Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A picture's worth...

…about 39¢ at the Kodak photo kiosk.

I spend a lot of time at the beach—biking; kayaking; exploring tide pools; enjoying the sun, sand, and surf. The family and I went whale watching a couple of weekends ago. We’ve been a number of times, each trip a unique adventure. From late January through mid April, California Gray Whales migrate from the warm waters of the Baja Mexico peninsula (where they breed) to the food rich waters of the Arctic.

On a two hour expedition, it is a treat to see one or two of the exquisite mammals. On this particular outing, we were privileged to follow three whales for over an hour. Seeing the Gray Whales fluke (a dive fully exposing the large, powerful tail) is also no guarantee. We saw the trio fluking more than half a dozen times.

I took our old beater, 2.0 megapixel, digital camera on the trip. When we would see a whale crest the blue-green waters on the horizon, I would rush to the side of the boat and snap feverishly, desperate to capture the moment. I kept thinking of people I wished were there with us—family friends who would love this experience. I hoped the photos might inspire them to plan their own expedition. Even more, I wanted to capture the wonder and remember the connection I felt with creation. On occasions like these, my petty problems are swallowed up by a glimpse at the enormity and beauty of God; showcased in this breathtaking work of art we call Earth. These are among the lean but precious moments that grant pause to my otherwise evanescent existence.

Once home, I couldn’t wait to view the photos. The images staring back at me from the screen failed to meet my expectations. I wasn’t surprised by the poor quality. My disappointment and frustration had little to do with the inferior results. Even with the very best technology, the photos were destined to miss the mark.

I grabbed a great shot of my wife leaning against the port bow, the late morning sun warm on her face. But, there was a young boy behind her in the shot. Not one of my children. A stranger. I honestly don’t remember him being in the frame. So, I used my finely tuned photo editing skills and extremely expensive software to simply remove him from the photo. After the expedition was over, we went on a hike up the coast, investigating tide pools and exploring caves carved out by centuries of waves crashing against the rocky shore. I took a photo of the stony coastline. On the left hand side of the frame, a couple stands near the ocean cliff. I somehow overlooked them in my viewfinder. In fact, I don’t recall them ever being there at all. Again, a little computer magic, and they were gone.

Not long ago, we celebrated a good friend’s birthday by going to see jazz singer, Jane Monheit, at a club in Hollywood. She is a favorite of mine and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have her sign a CD and pose alongside me for a photo. After a few weeks of displaying the picture as taken, I cropped Jane out, did a little photo manipulation, and used the headshot as my profile icon on a social networking sight.

A friend commented: “You're playing with Baudrillard's notions of simulation/simulacra quite a bit here...”

My reply: “Is that the notion that reality doesn't exist; that humanity has reduced everything to a mere simulation of reality? If so, I'm not entirely certain I disagree— with the theory or how it may relate to this photo. [written with a sly grin]”

Her response: “Yes, this is a simulation of ‘you’ - the simulation is even furthered by merely taking a picture... copies of copies... =)”

On principle, I am not one for revisionist history. I like to think I remember (or at least strive to remember) things as they were, not as I want them to have been. However, I realize that my understanding of “how things were” was then and still remains limited to my perspective, my values, my focus. I manipulated the photos to better serve as a reflection of my memory of the outing. One may argue that, in doing so, I altered reality. But, alas, in truth, it is my experience, my perceived reality I want to immortalize.

I trust the images I capture with my camera to spark memories of the experience. I see the photos and suddenly I can smell the ocean. I feel the breeze. My muscles recall the difficulty of the rocky terrain. I feel the cool of the water filling my boot as I misstep in an ocean cave. I hear the seagulls overhead and the crash of the waves against the shore. I feel the rocking of the boat, the smooth wood of the starboard rail, and the softness of my wife’s hand in mine. I hear Ms. Monheit’s warm, sultry tones— the fragrance of wine rich and heavy in the air.

But, sharing my photos with you, providing a soundtrack, simulating a fragrance, adjusting the temperature… regardless of the accuracy of the images, no matter how multisensory the replication; I cannot give you my experience.

My grandparents used to travel a lot. They would fly off to exotic places and visit people and things I had only read about or seen on television. My siblings and I could hardly wait to see what souvenirs they might bring. We would pour through their photos. (My grandmother was notorious for cutting people’s heads out of the frame.) We would listen to them talk about their adventures. It was enough to wet my appetite for such experiences but, sadly, it would be some time before I had the freedom or resource to taste them myself.

A number of years ago, my family and I drove down highway 101 in Los Angeles for the first time. I saw the murals that had been painted on the freeway wall in preparation of the 1984 Olympics. I remembered them from my grandparents’ photos. In context, they were nothing like what I had imagined those many years before. The amazing thing was not seeing them for myself, it was sharing them (along with my childhood memories of the idea of them) with my own children.

In the next few weeks I will be spending a good deal of money upgrading my camera. I am excited about the notion of capturing the beauty of the world around me with a higher level of excellence. I thoroughly enjoy photography as art. I am a graphic design hobbyist largely because I enjoy sharing ideas and emotions through visual expression. But, life is not a scrapbook. It is not a collection hanging in a gallery. And, if I wish to really taste it and smell it and feel it and know it… I must do so by personally engaging life’s subject matter. If I want those I care about to enjoy the benefits of my experiences, I must bring them on the journey. In the end, to see the whales —I mean to really know what they look like— you can’t log on to my blog. You have to get on the boat.