The Timelessness and Evolution of the Snapshot

Sep 9, 2013

We may be the last people left in the world who take snapshots on vacation and stick them into a photograph album.  We have a library of albums as big as medieval Bibles in which our summer memories are lovingly preserved.  The pictures have scarcely changed over the years.  The main actors get a little older, and grayer, but the prints are so small and fuzzy that it scarcely matters.  Every vacation place looks exactly like every other.  Photograph albums give a reassuring sense of time standing still.

The labels are missing from many of the older pictures: here are some impressive but unknown ruins which might be in Greece, or in Detroit, unsteady portraits of parties and party animals long forgotten, picturesque country scenes that could be anywhere.  These mystery pictures too, have their charm; they allow the imagination to work. 

These albums are important personal history.  They certify that we’ve been there—wherever it was—and done that.  If the house went up in flames, taking the albums with it, we’d have no albums’ that we ever went anywhere.  Without these snapshots jogging our fading memories, we might accidently go to the same places all over again. 

But they are very selective memories.  Browsing nostalgically through the oldest albums, I see dozens of pictures taken on beaches—as if we had lived perpetually by the sea, basking in the sunshine.  I seem to remember that I spent almost all my childhood in gloomy classrooms, in decaying schools, in the middle of horrible cities, and that it rained all the time.  Yet the snapshots show this childhood paradise, a carefully constructed myth that I will enjoy much whole-heartedly when the last of my real memories have been obliterated by time.

There’s a reason why I call these images “snapshots” and not “photographs.”  A snapshot is quick, simple and unpretentious.  A photograph is supposed to be a work of art.  I spent years trying to take photographs.  I might have produced magnificent art, worthy to hang in galleries alongside the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson or Ansel Adams.  But it took too long to set up the equipment.  By the time I had found the right camera, the right lens, the right film, the right angle, and the right exposure, the subject had usually moved on, or died, or the season had changed.  Vacations are just too short for this kind of thing.  Now I take snapshots. 

My generation believed that no vacation was complete without the ritual sharing of snapshots afterwards.  This was one of the few legal ways you could pay back your family for everything they’d done to you.  Friends and relatives would go to extraordinary lengths to avoid this experience—feigning sudden illness, or urgent business elsewhere, or even leaving the country. 

Here, the internet (for once) is providing a useful service.  Technology has moved way beyond the snapshot and the photo album.  We have digital photography that allows us to put our snapshots onto a computer, and improve them later by brightening up the weather or removing images of young ladies we never really met.  Even better: nobody needs to be persuaded or cajoled into viewing our vacation pictures of videos.  We can share them instantly with the whole world on the internet, and the whole world can instantly delete them.

Copyright: David Bouchier