facebook EULA behind them, they trigger our friends to mentally scroll through Instagram filters to lay over the scene, they start to turn our experience into a referent to itself before we are done with the moment. Our photos become proof and pointers, not really pictures. They go somewhere other than that world of images and ideas that my first pocket camera was supposed to help me find.

Every camera makes these threats, but our networked devices guarantee them. We’re under no obligation to share any photo, but the complete interface of a cameraphone takes place in dialogue with these services and the hovering, secondary world of shared images. When I spotted that hydrant, I just wanted the image for the contingent qualities of the object, to add to a private repository of raw material that I mine for my paintings. The device in my pocket, the best, lightest omnipresent-camera I’ve owned, wasn’t the tool I instinctively reached for. I wanted to make an image, so my first thought was to come back when I had my camera. The camera that’s not connected to anything, except that guitar strap.

    Ním Wunnan

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