Some photos don’t require captions. They’re so apparent they’ll leave you speechless. This could be one of them. But perhaps a date, even a year would be helpful. A year could explain where we were in culture with capturing art. Yet what would it really tell us?
I don’t remember who I was with the first time I saw the Mona Lisa. I just remember it was late afternoon and the Louvre wasn’t crowded and we walked right into the room. It was the summer of 1995 and Paris was hot. I was reading all of Irvine Welsh’s novels one after the next and enjoying walking around the city trying to remember little bits of Scottish slang, like bairn.
When the day finally came to visit the Louvre, it was towards the end of my trip. Unlike other Parisian tourist attractions that I still have not visited (hello Jim Morrison’s grave), I saw Mona on my first trip.
The painting was much smaller than I imagined and I had to turn my body to the left to really look at it. The motion of adjusting my body to view the Mona Lisa stayed with me for a long time after. It was like learning a new ballet stance, inventing a viewing pose for the world’s most famous piece of art. I stared at Mona, Mona stared at me, I stared back. It was moving.
I visited Mona a number of times after and each time was less pleasurable than the one before. Crowded, loud, hot. By the time Sean visited Paris in 2011, I had no desire to return. But I understood his need to see her. So we strategized and chose a late afternoon to visit. The Louvre was rather empty and we breezed through endless galleries, and then we followed the arrows to Mona. She was now in a different part of the museum. We faced her head-on. The room was as noisy as a protest and as crowded as a music festival. Neither of us were in a pushing mood to get to the front of the stage. Mere tourists instantly transformed into aggressive paparazzi or drunk concertgoers. But instead of pushing towards Beyonce or Madonna, their aggression was directed towards a 500 year-old woman, stoically holding court in her forever home. Hardly anyone looked at the painting with their own eyes there were so many cameras, all shapes and sizes. Dozens, hundreds, thousands, millions, billions of the same photo were all being taken almost simultaneously. I took a picture of the crowd.
Over 1 trillion photos were expected to be taken in 2015, according to Resource Magazine. This was based on a estimate that 3 billion people take about 10 photos a day. We could easily double that number in another 15 years due to smartphone adoption and population growth. But with this sheer quantity of documentation, I often wonder how visual context is changing. If one reflects upon the fact that even a few years ago, statistics like “every 2 minutes more photos are taken than there were in the entire 19th century,” reveal that we are documenting at an almost unfathomable rate. Our image thirst has not only changed the way we participate in reality, but it also can make us question, how will we ever sanely manage our digital clutter?
I often wondered about this dilemma during the years I worked at a streaming music company in many strange roles. As the self-proclaimed superuser for a streaming generation, I actively participated in a zealous, overconsumption of music. I favorited and playlisted and overshared in hopes to encourage others to simply notice. I had spent all of my 20s and early 30s buying up as much music as I could get my hands on. I had amassed an impressive collection for someone that never defined themselves as a DJ, nor cared enough about preservation to be a collector. I just wanted to listen to whatever I wanted to, whenever I wanted. A music collection could justify madness with melodies, beats and rhymes. You could say I reveled in having a massive bout of writer’s block, obsessing over the next song, instead of trying to concentrate on the difficulty of creating stories. One thing I discovered though was that I listened to more music than I ever had been before when I was just buying it. And then one day, the company was gone and so were my 5 years of listening history. I exported my files to a csv and imported my playlists into another service, and I started to look back at all the photos I had taken and never captioned.
I’ve taken over a hundred thousand photos. My addiction to photography started with mundane portraits of daily life, funny signs, found objects on the sidewalk, cool design objects and street art, my loved ones as we’ve aged. Over time, I added stuffed animals, certain numbers, grammatical errors, interesting strangers and any piece of art I’d like to remember for a later point. Most of these photos are not good by any critical observation. But I like this one photo of that afternoon in the Louvre. I had forgotten about it for a long time and then rediscovered it during my unemployment and named it for the first time, “The Day Art Changed For Me.” It was a lofty title and I can’t entirely explain what prompted me to say that, but the moment came from someplace of truth and when you hear the words in your head when you look at photos, sometimes you just have to write them down.
March 23, 2016.