10:10am

Fri May 13, 2011
13.7: Cosmos And Culture

The Producers

The scene: my son's first-grade classroom; music recital in progress. I look back at the other parents and to my surprise I see that none of them are looking at the young performers; their gazes are fixed intently on the displays of their video and photography devices. Some have brought tripods and expensive movie cameras; others content themselves with the video on their smart phones.

What I find remarkable about this situation is not the parental urge to substitute an image for the performance itself. Nor is this just a special instance of the power of televisual images to capture our attention, even in the face of live performance. No, what's striking, rather, is that these parents are paying close attention to the performance, they are watching it, but they are doing it in a special way — by making pictures.

If you have ever tried to draw from life, then you know that it is staggeringly difficult. Where do you begin? How do you direct your attention? What matters? To draw effectively, you need to learn new ways of thinking about what you see — how the world is articulated and set forth and built. To draw something well, you need to study it very closely.

Nowadays digital photography makes it pretty easy, and very cheap, to make pictures. Making a digital snapshot can hardly be compared to drawing something painstakingly from life. But drawing and amateur photography do have this in common: making pictures — even digital video at the elementary school on one's handheld device — is a way of paying attention to what you are depicting. And so, it is a way of seeing.

The proliferation of picture-making tools — their ready, online, real-time availability — has not had the tendency to make us all artists.

But it has given rise to a creeping wedding-ization of experience. Here's what I mean:

Weddings, at least of the traditional sort, are, to a surprising extent, choreographed photo-ops. The event is organized to facilitate its own pictorial documentation. In addition to the action shots, and the candids, there is the ritual of the formal group portraits. It is really remarkable that despite, or perhaps even because of their conventionality and formality, wedding photography sometimes affords surprising insight into people. To give an example from our shared collective memory: it was hard not to be struck by Kate's stern visage, or William's sweet and gentle one. And did you notice Harry's slouch?

But in an age when everyone is a picture-maker, and every situation a photo-op, there is the danger that we tend to become, one and all, producers. We look at things with a detached eye. We approach life with the lasciviousness of a wedding planner, rather than, say, with the party-hard engagement of one of the guests. There are other dangers as well: we come to think of ourselves as we would like to be photographed.

Most threatening of all, it seems to me, is that at some unconscious level many of us seem to feel as if pictures bestow reality and significance on what they capture. I don't just mean that pictures are strong evidence of what has happened. This may be true, at least sometimes. I mean something deeper. In a world in which we — all of us — stage events with an eye to how they photograph, pictures become, in a sense, the arbiter of what happened, or, at least, of what matters to us about what happened. It is almost as if we feel that, if not for the pictures, there would not have been a wedding, or a school-room performance, or — to return to our theme from last week — a gunning-down in an Abbottabad bedroom. We feel this, even if we know it isn't true.

This gives President Obama's decision to withhold release of the photos of the mass-murderer's corpse a special significance.

But now ponder this: maybe the president asked the wrong question. Instead of worrying about whether to release the pictures, maybe he ought rather to have asked: should the pictures have been taken in the first place. Or even more to the point: should they now be destroyed? That this question is, for most of us, almost unaskable — that this possibility is unthinkable — is highly revealing. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.