Photography, Transience, Memories

When one works with a camera, one is at the mercy of the lighting.  Arriving at a great place just moments too late can make all the difference.  The very best shots are available during the high contrast and long shadows at sunrise and sunset.  It is precisely under these conditions when light is fleeting and timing is critical.

Often I would be a little late to get one shot I wanted, only to have changing light conditions  reveal an even better opportunity.  Through many such experiences I came to realize that there was an infinity of good shots to be taken, every one unique.  Instead of snapping shots everywhere I only bothered to aim my lens at the very best opportunities.

In two months traveling through Europe I took well over a thousand pictures.  But my camera only held a thousand or so.  As my travels progressed I selected the best of the best until I had an elite archive.

Then somehow towards the end of my journeys, that camera disappeared for good.  I was truly upset for a couple of days afterwards.  All my work had been for nothing.  Over all that time shooting pictures, my skill had been getting progressively better.  In one event, all progress had been arrested, all gains annulled.

I still feel that loss to this day, but I learned a lot.

Before that camera disappeared I felt on one level that a moment not recorded was lost forever.   I believed that a moment taken away from specific recall was all but erased.  I wanted to see every little detail of everything I had experienced.

Yet the loss of that camera forced me to think about what was most important and of the nature of memories and experiences.

Even if I was deprived of the specific detailed, empirical record of an event, the general memory and its emotional impact remained with me.

This incident led me towards making the distinction between explicit linear factual recall and non-specific experiential recall.

That is:

-The ability to recall the exact date and time I last had meatloaf for dinner.  Memory of exactly how much meatloaf I ate.


-My knowledge of the taste of meatloaf, its smell, its general appearance.  A concept distilled from all the times I’ve eaten meatloaf.  The emotions meatloaf evokes.

As I thought about it, I realized that I had been heavily influenced by living in a heavily empirical culture.  I had felt that losing my photographic record was like losing a major part of my travels.  I was disturbed by the prospect of not being able to account for every museum, every church I’d gone to and when I’d done it.  I didn’t want to lose the details of a place that my eyes would remember imperfectly.

Over the next couple of years, I had no camera and when I finally got another one, I hardly ever used it.  My attitude had changed.

I had transitioned to simply enjoying each new location that I went to without worrying about pictures and memories.  As a result I felt much more relaxed and in the moment as I explored.  I felt liberated.  “Didn’t you take any pictures?” I was asked.  “No.” I replied with a shrug.  Keeping facts lined up in our declarative memory is a lot of work.  Allowing preconscious impressions to seep into my mind required no work at all.  Retaining the gist, sensation, and emotion of an experience is automatic.  It is strongest when I’m free to focus on the emotional  The impulse to put it all in order and retain information with precision was causing me to compromise my experiences.  At times, I was working when I should have been playing, seeing extraordinary things through a lens instead of my own eyes.  At the extreme, the capture of images associated with an experience was approaching the experience itself in importance.

Yet the image is a pale light impression that fails even to capture the perspective of human vision.  It imperfectly retains but one of our senses from the past.  Upon this realization I pondered that the photo itself is not much.  Its value must come from the things it can do.

A photo:

-Can evoke all the other senses from memory whenever it is looked at.

The memories of the experience evoked by a photo are already there.  The photo just helps bring it all into the conscious mind at once in a cohesive package.   It seemed to me then that photography doesn’t even succeed at being a record of the past.  It’s mostly just a reference point for the non-linear, non-declarative, sub-conscious memory.

-Serves as ‘proof’ to show to other people.

This I think is the big reason I was on my vacation constantly taking photos.  Most of us want to show others where we’ve been and what we’ve seen.  I was working, in part, to impress others even at the expense of my own experience.

Losing that camera invited me to explore a new avenue of thought:

I reflected on the nature of memory based on the lessons I had learned:

I can’t remember every time I’ve drank water, but I know the taste of water and have a general idea of how its taste can vary.  Every time I’ve ever drank water has contributed to my overall impression of the experience.   Each iteration of this mundane act piles up like autumn leaves upon a forest floor.  In truth, no time I’ve ever drank water has ever been lost.  Everything I’ve ever done leaves an impression on my mind.  Only the barest sliver of my experience can be explicitly recalled to the conscious mind, rationalized, categorized, dated, and sorted.

I now have more of an expectation that experience will take care of itself.  After a hiatus of a few years I’ve finally started using my camera on trips again.  I finally felt ready.  Now the sense of duty, urgency, and hurry that I felt when trying to get good photos is mostly gone.

First, I learned to accept the passing of the light.  To not be upset whenever I lost the opportunity for a great shot.

I was forced to be completely aware of the transience of this world.  I knew that the shadows would never again fall in exactly the same extraordinary way.  It was a limited offer.  One time only!  Faced with this reality, the continuation of photography forced me to accept and eventually to embrace this fundamental condition.   This type of thinking extended into the rest of life.  The desire to fix something in time could never be fulfilled. I shrugged off mishaps that would have caused others to look back with bitterness and regret.  Even the prospect of death seemed so much smaller than it once had.

I came to realize why:

-Those at peace with disorder are relaxed, lazy, content, unambitious.

-Those who are driven to order the universe are invariably uptight, busy, neurotic, consumed by ambition.

Second, after losing the camera, I learned to value the primacy of overall impressions over exacting precision and intuition over direct cognition.  Precision is of only so much use when the universe is chaotic and shifting.  The rules lie in the fluctuating patterns.  The human mind clearly does not function as a boolean machine.  Our mind absorbs experience very well, but it does not seem to use a file cabinet.  In any case, our limited capacity to file is not what makes information important to us.  A piece of information with a high level of impact stays with us more intensely than something more recent and trivial.  The passage of time wears down memories, but I would suppose we perceive the major events of our lives like distant mountain peaks when we look back.  Time seems to wear down the far mountains with imperceptible slowness while it clears away a nearby expanse of rolling sand dunes within a  few weeks.  Our perception of time is distorted and non-linear, thus we go through life pretending we’re all walking the same line through time.

This made me think of studies that have shown the fallibility of human perception and memory…


3 responses to “Photography, Transience, Memories

  1. You articulate and elaborate on things that I have known since childhood in a very extraverted, “I don’t think, I just know,” sort of way. I’ve been asked many times, “Why didn’t you take pictures?” when I was more eager for the experience than the art.
    In some ways the empirical traveler is the same as one who never leaves his hometown.

    • Once you’ve articulated something clearly and concisely, you suddenly have given it the mental dimensions you need in order to turn it over and examine it in the palm of your mental hand. Once an intuitively understood concept is made tangible we can build on it.

  2. This post was like a deja-vu for me in the most tangible sense. Since childhood I have always ‘experienced’ things. Somehow I cannot take pictures — they are like baggage to me. I cannot store things (and that is probably because of my minimalistic nature toward everything in life). I don’t own a single photo of any person, place, or thing. This ‘memory journey’ is all I own. If I want to re-visit a place or moment in time, or bring to life an old acquaintance or conversation, I just have to dip into my subconscious mind, and I am there. Although I haven’t traveled much or seen much, this ‘value’ has earned me a baggage-free, clutter-free life.

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