The Deepening of Photography

What's learned?


September 17, 2015

I’m on the email list for a group called Saigon Kids, mostly Americans who were children and teens in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand in the 1950s and ‘60s, due to parents who were teachers, government officials, diplomatic staff, civilian contractors, medical professionals, and military in the early years of the war. I was born in Saigon; my father was on a USAID team from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where he taught.

A recent post at the Kids’ site contained a very brief film clip, shot in the mid-‘60s, of the compound where Americans and other foreigners lived with their families across from Tan Son Nhut Airport. My family lived there too. No one seems to know now where the housing area was, exactly, and there's no reason anyone but those who lived there might care. 

I’ve written about the place before, but seeing these words—that I was born in Saigon, in that terrible time—still creates a strange emotion in me, as if I’ve lost track of reality and any reader might call me on the invention. And while I have (somewhere) my own fading stills of life in the JDP Compound, it was a small shock to see it on film for the first time, 50 years after the fact, the people in it surely known by my family, but all those connections severed by time and upheaval. (Another post at the site asks if a well-known ethnic-Chinese Vietnamese boy, who used to hang out with the American kids, turned out to be a major in the National Liberation Front.)

Mysteries, with a little peek of grace that I had no reason to believe existed, which seemed to offer some connection, some insight, 45 seconds long. 


I was thinking how photography in its infancy was of things that existed and of people mostly still living. Each photo by its rarity was a small miracle of stolen photons, but the world it showed was still just outside the frame. 

As the technology aged, an archive was built, decade-by-decade, each image imbued with contemporaneity, and each proven wrong by time. Now we can see things very long gone. Even that faded black-and-white footage from 1964 seems so ancient it might as well be the first photo of a human, pausing for a shoeshine long enough to register in slow exposure. 

I had a Kodachrome youth, Marty-McFly twenties, SLR thirties, digital-SLR forties, and my kids live in an HD childhood. Our family’s most candid moments are recorded by the hamster-eye lenses of phone cameras. Something of each technology—tone, depth of field, color saturation, fading that mimics the passage of time (or digital refusal to fade as if stubbornness creates eternal verities), awareness of the subjects of various cameras pointed at them—infuses or competes with how I remember those portions of my life. 


When Ernest Hemingway was a child he looked at the Mathew Brady photos of the Civil War, taken only 40 years earlier, and discussed them with his Civil-War veteran grandfather. The gap is roughly equivalent to my younger son looking at photos of me when I was his age. 

But there were few photos taken before Brady’s that Hemingway could have seen then. For my son, photography is an enormous toppled stack of nearly 200 years of grand and petty history. It’s estimated 3.8 trillion photos have been taken to date, and every two minutes more photos are snapped than were captured in the entire nineteenth century. Combine this with online ease of access, and my son is having a new kind of experience I didn't have. 

These changes happened at about the same speed we jumped from mothwing flight to escaping the heliopause. I wonder, though, if this depth of perception, unavailable to humans for 100,000 years, increases our understanding of humanity in any way that brings us closer? Changes us in significant ways? There’s something terrible, durable, in the human animal, and trying to contrast layers of mediated perception sometimes says little. Consider “Dead Horse of Confederate Colonel” (1862), “Bombed Camels” (1917), and Bahai, Chad (recent). 


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