THE art of photography, like gear shifting in an automobile, has become too easy. Any chump can do it —and does. The results are omnipresent in American life. A man can’t foresee what chance remark will cause another person to whip out a thick deck of photographs and demand that he study it, shot by shot, and make suitable comments.
There was a time when camera film was not to be squandered lightly. A six-exposure spool was the standard, and only the well-to-do operated grandly in the twelve-exposure dimension. It took a bright day, and the subjects had to hold their breath or the leisurely lens of the period would translate them into a blur.
With so few exposures available, “taking pictures” was an occasion in itself and usually followed a whacking big Sunday dinner, weather permitting. The more people in the photograph, the more precious film saved. On this basis, most snapshots were ambitious left-to-right group jobs, posed on the front steps and showing various relatives and small fry squinting into the sun, torpid with food, and all forbidden to breathe. It might cheer the subjects today, when they view the picture, to be mindful of the rigid conditions under which it had to be taken.
Aside from historic subjects like the Statue of Liberty, Bunker Hill Monument, and the White House (by way of showing that one had been there), most other photographs of the time were given over to growing children, in an attempt to prove, like Dr. Arnold Gesell of Yale, that significant changes in our appearance and size are perceptible over the years from infancy to, say, voting age.
All exposed film was entrusted to old Mr. Briggs, the family druggist, for developing and printing, and the result was decently interred in an album.
An amateur photographer nowadays uses more equipment than Mathew B. Brady, albeit he selects subjects somewhat less meaningful than Brady’s. With great sums tied up in his gadgets, he feels obliged to photograph everything in sight.
Because he has already made so many pictures in his local environment, the modern amateur has to do much traveling. He is always just back from a trip, full of facts and drolleries, and is in great demand as a dinner guest.
Disaster comes for the rest of the company after dinner, when an unwary listener pipes up with the comment, “It’s too bad that you haven’t any pictures of all those wonderful places on your trip!” At this moment, the more experienced among those present plead a cerebral hemorrhage or appendicitis and bolt. Their exit is not even noticed by the camera man.
Too bad? No pictures? Nothing of the sort. The man has hundreds of them — more packets of enlargements than a magician could stow in a tail coat. He does not come right out and say, “May I have your attention, please?" but he plainly expects it. “Yes,” he replies, “I did get a few pictures if you would all like to see them.”
The word “all” shuts off any competing conversation, and the photographic bug takes the floor. He pulls out a bundle of prints and muses aloud.
“Now here’s an odd thing,” he begins, “the dark part in the foreground. Right at the foot of the cliff. [No one else can see it.] You might think that’s a shadow. It’s not. Does look like one though. But that dark part is basalt. Right there at the lower end of Goosegrease Canyon — I think that’s where this was taken — is this great surface of basalt. You can see how dark it is. [They can’t.] Now the funny thing, and the reason I took the picture, is that there is not another foot of basalt to be seen in all that Goosegrease country. The geologists can’t account for it at all.”
He hands the photograph to guest No. 1, seated at his right. “You can see the dark part there, can’t you?” He points it out. While No. 1 is staring at inscrutable Nature, the camera man is off on his next photograph.
“I don’t know how this got in here,” he says. “Must be out of sequence. But hold on — I think — no, that was later on in the Skillibooch Valley. I have some wonderful shots of that country too. No, I’ve got it. This is the other end of the canyon and, as you can see, there is no basalt whatever around there.”
The etiquette of this classic situation now obliges guest No. 1 to hand along photograph No. 1 to guest No. 2 and to accept photograph No. 2, the astonishing no-basalt scene, while the camera man himself starts to lecture on photograph No. 3.
It’s like singing a round, and soon all manner of overlapping or unrelated ideas are beginning their maddeningly slow course through the group. By the time guest No. 8 holds photograph No. 1, the camera man is talking photograph No. 9, and a certain mindless quality has settled over the room. It will last until enough guests go home or fall asleep in their chairs.
A good anchor man as guest No. 1 can balk the whole scheme and drive the lecturer to cover simply by looking at the pictures, letting eight or ten of them pile up, and handing them back to their owner. “Very interesting. I’m sure. I’d love to see the rest of them sometime,” says the anchor man. He then begins a loud conversation with guest No. 2.
“I understand you have a daughter in Camp Chuck-a-Luck,” he says, “and I am glad of this chance to ask you a few questions about the place. My own kid is getting through school. . . .”
The anchor man gets up and beckons to his wife. “Come over here, Bess,”he calls. “I want you to hear what Sam thinks about Camp Chucka-Luck. Bring Louise along, too. How old is your youngster, Louise? Only two? Well, that’s just the age when you have to begin to look into these things and plan ahead.”
With an anchor man to start shifting the furniture and making a general hubbub, the picture-passing can be shut off in jig time. It’s almost worth asking a camera lover to dinner just to watch a dependable anchor man make him pack up and quit.