Jun 8 2012

GET OFF MY CHEST! Vol.1: Camera Culture

(or: “…the experience isn’t as essential as the record.”)

(we just need to vent a little)

San Franciscan Diane Karagienakos and Seattleite Paul Pearson are the consummate online friends. They have never met in person. They’ve never Skyped or even spoken on the phone. In fact, if not for their mutual connection to exactly two people, they might not have ever known of each other’s existence. But they instant-message each other with a rapport like they’ve been doing this internet thing for a hundred years.

In this new conversation series for the 21st century, Diane and Paul riff on their Facebook IM screens about current events and topics that capture their interest. Here’s the first episode, about the effect instant and frequent photography has on our landscape.

Paul: Hi, Diane!

Diane: Good afternoon, Paul! Enjoying your Sunday?

Paul: Sort of. I was at the LMFAO show last night, and they encourage a lot of drinking. They don’t mention the day after. You?

Diane: Very productive one. I saw a friend in Death of a Salesman last night. It required only one drink after, so I’m clearheaded. That said, I made myself a Bloody Mary for this occasion. Can’t work without tools!

Paul: Excellent. I have a 32-oz. water. You may have to do a lot of the heavy lifting. So you were telling me this great story about moppets the other day.

Diane: I was walking past my corner cafe, during the beer and baby night, with 30-something couples enjoying a kid-friendly happy hour, food truck right outside, etc. (The owners had a kid 3 years ago and now have another on the way — so they clearly tapped into something here). It seems to be a hit — not many other bars in the hood welcome moppets at happy hour.

Two little girls were playing outside while mom & pop enjoy adult beverages on the sidewalk. Their play takes the form of one girl filming the other. The girl being filmed, I hear her say as I pass, “I’m so scared, I’m terrified, please no, don’t…”

And she’d doing some mighty impressive overacting that would make (insert name of lame actress) proud. And something about it bugged me. I flashed back to when I was their age, and play: The slope in our backyard was a mountain. The little gulley between the neighbor’s back wall and the one behind it was a secret cave. Our beagle was my companion shepherd dog. My little woven pouch was… well, my little woven mountain girl pouch. You get the idea. My imagination transformed the landscape, so that I was in a different world, a different person.

And it bothers me in a way I can’t quite put my finger on: is this how middle class American children play now? They “Imagine’ they’re a in a different world, a different person…but a fictional one in a movie/on TV/being viewed/existing purely to be filmed and/or viewed? What about play for play sake? Would their play have existed if there was no camera there?

Or does she just want to be an actress? I know when I was little, I was very clear on Us vs. Them. Ordinary people vs. Movie Stars. I didn’t think about being a movie star. I didn’t think I couldn’t be one; I just didn’t think about it. I guess that’s the American Idolization of the times: Everybody has a chance at fame; or at least being on camera.

Paul: When I was a kid I did something similar to that. Not necessarily “filming with a camera,” but pretending to be in a movie. There’s a scar I’ve had beneath my left nostril that came from my running my Big Wheel into the back of an open pickup truck, because I was trying to emulate something I’d seen in a movie.

But the story you describe is a little different. Was the kid “acting” or pretending to be on “reality TV”? There’s a funny phrase for you – “pretending to be on reality TV.”

Diane: “Pretending to be on reality TV” is your own personal “The medium is the message.” McLuhan would be proud.

Let me ask you this though (because we were big on using the cassette recorder and my my dad was always filming us): Were you actually shooting on film/tape to make a final product, or just emoting in front of a camera for its own sake? I know with these little projects we made as kids, we had a specific product we wanted to make to share with others (or just look back on). We invested time and planning. We worked to get it right! It wasn’t just a time killer, you know?

Paul: I was acting, at least in my head. I tended to do a lot of musicals. I remember my first big musical production on my front porch was a musical based on a theoretical appearance on The Match Game. (Props to the late Richard Dawson, btw.)

Diane: Tell me you have that on tape, please!

Paul: Unfortunately I do not. This was 1972. But it’s interesting in that later on, I would contextualize real events in my life as if they were a movie.

Diane: We did a lot of commercial spoofing. Think an aural Wacky Labels (I think they were called).

Paul: We had film cameras when we were young, and not long after that we had video cameras. But what I think the camera culture that you describe didn’t arise until we got cameras on our phones.

Diane: Exactly. It’s one thing to see adults obsessed with cameras (or phones, as the case may be). There are apps, like Toy Camera, Instagram, and Hipstamatic, now that make those with no photographic training or instinct able to make some really cool images. And it is fun to share them. So that’s cool, it’s a fun new toy.

But it’s overdone. People — myself included — take way more pix than ever because the pix are free and there’s this instant forum for sharing or feedback. I assume kids see parents doing this and think that’s just the way it’s always been, to photograph all the minutiae all the time.

Paul: I think media phenoms tend to emerge more widely the smaller their mediums get — for example, music-wise, we went from vinyl to cassettes and CDs to Mp3.

When I’m at shows — particularly highly visual ones, like last night — cameras are continually hoisted in the air. Even I do it. If, like last night, I’m being accosted by a giant inflatable zebra, I’m inclined to catch the moment.

But getting entire songs on camera, that’s what I’ve never really understood. Your role as a participant in the event shifts from partaking to documentation. I would think something personal would get lost in that transition.

Diane: Tru dat. Remember when we had to pay to develop film? It made us somewhat selective of what we chose worthy of capturing forever. Now we capture it and go “eh, that wasn’t so great I guess.”

Paul: Yes, I remember Fotomat. They were some damn good kiosks.

Diane: It just make me wonder, kids growing up where that’s what they know… The old saying “Stop And Smell The Roses” needs to be updated to “Stop And Photograph The Roses.” It’s no longer about stopping to appreciate all the beauty that surrounds us (and fills all the senses), that is present in any given moment… and that “this too shall pass.” (Which is why I got that tattoo.) It seems folks are now more concerned not with savoring a moment, but with sharing it on social media.

It’s like we’re shortchanging moments and memories. With focusing (literally) on the picture before us, we sacrifice being still and paying attention: to the smells, the sounds of that moment. How it was cold but felt good. The light. How the person with us had an eyelash on his cheek. You get the idea. A picture does paint a thousand words, but it doesn’t capture the unseeable of the story.

Paul: Which maybe wouldn’t be a bad idea if the actual quality of the stuff people share was better. In the Fotomat age, you had to choose your subjects carefully. It involved planning. These days, it’s just editing.

Diane: Amen. So, I have no kids. You do. How are you — or are you — approaching all of this with your children? Because it is pretty philosophical when you get right down to it. Being present. Paying attention. Being appreciative? I honestly think that sort of parenting starts early.

Paul: It’s a little tricky with kids. Lucie, for example — an incredibly gifted and intelligent child, kicking ass scholastically, very mature in a lot of ways for her age. But I think television has affected her ideas of what to expect from life. I think Lucie sees things on TV – like reality shows, the dancing shows, things like that – and thinks those kinds of things are perfectly achievable on an everyday basis with little or no training whatsoever. And I’m terrified that may not be far off from the truth! But logistically, it’s harder. As far as how Kate and I approach it, I think we’ve done a fairly good job of explaining that TV is a depiction of an experience, not the experience itself.

Diane: And so many kids out there are given tools to distract them from their surroundings. Little gizmos to watch videos and play games and tune out. It’s sad to see. I work in a restaurant and it’s sad, as I see it a lot. A family at family dinner, and everyone’s playing with their gizmo. Tuning each other (and their server) out.

At the risk of sounding like judgmental childless woman: how much is it possible to control what she views and how much, and or give it context? I know some parents have a no TV position, which I think is almost mean. You don’t want your kids to be clueless to the world around them. There must be some middle ground…

Paul: It’s time management, mainly. We have to do it ourselves. But giving it context is something we do all the time, because it’s fun to talk about what Lucie sees on TV. She doesn’t really watch stuff we don’t watch, or find completely unbearable. We’ve raised a Barney-free household. Generally, especially when we’re watching baseball or football games, sometimes when we’re watching Food Network shows, we talk about what’s going on.

And I don’t think Kate lets them watch that much TV when they’re home and I’m at work. I think they play a lot of music. I don’t know, ’cause I’m usually not here. Maybe they’re all about QVC when I’m gone.

Getting back to the camera culture, I’m not sure at what point we will think the experience isn’t as essential as the record. “This is the time/And this is the record of the time,” as Laurie Anderson put it.

Diane: “…experience isn’t as essential as the record.” Your second quote-worthy moment of the day!

Paul: Aw shucks, thanks. I teach my children to make memorable quotations. They’re up to Oscar Wilde now.

We used to associate camera culture pretty directly with tourism. You live in perhaps the most tourist-attractive city in the US. Are we trying to inject that adventure into our lives with cameras? A sense that we were only visiting?

Diane: I have an example where the record and the experience became interchangeable — for the better. When my dad was dying, over the month of April 2007, I spent that month with him and my brothers in Las Vegas. It was an emotionally crippling time (and inspired my multi-media play, It Is What It Is). I became aware early on that I needed to take something from that month besides the image of my dying father. I decided to photograph all that was beautiful or interesting or… whatever got my interest. So that I’d have other memories besides his pain and our suffering.

So I started photographing little things. And twice, the pursuit of the shot lead to a story in and of itself that involved peoples and scenes that would never have happened otherwise, yet were completely organic and the memories of which made me happy. It was never about people acting for the camera; merely my need for two particular photographs led to a string of crazy events that created great stories for all involved — I just happened to be the lucky one to have a camera on me as the scenes unfolded. BTW: I never photographed my father during that time. On principle.

Paul: What things were you taking pictures of?

Diane: The mountain ridge that, when I was 5 I guess and my first permanent tooth came in, looked just like that tooth. It’s my touchstone when in Vegas. Where so much has changed, there is one thing that will always be as I remember it: “My Tooth.”

I ran four red lights for this shot. It's a long story.

A blinged-out middle-aged black couple in a ’55 convertible T-bird with not 1 but 2 pairs of fuzzy dice on the RVM (that’s one of the two with a story behind it).

Balloon animals that were left for whatever reason in the fountain of my favorite Mexican Restaurant (Ok, truth be told: we were drunk and threw them there ourselves.)

Howard the desert tortoise outside my dad’s room at the hospice center (the second one with a story behind it).

A huge heap of flip flops in my friends back yard — my friend is made crazy by his wife’s clutter everywhere, including 40,000 pairs of flip flops.

And more.

Paul: Now that I can hang with. Images generating ideas. So is what we have an issue with the idea that pictures are now being mass-consumed, instead of generating another activity, memory or art?

Diane: For me, it’s sort of what Warren Beatty said to Madonna in Truth or Dare: What’s the point of doing anything if it’s not in front of the camera? My favorite moment in that movie. What was he even doing with her in his life!?!

Paul: Ha ha! I remember that! She started all this! At this point in our conversation I think it’s appropriate for me to play the Cindy Sherman card.

Diane: Go on…

Paul: I saw one of her exhibitions when I lived in Los Angeles. I was with another person who had a kid. As I recall the kid was a little confused as to why this woman took thousands of pictures of herself and called it “art.” At the time I was too, although I see the bigger picture (ha) now.

This was just before the time when picture-taking really got ubiquitous. She had romantic dalliances with a couple of stars after that – Steve Martin, David Byrne as I recall. And I wondered if her M.O. actually made her into a star of her own, in some weird Warholian way. Did her self-reference actually transform her? Would she have been different if she’d taken, say, the Georgia O’Keeffe or Ansel Adams route? Or even Fran Leibowitz?

Diane: Did you mean Annie Leibowitz? I worship Fran, BTW.

Paul: I didn’t mean Georgia O’Keeffe. And yes I meant Annie. Kate thought I might have meant Georgia O’Keeffe’s husband, Alfred Stieglitz, who was a photographer. But in reality, I simply didn’t know what I was talking about.

Diane: You raise a good point about Miss Sherman, but ultimately I think she a celebrity because her work is art. To have a series of (for lack of a better word) self-portraits and yet have it feel egoless in it is truly amazing. I think some photographers can shoot other subjects, and still somehow their ego is what stands out most. I look at an Annie Leibowitz photo, and the first thing I see in it is her.

Paul: I had to think back on Cindy’s work — you raise a good point that it was surprisingly ego-less. There’s the notion that her just taking pictures of herself and presenting them en masse was an act of egotism in itself. But that cancels out the idea of the content of her work, which was much more fragile than that.

Diane: And to those of you out there who post videos of entire concert songs on Facebook: Wow, neat, got it, you were there, good for you, bet it was cool to watch, but gosh too bad you were too busy filming it to actually watch it. As you can see it’s pretty lame viewing on your smartphone captured video.

Paul: I have to depart. I don’t have a summary statement. I could go on for hours about this. But I do have one admonition, to everyone who’s out there taking pictures of themselves. That’s all fine. But we really have to cut down on the duck faces. I mean the non-ironic ones. But even the ironic ones are getting a little out of hand.

Diane: Will do. It was an honor and a privilege, sir! Don’t let your babies grown up to be reality show celebrities.

Self portraits seemed like an obvious choice, given the subject matter.