Recently, we escaped the Covid doldrums and took a short trip to Great Falls National Park. We’d been told the falls were running high and wild. They were.
Contemplating the power of that water, we were reminded of our insignificance in the grand scheme of nature. Yet even as it mocked our smallness it bestowed on us a sense of relevance. We had, against all probability, been born sentient beings able to connect to things greater than ourselves. We are blessed with the ability to perceive, to feel and to ponder that which surrounds us. All of it, in the absence of creatures such as we, would remain forever unseen, unknown and unappreciated. In this sense, our insignificant lives take on importance. The universe, at least as we perceive it, derives its existence from our own.
Taking in the scene from a nearby bench, we became aware of how many other visitors were paying no attention at all to the magnificent torrent. In imitation of fashion models and celebs, their backs to the main attraction, they posed as friends snapped shot, after shot, after shot. Then more shots. They with their partners. They with their families and friends. They with their dogs.
The miracle unfolding behind them? Who had time for that?
We took some photos and videos of the falls and of the hawks soaring above us to send to friends who we knew would appreciate them. Of ourselves? Not one shot.
Once in a great while someone finds a way to finagle me into letting them take my picture, but most of the time I avoid having my mug recorded for posterity. I always have. I didn’t really know why, but over time the reasons have become more clear.
One is that, in the words of Phyllis Diller, “Photos don’t do me justice. They look just like me.”
But that’s the least of it. There’s a larger reason why I shun the camera. Unlike all those photo-happy people out there, I have no desire to put my life on pause every few minutes just to create an image. Just to prove I existed. There’s too little time and too much to experience. The occasional photos that manage to evade my vigilance will suffice as keepsakes enough for the few who care.
At a photography exhibit several years ago, I came across a quote of Susan Sontag. “Photography converts the whole world into a cemetery.” That struck a nerve. “Life is a movie. Death is a photograph,” said Sontag.
I experience photos as moments in time that are now dead and gone, a chronicle of the inevitable march to the grave, an inventory of all that has been lost, a harbinger of losses still to come.
Sontag said photography imposes itself on how we see things, thus, altering reality. It can make bad things look good. It “appropriates” the thing photographed. As Native Americans put it, it steals the soul. It gives “a semblance of knowledge” which is actually “a perversion.” Everything, she said, is equal as long as it makes a good picture.
A look into Andy Warhol’s life and art further illustrates this concept of universal equality. He famously said “everything is the same” and everyone is famous. A Campbell’s soup can label is as much art as is the Mona Lisa. Like his repetitive reproductions of photographs, we are all interchangeable replicas of each other. There is nothing unique about any of us. He himself cultivated a bland superficial image in accord with this view, one that paradoxically made him seem unique. He stole fame by appropriating the fame of others. He, like his work, was iconic of a society that wishes only to clone us into standardized reproductions of the ideal consumer. Like his work, his life was a triumph of illusion over substance.
Disconnected, splintered, adrift on a sea of relativity in an age of conformity, we frenetically pursue image building as a way to prove, “J’existe. I’m somebody. I’m unique.” In the process, like Warhol, we end up shutting ourselves and the world off from our uniqueness.
Sontag saw danger in our having learned to prefer images to the real thing. Look at deep fakes and tell me she was wrong. A photo makes reality “manageable,” she said. It denies interconnectedness and emotionality by being an “atomic” entity disconnected from the whole of its subject. It alienates us from direct experience, providing a more intense experience secondhand and giving an illusion of knowledge. “Disjunct and mute,” says Sontag, the photo “cannot tell the truth.” Truth can come “only from words and narration.”
This resonates with me. Whether or not the words in these essays are the truth, they represent the truth of who I am far better than some contrived portrait ever could.
But, these days, who has time for words when they are so busy ignoring the wonders of nature in pursuit of their own fifteen minutes of fame?