Did you bring your camera? (from The Philosopher’s Beach Book)

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The joy of the small-format digital camera is that it enables you to capture the moment with ease, edit out the unwanted details in Photoshop, shrink the image to an appropriate size for emailing and then send it to your friends. Even the most fleeting experience can be captured and shared, if not with a camera, at least with a phone. How things have changed since aristocrats, arriving in Venice as part of their grand European tour, would commission a painting to commemorate their visit. Canaletto thrived on wealthy patrons who wanted to capture the moment.

But Canaletto also anticipated (in his own most wonderful style) the curse of the small digital camera, in that both he and it tend to make everything in the scene so sharp. That, of course, is no doubt what he, and those who market cameras today, parade as a virtue; people want sharp pictures. But tear your eyes away from the Canalettos as they hang in the gallery and observe for a moment those who are viewing them. They first stand back, taking in the scene, but almost immediately move forward to scan the painting, enjoying the small tableaus that are to be found in every corner, each detail revealing something of the life of the city. Some, like moles, almost sniff their way across the canvass, luxuriating in fine brushstrokes and acute observation. Take a Canaletto home from your travels and you have not one picture but a whole album. So also the small format camera, with its short focal length lens, can render everything sharp across the frame, the foreground characters are set against an equally sharp background that constantly distracts the eye. You are tempted, as with a Canaletto, to explore detail.

By contrast, the enthusiastic photographer will likely use a larger format and fixed focal length lens with a large aperture, hoping thereby to render the main subject sharp but set it against a softly blurred background. The idea is to enable the photograph to ‘says something’ to the extent that it leads the eye to what is important, detaching it from the background clutter of life, isolating and presenting it for inspection. Photography can be a creative way of seeing and presenting.

Hence the discussions today about the extent to which photography can be considered art on the same level as painting. Some would argue that it cannot, since the process of generating a photograph is essentially mechanical. Others see photography as the same as any other visual art, with the camera as an alternative to the pencil or brush, a tool through which the artistic perception can be expressed.

But the different styles of photography provide an insight into our habitual way of observing the world. The human eye is always selective, it scans the view, giving more attention to what is of interest, or danger, or attractiveness. It varies its exposure as it does so, opening up the iris to see what lurks in the shadows and shielding itself from the glare of the summer sky. The still photograph, even with enhancement technology, tends to average out both interest and exposure – you have to work hard, selecting the focal length of lens that will give the right perspective and aperture for deciding the depth of field, to enable your subject either to ‘pop out of’ or become lost within its background. The keen photographer is required to ask ‘What needs to be sharp, what can best be hinted at in softer focus?’ or ‘Do I need to preserve the texture in the highlights here, or am I more interested in the shadow areas?’

Hence the value of taking a camera when travelling. It encourages a critical reflection on what is seen: What stands out here? What is explained by its context? What is it about the quality of light that makes this moment so special? How can it be captured? These questions become the basis for a philosophy of looking. What you see and what you wish to capture are a measure of your engagement with the scene.

The uncritical desire to capture information can be taken to extremes. Some years ago, we were about to leave the Beetles’ exhibition in Liverpool, just as the museum was closing, when a crowd of tourists surged in and were disappointed to find that they could not be admitted beyond the gift shop. One young man, clamping a video camera to his eye, guided himself around the shop entirely through his viewfinder, looking up and down, left and right, the camera swaying with him. What will be the result? Apart from a mild nausea as the fixed screen captures the swaying and surging of his lens, it will also reflect exactly what he saw. All the rest of the experience, the sort of thing we pick up through peripheral vision, sounds, smells and so on, will have been eliminated. His single electronic eye will have narrowed his experience. He did not see the Museum or even the museum shop – he only saw his digital viewfinder and its moving images. Like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, he saw no more than shadows, far removed from reality.

The camera does not simply record the scene, it also records – for you as you look at the finished photo – your reason for taking the image. Enframed groups of smiling faces are tokens of remembered friendship, relaxation and happiness. Each photograph, whether technically proficient or the simplest of amateur snaps, can ‘say’ something. If it does not, press the delete button!

We also remember through images. The family on holiday; cause of celebration or regret. Yes, that was the last holiday we had with her before she died (the image taking on a significance that could not have been known when the shutter was released). That was just before we had the children. That was when we celebrated retirement. Did I really wear those flares? Oh, no! Just look at my hair! And there is a surge of emotion, as the experience is recalled. For good or ill, a photograph revivifies experience and relationships. You see the image of someone long neglected and remember that you should call them. We are what we capture by way of images – our memory, jogged by photographs, keeps our dreams and fears alive, reminds us of what shaped our lives at the time the shutter was released.

But the image cannot fully reproduce what is before the camera. Take movement. We assume that, with a fast shutter speed, movement is ‘frozen’. But in fact the blurring of the moving subject remains, it’s just becomes too small for us to see. What you have in a single image is an approximation; in a movie you have a series of approximations, strung together to give the impression of continuous movement. But this is also the way in which we perceive things with the naked eye. After all, the stars in the sky appear to be fixed, but we know that the galaxies are moving away from one another at a fantastic speed, and that our own solar system is swinging on the arm of a galaxy. But our observation – through our lifetime, through all human lifetimes – is just too short for us to see the blurr as the stars hurtle through the void. If photography is always an approximate summary of an experience, then experience itself is always an approximate summary of reality.

Why is photography so popular as a hobby? Perhaps because, with the speed at which we absorb new experiences, we need some way of holding onto those that are most important for us. Capture the moment? No that’s impossible, the fact that moments pass and vanish forever is just a fact of life. Photography is the attempt to hold back that process; to retain enough of our past experience to remind us of the journey thus far and to affirm who we are. And I guess that, faced in lonely old age with the prospect of limited space in a nursing home with very limited space, my photographs would be my most precious possessions. So photographs of this beach moment may serve to remind you of this specific point in your life – it may indeed be the first or last of something; only time will tell.

Thoughtful photography sharpens perception; forcing you to consider what is significant and what is not, what is subject and what background – not unlike the act of evaluating your own life as you sit on your beach, trying to identify and isolate the significant from the endless stream of inessential clutter that forms the background to our life’s image.

Photographs is just another way of doing philosophy. So did you bring your camera?

For further information about The Philosopher’s Beach Book, click here.

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