Ways of looking

I follow the English public thinker Alain de Botton on Twitter, and while I don’t always agree with him, he does provoke thought in his posts, books, and links, which of course is the whole purpose of being a live, working philosopher.  Yesterday, he tweeted about the “evils” of photography versus learning to draw and linked to an article in The Philosopher’s Mail about phone-photography versus sketching.  I don’t agree with the article, by and large.

The points I chose to take away from the article were:

1) we shouldn’t be living our lives through our gadgets, and that phone camera snaps shouldn’t substitute for being actually present in a moment, for noticing the minute details versus just collecting proof that Kilroy Was Here before we move on quickly, because there’s a (socially constructed and inherently false) schedule to keep to so that we can document to the next snapchattable moment, and,

2) by cultivating a “slow” skill such as drawing, especially when it’s something that doesn’t come naturally to us, we learn to take in the world in a different way, to truly notice the depth of beauty all around us and all the fine details that we can breathe in if we just look,

3) the ability to look and perceive both the whole and its details is important.

I agree, fully, that there are too many of us who are distracted in our everyday doings, but it didn’t start with the camera– perhaps with the telegraph, or same day post.  The fact is, life is fast and has been getting faster since the invention of the printing press (darn that Gutenberg, he had no value for the small quiet value of hand-inked vellum), and “drawing” as a way to stop & smell the roses is all well and good as a metaphor.  It’s not so great as a general moral proposition.

The points inherent in the article with which I take issue are, if not legion, ones that have been brought up by people far more articulate than me–

1) that a camera phone photograph cannot inherently capture finer details,

2) that the takers of camera phone photographs are all rushing, rushing, rushing, rather than– pausing to notice and focus in on that detail– the cornice of that building, that tulip, that couple embracing,


3) that the takers of camera phone photographs do not take the time, later, to share that captured detail with other people later, either in print or on one of the many social media sites where photographers congregate to share photos, look for those details they personally find beautiful and worthy of documentation and sharing (Instagram? Flickr?  Twitter?  Does Mr. de Botton not know about photography social media platforms, or that photos can be shared on the platform he uses?)

4) that all the details & moments captured on camera phones are inherently “shallow”– selfies or fashion shots or pictures of expensive meals or other consumables rather than externally objective objects of beauty– travel, nature, animals, smiles, architecture, “what a wondrous thing is man” when he manages to capture a macro of a peacock feather– when, in fact, a review of any mobile photography website will show you the whole range of human and earthly existence,

5) that drawing is inherently and always better than phone (or any other) photography, and that photography is not, therefore, art, however “art” is defined,

6) that camera phone photography, as an “art” and a “skill” is something that does not inspire the doer toward improvement, toward other forms of the art, toward more technique or toward gatherings with like-minded persons who likewise seek to gather & appreciate the beauty out there in the world.  (One word/hashtag: #instameet.)  I didn’t start out with a camera phone, for my own self, but my little point & shoots, and my desire to improve my own naked eye shots of the things out there in the world have certainly caused me to read more about how to frame, how to compose, whether to upgrade to a DSLR (and I did) so that I could capture better, finer, more beauty than I had been able to heretofore.  I have met and know many, many, many folks online & in person whose “gateway” drug was the point & shoot or the iPhone, but now they go on photo safaris & print out real art, real beauty, real moments that reflect our world as it is– or as we’d like it to be.

I have no problem, at all, with people who have the time and perseverance to sketch, paint, or engage in other forms of non-photography art.  I admire the talent and ambition and stick-to-itiveness that it takes.  But it is an unassailable truth that life does move quickly, and all the slowing down and taking time to smell the roses (or sketch them, as the argument would suppose) doesn’t change the fact that in the every day churn of it all, sometimes we don’t have the time to stop and sketch, because we haven’t got the concatenation of timing, life circumstances and courage to choose to do anything other than get to work and take care of our selves and our loved ones in mundane, material ways.

It would be nice, lovely, ideal, to live a more artistic, more reflective life in more moments over the spread of a lifetime– but sometimes, realistically speaking, a camera phone shot and five minutes to notice whatever image you saw is all the time you have in a day to notice the beauty and humanity around you.

Five minutes’ pause on your way is better than none.

I also freely admit that there are a hell of a lot of pretty pictures of flowers and beloved children and cats of no particular artistic inspiration on the internet and in photo albums all over the world– though I would also argue that art isn’t always the point of a photograph, because it is also useful in capturing a moment, preserving a memory, and whether it does it with more or less technique or artistry is less important than the preservation itself.

In that regard, photography in its speed does what sketching (and those without patience or time or talent or any combination of those you choose to combine in your moral judgment) does not– it preserves a moment in time which, looked back upon, recalls happiness, even if it is done artlessly.

I’d also argue that today’s selfie might be someone else’s coup de foudre— art is at least partly subjective, after all, and however much sarcasm someone else might inflect the term with, to the aficionado, an iPhone shot of “nail art” has meaning and increases the general quantum of happiness– if some of it is at the shallow end of life’s pool, why does everything have to be deep? I’m not trying to say that there is no objective truth, or larger, important set of truths, but if a shallow happiness works for that person in that particular moment, or if something that seems trite to one person is meaningful to another– well.  I’m happy to wait while someone is standing on the sidewalk before me, taking a camera phone shot of something they find to have meaning.

 All pictures taken on my Google Droid phone, and uploaded to my Flickr, via Instagram & its various automatic filters.


9 thoughts on “Ways of looking

  1. Dawn

    Photography’s not an art? Don’t tell my sister! She has the most amazing ability to catch just the right angle or lighting or something; I could stand next to her with the exact same camera and not get the wonderfulness she will. And your pictures–some of them have spoken greatly to me as well. And the shots of the carousel were wonderful!

    Now, they do have a point about rushing about, and it’s certainly worth taking five long enough to absorb the details. There are the mini-rainbows I would see from the El back in Chicago when the sun caught a cloud just right–I don’t think anyone else ever noticed. Seeing the changes in a tree or even progress of the work done on a building, a funny license plate, the list goes on and on. Not that I always paid attention myself, but was always pleased when I did and saw something. But if you always went at that pace, there are other valuable things you might miss, plus, frankly, the world won’t always let you go slow, and those 5 minutes can be dearly carved out. (Public transit’s great for giving you the opportunity)

    What they neglect to mention is that sketching something also restricts your vision in its own way. If you’re focused on THAT tree or THAT flower, how do you see the rest of the scene? Not to mention the animal that bolts a minute after you set pencil to paper? (more applicable these days when photos are merely a matter of viewfinder up and a button push) Too bad they can’t see that both are valid in their own ways.

    1. She Curmudgeon Post author

      Everything has its pros & its cons– in the article’s rush to say “camera photograph” less they pretty much failed the logic test of generalizing too much. Defining art is always dangerous, as is defining what should have meaning to folks. (And yeah, sketching to me is not something I’m good at, and I’m also lousy at larger composition photos– I’m kind of a trees, not a forest, photography gal– but your point about restricted vision is right.)

  2. Lady Lilith

    As a photographer, I can honestly say that although camera phones may not be the best, the quality keeps improving by the day. Some camera phones produce pretty nice quality.

  3. alejna

    Interesting food for thought!

    First, this line was a thing of beauty: “darn that Gutenberg, he had no value for the small quiet value of hand-inked vellum.” Ha!

    It probably won’t surprise you that I totally agree with your points! I find that I actually see and appreciate more details in the world around me when I am regularly taking photos. This was true when I did a daily photography project a few years ago before I had a smart phone, and it’s true now that I use my iPhone to take photos regularly. It’s true that for some shots, I need more control than my phone offers, but actually enjoy playing with the constraints. While there is certainly overlap in style and subject matter, the shots I take with my phone with the intent to post to Instagram are actually not entirely the same as those I take with my camera-camera.

    Also, I love the photos you chose to illustrate your rebuttals.

    1. She Curmudgeon Post author

      Thank you! I remember your daily photo project and have actually been debating something like that, but find myself dithering over which camera and theme. You’re right, though– I take a lot of “pretty flower” shots with both cameras (which I do not pretend are art but they do make me happy), but what I take on my way with my cameraphone is stuff that catches the corner of my eye and in some ways, is kind of more interesting than any day spent specifically walking around, looking for photos. 🙂

  4. Amie aka MammaLoves

    Agreed! As a photographer, I purposefully take the time to look at what I’m capturing to make sure the image conveys what struck me in the first place. But I also have the thoughts this philosopher suggests in the back of my head from something i read long ago about missing “seeing” the moment because we are too busy photographing it. The concept I believe has made me more vigilant.

  5. Heide Estes

    I think there can also be art in working within, or exploring the boundaries of, a particular photographic technology, whether it’s BW or Polaroid or a camera phone, with its combination of low resolution and flat lens. Thanks for this thoughtful post, and thanks to Magpie for pointing me here.


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