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1 November 2014

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When is a substandard photo a great photo?

I’ve recently updated my Facebook photo from the Christmas version to my normal one. The normal one is taken from an unusual angle, and it’s a bit fuzzy. I love it, though, because of the photographer and the circumstances in which it was taken.

My niece turned 13 early last year, and for her birthday her parents had approved a mobile phone. This is no ordinary 13-year-old Рshe looks after her things amid the chaos of living in a small house full of teenage girls. So the day this photo was taken I took her shopping to buy her the Aunty Carole present,  and we looked for her mobile at the same time.

In the end the mobile she wanted was more expensive than her parents had approved, but with my contribution would work out. We called her Dad, he said yes, and we bought the phone and went home with it.

The battery had a bit of charge, and she started playing with the camera. She took this photo of me as I was leaving – the car keys are in my hand.

So every time I see this photo it reminds me of her, and what a good day we had that day. It’s not a great photo as a portrait of me, but I love it. She’s taller than me, as you can see.

Memories

So it’s the memories associated with the photo that make it special. I used to find this when I would edit the enormous numbers of prints from an overseas holiday. We used to go to exotic places with wildlife (and we will again one day), and we’d come home with dozens of rolls of film. When the photos were developed I’d sort through them and choose the best to put in an album. [This is like a history lesson, we don't do this any more!]

Sometimes it was hard to choose the right photo, because the memories attached to the photo outweighed the objective interest of the photo itself. The first lion we spotted in Africa resulted in a photo of a small blob in a large expanse of yellow grass, which could just as easily have been a bush. Anyone looking at the photo would not give it a second glance, but for me it brings back the excitement of the day, with everyone leaning out that side of the truck trying to decide what it was, and realising it was a lion! The first iceberg on the way to the Antarctic peninsula is equally unspectacular. So the photos are in the albums even though they mean nothing, and may be uninterpretable, to anyone else.

Family history

Perhaps this is a by-product of the Camera Age, where we all take way too many photos and keep them all. Or the Tourist Age. I was recently subjected to the digital photos of a nephew’s trip to Egypt, all 1050 of them. Overseas trips are particularly susceptible to this. After I had chosen the photos and put them in the album I would check with my husband to see if I’d left any out that he has particular memories of – a shot re remembers trying to take of a leopard, or whatever, that had no significance for me.

Looking through old family albums, then, may not be the time-consuming process it is for more recent ones, but the same principle applies. Before you flick past to the next page, looking for a face you recognise, think about the photo you are looking at.

Why that building? Or that tree? What could it’s significance have been? Who took it? Is the format different from all the others, an indication that someone else’s camera was involved? ¬†Do the same people, or buildings, or even trees, keep turning up? Is it just a blob in the grass?

Comments

  1. Hi Carole,
    Excellent post, and very true. The beholder’s emotional connection with the photo is always one side of the ‘Great Phot’ chasm.
    The best thing for me is just agreeing with them that their photo ‘is’ great – but can be improved.
    Regards
    Tam

  2. Madeleine says:

    Carole this is lovely! And I think very true… It reminds me of the hours I would go through your many albums since a very young age. Now that I’m older I think I’m finally understanding the need for these memories but oh god I believe in culling photos too!

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