"The most memorable photos are those not taken."
Someone somewhere must have written the above. Perhaps sometime around the middle of the last century, perhaps in a language other than English. Probably more than one person in one place.
I think of it this morning because of an experience I had Monday evening. I was motoring slowly home down the Grand Canal after picking up our newly repaired cover for our little sandolo-sanpierota boat and right there, suddenly, low and large and yellow-tinted just beside the facade of the Palazzo Vendramin Calergi (aka the Casinò di Venezia)--still below it's roofline, in fact--was the full moon. Or nearly the full moon (one night short, actually).
It was just 5:30 pm, already dark, but not yet completely: there was a silvery sheen like an evanescent after-image of daylight on everything. The repeated arches and 11 circular windows of the palazzo's facade seemed to mimic the shape of the moon right next door to them, and the palazzo's many pairs of tall electric candlesticks bordering each column of its upper two stories were, for the time being, holding their own against the lunar light.
In other words, a perfectly composed photograph presented itself to me. I could imagine the sense of proximity a telephoto lens would emphasize between the casino facade and the moon, the latter just above the line of Grand Canal palazzi sweeping left to right into the distance toward the Rialto.
I sat on the back-end of our boat, steering the 6 horsepower outboard engine with my right hand, a small point-and-shoot in my backpack near my feet. It wouldn't be ideal, but if I set the f-stop manually and used the zoom... But there was still (as usual) plenty of traffic on the Grand Canal--the Riva de Biasio stop on one side, the Cannaregio Canal on the other--and short of simply stopping and tying up the boat somewhere with the same perspective (if I could find it), there was no way I could capture an image.
But capture it for whom? For myself? I was already seeing it all, right there at the moment--whenever I allowed myself not to worry about taking an image.
For this blog? Yes, of course. But what's the infinitesimally small likelihood in this most photographed of cities that someone--or many ones--haven't already captured an image very much like this one? And better? There are, as I type these words, 127,518 images posted on just the Flickr Venice group page alone--with new ones being added every hour.
These days the old idea that we preserve an experience from obliteration/obscurity/anonymity by photographing it has been turned on its head. Things are no longer, as in the old days, obliterated by the passage of time, fading slowly from sight. No, they're obliterated in the sheer overwhelming excess of the moment.
The traditional stream or river of Time that was long described as carrying off everything we cherished has nothing on today's tumultuous torrent of the Instantaneous and Now, likely to overwhelm our dear images right before our eyes.
And for all the memory cards we're filling up these days with images and video--and nowhere more than Venice--how many of us will have any of them in two years? In five years?
Indeed, the fear among historians is that in spite of the fact that never in human history have so many people so easily recorded so much, the transient nature of the media and the rapidity of technological change will result in very little of these images surviving--or being viewable (http://www.theguardian.com/2015/feb/13/google-boss-warns-forgotten-century).
Whether we know it or not, and whether we like it or not, technology has burdened all of us with the task of acting as archivists of our own history in a far more complex manner than simply tossing some photos into a box, putting it in a closet, and forgetting about it.
At least that's one way of looking at it.
Another has more to do with some points that Susan Sontag made in On Photography. From my numerous but limited interactions with Sontag herself it was hard not to notice a likeness between her and Dostoevsky's character of Ivan Karamazov, who admits to both a love of humanity in the abstract and a repulsion from actual human beings: of whom he can't help but be contemptuous, and to whom he can't help but be rude. At her most provocative, Sontag accuses us shutterbugs of ethical failings. At other times (our "better" moments, I guess) we are, as she writes below, merely cowardly, infantile, and weak-minded:
The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel. Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on. The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic — Germans, Japanese, and Americans. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures.Of course, a camera is not the only way one can defend oneself from experiences, novelties, other people. Knowledge, as Sontag herself must surely have known, or even just the pretense of it, works awfully well, too--and has been doing so since long before photography came along.
Anyone who travels much, or spends much time in places visited by tourists, is likely to be familiar with the Know-It-All, who at the first sight of a palazzo, for example, will launch into a flood of information (accurate or otherwise) that one can't help but feel is a defense against some kind of actual experience itself. As if he or she must strike out at the sight or experience first, before the sight or experience has a chance to strike him or her. As if, in other words, tourism is a matter of "Kill or be killed."
All of which is a long explanation of why there is no image at the top of this post--though, inevitably, there will be plenty more to come in future posts. I see no inherent virtue in not taking photos, and no inherent vice in doing so. In fact I remember quite clearly and with much fondness one afternoon just after buying my first SLR film camera that I spent alone in Big Sur taking photos, feeling that the camera itself was what spurred me to a new appreciation and attention to a landscape I'd seen before.
Perhaps there's something to be said for someone who shoots a lot of photographs putting the camera or smart phone away for a few hours in Venice, just to see what it feels like to be in such a place without one's old friend and usual way of seeing. Perhaps it's worthwhile for those who never (or almost never) shoot photos to go out on the hunt for images for a few hours here. Again, just for the sake of seeing what difference it makes in one's own experience of the place.
As both Kant and Freud wrote, the experiences that strike us most profoundly, that leave (as we say) the most lasting impressions upon us, are those we aren't prepared for, that we don't expect, against which we don't (or simply can't) employ our usual filters or modes of understanding. The kinds of surprises that might appear to any one of us around any one of Venice's infinite corners or bends or blind alleys--if we can allow ourselves not to be prepared for them, in whatever way that means for each of us.
UPDATE: 28 November 2015: This article about the Rijksmueum encouraging its visitors to sketch instead of take photos offers a related perspective on the above theme: http://hyperallergic.com/256575/rijksmuseum-asks-visitors-to-stop-taking-photos-and-start-sketching-the-art/