July 16, 2022

"Let’s say a family of four is going on a weeklong vacation to Hawaii. One of the adults is taking a good-quality dedicated camera, and everyone else..."

"... will be snapping away with their smartphones. How many pictures should the family aim to end up with? Consider the possibility that a reasonable number is eight."

You might have to take five hundred pictures in Hawaii to get eight truly good ones—and, even then, getting those eight good ones won’t be easy.... Mindless snapping of “the sights” isn’t going to hack it. Dozens of images of marine life beneath a glass-bottomed boat won’t make up for missing the zip line that was the highlight of your ten-year-old’s trip. 
The same principle applies when you’re not on vacation. It’s tempting to take—and keep—many photos of birthday parties, picnics, athletic competitions, and so on. But numerous events can be commemorated with a single picture. It just has to be a good one, and to tell enough of the story....

What is the "story"? I don't think it's the thing that was most exciting to do — including that "zip line that was the highlight of your ten-year-old’s trip." Looking back, I would want to see how everyday life felt at a particular time wherever we were in our life. The special occasions matter the least. I look back at the photographs taken of my family when I was a child and I see a ludicrous delusion that we, in the future, would care above all about the opening Christmas presents. It may have felt like the "highlight" of a kid's year at the time, but it's utterly meaningless now. 

IN THE COMMENTS: Mike Johnston wrote:
BTW (I wrote the New Yorker article), I loved Ann's question "What is the 'story'?" That really is the question.

But as a practical matter it's also "...and what worked as a photograph?" Lots of times we know the picture we would have wanted, but it didn't work, and instead we got the birthday girl on the porch admiring her own cake. So then that becomes the picture of the 11th birthday because the one that would have told the story better didn't turn out to be such a good picture. To steal (and mangle) a quote from Robin Kelsey's "Photography and the Art of Chance," the world is a mix of order and disorder, and what works as a picture is the sum of a series of accidents. Put shortly, you have to try your hardest to get what you want but then, later, when you edit, you have to put all that aside and also be totally open to what worked and what didn't.

Yes, I love the potential to be surprised by one’s own photographs… and by the cool happenstance of blogging, like this lovely visit from the article’s author. 

29 comments:

J L Oliver said...

If I could do it over again, I would take pictures of every room in the house through the years. I find myself looking at the background of most old pictures.

gilbar said...

when my folks got back from their trip to russia (about 2004), my mom said to me..
"Oh let's look at our russia trip pictures!!"
and i said, "how many Are there?" and she said, "oh about 500"
and *I* said, "show me the best 40"
And *SHE* said, "i don't know which are best! we haven't looked at them yet?"
And i said, let me know when you have, and i'll gladly look at the best 40"
I'm pretty sure, that NO ONE, EVER looked at their russia pix.

People spend WAY to much time Taking pix, Not Nearly enough time Composing pix; and NO TIME choosing pix.
The world is happening, while you're staring at your view screen.

michaele said...

I just came across a picture of our family at Christmas from over 50 years ago. It had my mom and my two sisters and I surrounding my dad who was in a wheelchair due to being paralyzed from the waist down. We had decorated him with a ribbon sash from a present and we were all were laughing (my dad included) at our silliness. That moment, captured in a photo, summed up how we were raised...laugh if you can!

Ampersand said...

Digital photography, convenient though it is, has created petabytes of junk, sitting in the cloud.

As for the notion of our being able to preemptively prioritize a few key images, the problems start with the fact that our future selves and their concerns are always going to be hard to visualize. That said, I get particular pleasure from images that (often inadvertently) capture the texture of the way we were, and can no longer be. The ridiculous pajamas and flimsy delights of Christmas morning pix can resonate in surprising ways.

tim maguire said...

Pictures help with memory. My daughter has what I consider an astonishing memory of early childhood while I remember almost none of mine. She has a million pictures commemorating every significant and many insignificant events. I have almost none. I can’t dismiss the possibility that there is a connection.

That zip line may in the end be one of the highlights of what is remembered as a happy childhood, but it won’t be if it’s forgotten, which it might be without the reminder of a photo.

Jonathan said...

1) From quantity comes quality. I think you have to try really hard to set up shots correctly but then also hold down on the shutter release for at least a second or so.
2) I don't think the photos in the piece support its thesis.
3) I think many family photographers want to preserve the childlike wonder and enthusiasm children experience at Christmas from the decorations and foods and gift unwrapping, especially as they grow older and jaded. I think you're in the minority.
4) My favorite family photos (Christmas or otherwise) show family members engaged in a common task....cooking/baking something, singing something around the piano or outside the house of a shut-in or on the street, decorating the house or tree, or playing a card or board game.

Dave Begley said...

One of the best things about the iPhone is the camera. It leads to much more picture taking.

Lem Former Twitter Aficionado said...

I don’t take bad pictures.

reader said...

When I was first married I took pictures of Christmas day. Not the morning unwrapping but of the family hanging out. But once I became responsible for the majority of the cooking Christmas day that stopped. I missed those pictures. So once I got a handle on orchestrating the day I started a new tradition for myself.

On Christmas day I take a group family photo using a tripod. I take the picture before dinner once everyone who is attending has arrived. In the beginning a few people grumbled but now they have all accepted that it is happening.

I have a long wall with picture ledges (about 22’ in total). Every Christmas I put out an assortment of those pictures from over the years (decades). Those pictures get a lot of attention from the family each year. I have pictures of both great-grandma’s and my mother’s last Christmas. First married Christmases, first pregnancies and then first Christmases. The size has fluctuated from as small as 9 to as many as 22.

I live those pictures.

michaele said...

reader, I loved reading about your Christmas photo tradition and how the pictures from years gone by are on display and so enjoyed by those who continue to gather at your home. I suspect there are some contenders among your family members who have promised to themselves that they will continue the tradition.

Leland said...

As the person in the family that usually brings the dedicated camera, I've thought about this quite a bit. It stems from a trip with my grandfather when I had an encounter with a young bear in the wild just 10 feet away. Previously, I didn't use cameras on trips, because I wanted to be in the moment and enjoy the occasion rather than picture it to enjoy later. But I had a film camera, and I wanted this memory with the bear. You take few pictures with a film camera, and apparently the bear was a bit more alarming to me, because the image was blurry.

Since then, I use digital pictures and take as many shots as needed to be comfortable that at least one gets the scene I want. My daughters called me paparazzi, because of how many pictures I would take at once. On a vacation with a hundred pictures, there will usually be about 3 or 4 that really stand out. But, as noted in the same discussion on space photos, what stands out usually depends on what you want from the image.

On the Christmas photos, I don't enjoy them when just viewing them at any given time. However, when a family member is lost; usually the best photos for a memorial collection come from the family events like Christmas. Everyone can remember the event. There is usually joy and mirth in the photo in what is now a lifeless moment. So, I'm glad to have those photos.

Louise B said...

When my husband was active duty military, I dedicated a wall in our house to family photos so our children would grow up knowing who their family was: grandparents, aunt and uncles, and cousins. To this day, despite being scattered around the country, they phone and stay in touch with their relatives--without my prompting! The idea came from my husband's grandmother who had a similar wall in her farmhouse. It's all about promoting family.

RigelDog said...

The best picture I ever took encapsulates our trips to the beach when the kids were younger and was taken just as a casual snap. It's a close-up of our beautiful son at about age 5, standing on the boardwalk on a hazy afternoon, back to the ocean and the seagulls, comfortably smiling at the camera--smiling a little mysteriously. He's wearing dad's stretched-out sand-colored tee-shirt; his hair is standing up a bit in the wind and has a few sun-kissed highlights. The whole photo happens to be all colored all soft sand, white, and gray---except for the cherry ring-pop he's holding up to the camera. It's just perfect.

Mike Johnston said...

Okay, but I actually meant that you should try to be sensitive to what's important to your child--and others in the family--and not just take pictures of what's easiest to photograph. The problem with this article is that I had zero room to expand on anything, because it was like trying to cram 40,000 words into 4,000. The original "shortened" version of Teresa's story was four times longer than what was published, for instance. So there had to be a lot of shorthand if I was to stand any chance of giving the reader a sense of the scope and richness of the subject, of the many dimensions of what "family photos" can be. The section on "Collecting," for instance, started out as a meditation on "living memory" and what photographs might mean after no one alive remembers the subject. Obviously ALL of that was lost to mere implication in that section! Not an easy article to write, anyway. I ended up thinking of each section as a capsule version of about half, or maybe a third, of the necessary chapters in a book about the subject. Still thinking about maybe writing the book, but I fear there might not be enough of a market for such a thing. Everyone photographs, but few people read about photographing.

Joe Smith said...

The price of memory is dirt cheap.

When I was shooting film (Kodachrome) in Europe in the '80s, every shot needed to be carefully considered.

Not just the subject or composition, but the focus (it wasn't auto back then) and the exposure time and the aperture for depth-of-field.

And I didn't see the results for almost six months.

Not sure that it made for better photos, but it sure made you think more...

loudogblog said...

I wish that I had taken more photos when I was younger, but we had to pay for each print back then, so money was an issue. Now, photography is, essentially, free. I've worked at the same theme park since 1987 and it would be nice to have more photos of our venues to show the young techs what they looked like in the past. Plus, I wish that I had more photos from the shows that I was in when high school and college.

Michael K said...

My father got a movie camera in 1948, when I was 10. I have lots of family movies from childhood. I had them all transferred to DVD a few years ago and loaned the DVD to my sister so she could have it copied. I think it has been ten years and I still don't have it back.

Marc in Eugene said...

The post's subject article's author appearing in the comments doesn't happen very often, I think.

James K said...

Photography is always hit or miss, as you never know what facial expression you’ll catch, or which scenes will be meaningful. generally avoid I generally avoid shots of scenery or sights without people (family or friends). Nine out of ten photos should be discarded, but that takes a lot of work.

And then there are the home movies, of which my late father made dozens. He graded them A, A-, etc. and there are quite few Bs and Cs, all with the best of intentions.

Marc in Eugene said...

'What I actually meant was...' does sometimes not count for much in a world where the 'real' isn't.

TaeJohnDo said...

I think pictures are best if the are used to trigger memories, tell a story, capture a subject, or capture a moment in history. Overuse of any can make for a dull world. Where I live, the sunsets and sunrises are typically monumental, and the neighbors post photos of these events on NextDoor all the time. Im sure they are trying to out do each other's eye. They have become trite and boring. They also post pictures of coyotes, bob cats, roadrunners and snakes as if they are unique events. We live in a high desert. They live here. Give it a rest. I will admit to posting one video I got of a coyote on the property-he spotted my camera, investigated it, and made his feeling known about it by lifting a leg and urinating all over it. It was a magnificent performance.

grimson said...

"I would want to see how everyday life felt at a particular time wherever we were in our life."

Yes. When I scanned all of the family photos so that everyone could have a copy, one was just a picture of our small town's downtown in the early sixties with its JC Penney, Ben Franklin, Woolworth...and every parking space taken. There was really no reason to take the photo, but it perfectly captured that time and place.

"It may have felt like the 'highlight' of a kid's year at the time, but it's utterly meaningless now."

I'm reminded of Kore-eda's movie "After Life" (currently showing on the Criterion Channel), where the recently deceased are asked to pick the one memory to take with them for eternity. A young girl initially chooses a trip to an amusement park, but the person assigned her case helps her find something better--a memory of being held and cared for by her mother.

https://www.criterion.com/films/29081-after-life

PM said...

Caligula said...

1. Priority: Experience first, photography second. (Or third.)
2. In the digital age, quantity > quality. If you shoot enough photos some will be good.
3. Mercilessly cull your photos. Otherwise you will get buried under the growing avalanche and become unable to find the few good ones.
4. Figure out an indexing system that works for you, then use it.
5. Once you're done culling and sorting, copy what's left to reliable backup.

Rollo said...

Family photos are supposed to be crappy. That's their charm. When people start hiring professionals to photograph their vacations, it will be another big step down for us.

gpm said...

A bit off-topic, but it does relate to the subject of meaningful photography. I worked at the same law firm as Heather Brown for a couple of years in the late 70's/early 80's, when we were both young associates. We were friends to some extent, i.e., we would hang out together at firm or firm-related events but didn't otherwise socialize, although I did attend a going-away party at her apartment on the "flat side" of Beacon Hill when she left town around 1982 or 1983.

Heather and her three sisters are known for a series of annual photographs taken by her oldest sister's husband starting in 1975. I saw the ones to date at the MFA a few years back. Here's a link to an article with the photos through 2018 (though I think they were still doing it through at least last year): https://www.buzznicked.com/sisters-took-same-photo-40-years/

As indicated above, Heather left the firm and the city in the early 80's. She went on a voyage in a small boat along the inland waterway. Eventually came back to Boston and married another former associate from the same firm. The last time I saw them was at a big party I had for my 50th birthday at the Harvard Club back in 2003.

--gpm

realestateacct said...

People take photographs of birthdays, vacations and holidays because the family is gathered and people have leisure. Who takes photographs of breakfast before leaving for the office, or dinner with one kid still at soccer practice?

Mike Johnston said...

BTW (I wrote the New Yorker article), I loved Ann's question "What is the 'story'?" That really is the question.

But as a practical matter it's also "...and what worked as a photograph?" Lots of times we know the picture we would have wanted, but it didn't work, and instead we got the birthday girl on the porch admiring her own cake. So then that becomes the picture of the 11th birthday because the one that would have told the story better didn't turn out to be such a good picture. To steal (and mangle) a quote from Robin Kelsey's "Photography and the Art of Chance," the world is a mix of order and disorder, and what works as a picture is the sum of a series of accidents. Put shortly, you have to try your hardest to get what you want but then, later, when you edit, you have to put all that aside and also be totally open to what worked and what didn't.

Ann Althouse said...

Hi, Mike Johnston.

Thanks so much for stopping by! I’ll “front page” your comment.