Are Digital Photographs Too Plentiful to Be Meaningful? A Photographer’s Response

In a New York Times Learning Network post, Katherine Schulten asked students to respond to this question by framing it within the context of a NYT opinion piece by Lucinda Rosenfeld titled Many More Images, Much Less Meaning. Rosenfeld writes, “With effort and cost excised from the equation, photos have become too plentiful. And at the same time—as more and more pictures are taken on smartphones, ‘shared’ on social media if at all, then lost to the cacophony of the digital universe—meaningful images have become too scarce.”

This post sparked a decade of debate, an uncountable number of high school English writing assignments, and a hearty response from the blogosphere. As a professional photographer who has snapped tens if not hundreds of thousands of digital photographs, I wanted to weigh in on the issue.

After spending some time reading through the literature, I’ve come to realize that the crux of the issue is comparing today’s instant photographs with a perceived golden age in the past. Is this simply a product of human nature to glorify yesteryear? Or is a commodity like photography only valuable so long as there’s scarcity?

The Argument for the Affirmative

Some believe that the process of taking a photograph has lost its essence, that today’s generation frequently abuses the gift of photography by spamming it to the point of worthlessness, and that this overload strips the photograph of its original significance. Some point to the 105 billion photos taken by Americans in 2015, an average of 322 per person, as evidence for digital photography lacking value.

Essentially, they’re pointing to the Facebook selfies, meal pics on Twitter, and any number of other humdrum snapshots that populate the internet. They balk at the insignificance of these ordinary moments captured in time, and they ask: why should I care? And will you care in five or ten years from now?

Then there’s an even more convincing contention about the photo-taking impairment effect. Rithika Sentilkumar explains in Daily Collegian, “First identified in a 2014 study and later supported by a 2018 study, the ‘photo-taking impairment effect; states that you are less likely to remember an object that you photograph than an object that you simply observe. The 2018 study hypothesized that taking photographs ‘allows people to offload organic memory onto the camera’s prosthetic memory, which they can rely upon to ‘remember’ for them.’”

So, this leaves us not only with more photographs than we’d ever have the time to sort through, let alone appreciate. On top of that, we may risk our lived experience by over-clicking our cameras. Even if we’re looking at momentous events like graduations and marriages or grand landscapes like Yosemite Valley or the Golden Gate Bridge, how can one shot retain meaning in a vast sea of similar photographs?

The Photographer’s Search for Meaning

I posit my response in two parts. First, I want to talk about the everyday photos that we take on our phones, share on the internet, and maybe even store in a photo album (even if it is a digital one). Second, I’m going to address the issue more central to my work in landscape photography.

When we take snapshots, we record the small moments that constitute our world: vacations, times with friends and family, watching the snow pile up in the backyard, a day’s outfit, or any other number of events where we’d rather be enjoying our lives than taking the time to set up a tripod. Photographer and writer CJ Chilvers even goes so far as to claim that the snapshot is king among photographs. He points to the fact that most photographs fall into this category, that the best selling cameras are made for this purpose, and that journalism relies heavily on them.

While these are good points, I think the important thing to keep in mind is that a snapshot doesn’t need any semblance of universal meaning. It’s fine if those thousands of photos on your hard-drive bring you joy even though your neighbor or even your friend couldn’t care less about them. What we need to keep in mind is our own threshold for managing them. One of the main problems that Rosenfeld confronts in her article is an overabundance of photos of her kids growing up that leads to paralysis. She cannot bring herself to confront and organize the growing mountain of files, and so she finds herself shunning the camera altogether.

This brings us not to a problem with the medium but with a behavior. Digital technology makes it easy, convenient, and cheap to record as much of life’s minutiae as we please, but we’re the ones clicking the button. At Apollo’s Temple at Delphi, we can read these two inscriptions: “know thyself” and “moderation in all things.” This ancient wisdom is apt here.

The key to unlocking meaning in our everyday photographs is to know what pictures bring us joy, to know how many photos we can keep up with, and to restrain ourselves from overdoing it. All digital photographs don’t need to be meaningful to all people. It’s enough for a few photos to have meaning for you or me. Declan O’Neill rightfully calls them “small pieces of a jigsaw that complete the larger picture of our lives.”

Fine art photography like landscape photography, on the other hand, requires a different approach. Traditionally, art is laden with meaning, so the real question is what it takes for digital photography to become art and how to observe the meaning tucked within it. Even the critics of digital photography’s overabundance admit that artists who use a camera as their instrument of choice produce something with a different quality than the masses of snapshots found online.

Adam Karnacz of First Man Photography posted an excellent video on finding meaning in landscape photography. He begins by arguing that though the technical aspects of photography are vitally important, they are only the first 10% of what makes a great photograph. Beyond the conversation about lenses and megapixels, we have the other 90%: the art itself. This includes composition, arrangement, and, most of all, narrative. This storytelling ability, he explains, is what evokes a reaction from the viewer and keeps them coming back for more.

While the snapshot has personal significance, landscape art photography aims for the universal. It’s not just about the subject itself, but also our perception of that subject and the story that we tell along the way. We may find that nature has a way of creating beauty in unexpected moments or that nature is resilient and can flourish even in the most demanding environments. Like poetic images, these photos create metaphors that let us relate with each other and our world. They ground us and connect us in some fundamental way.

When I shoot landscape photography, I want to capture an experience within the frame. I want to take you on a journey where we can together appreciate the wonders of nature, reflect on our place on this earth, and communicate effortlessly, without words. Rather than barrage the senses with a glut of photographs, I pare down my collection to only the most essential shots because I want to remind us both that we should take the time to slow down and enjoy the beauties of the natural world.

To me, that’s what it means to be a landscape photographer. And in that, there is plenty of meaning in digital photography.

The Joy of Prints

With all that said, I can certainly empathize with Rosenfeld’s sentiment that “printed images are crisper than pixelated ones. They are also tangible: material objects that can be grasped, pasted, or leaned against a dresser mirror… When you gaze at the same snapshots over and over again during the course of a lifetime, the images become part of the recollection itself until the two are interchangeable, and it’s hard to say what you remember at all.”

When I began printing my photos, it changed the way that I looked at my work. Even though the lines and colors are basically the same, being able to hold it in my hands or put it on my wall made all the difference. That simple switch from the digital world to the analog one made the image more concrete, amplified its significance, and forced me to view it with a more critical eye.

I also sometimes feel that we are sometimes overwhelmed with too much technology and screen time. It seems ironic to say it, given the amount of my life that I’ve dedicated to software engineering, but there’s real value in unplugging. For example, I canceled my digital National Geographic subscription and resumed my print one. At the end of the day, there’s something to be said about holding something in your hands when you consume it, no matter what it is.

That’s why I invite you to take a moment to learn more about my prints. This is truly the best way to bring photography to life. And if you want to learn more or even just say hi, always feel free to reach out to me directly.

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