Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The infinite parade of photographs

from an imaginary Lucerne diary.

They stand at the edge of the path, against the railing that prevents them from falling into the water. They shuffle back and forth so that they can be framed satisfactorily against the Kapellbrucke behind them. They put an arm around their partner, and smile into the camera. Or they stand shoulder to shoulder. Or they half-turn towards the bridge, as if they have just paused because some anonymous photographer asked them to. A few raise their hands above their heads and try to spell out letters that will, one presumes, be understood by the people back home to whom they will show their pictures. Some of them look sheepish, a little bashful, as if they know that millions of people have stood in the same spot and had their photo taken in front of the old bridge. Some of them seem genuinely excited, as if they see this as their chance to perform something unrepeatable in their lives, even if it has been repeated as an event for countless people before them, and will be repeated by countless people after them. If you stand across the road, or loiter all morning at a café table, you will see an endless lines of people posing for the photograph of themselves in front of the Kapellbrucke. Some of them hold the camera up in front of their own faces. Some will ask a passer-by to take the shot. Most will pass the camera around within a group, so that they all take turns posing and snapping.

I find myself wondering what it would look like if you could gather all of the photos that were ever taken on this spot? How many would they be? Millions, probably. Enough, even if you reproduced every one of them at, say, six inches by four inches, to cover every square inch of railing, path, and the beams of the wooden bridge, and most of the buildings within sight on either side of the water, in a giant smothering collage of infinite banality.
I haven’t taken a single photo while I’ve been here in Lucerne. I gave up taking pictures of my travels years ago, in fact. I got sick of the feeling of being obliged to make an endless record of pictures that I might never look at again. I grew bored with having to haul a camera around on those hot days when I’d been walking for hours in the sun, dragging myself from monument to gallery to museum, while sensible locals stayed indoors or took three hours lunches in air-conditioned restaurants. I came to mistrust the idea that taking a picture of what I was looking at, wherever I was, would in any way be a more reliable or faithful memory of my visit than the actual memory itself. For what does it mean if we look at something, and then immediately interpose a machine between our eyes and the object? What am I recording when I look at the bridge? What am I taking away, other than a few photons of light? What am I thinking when I merely look at the bridge? Whatever I was thinking, whatever I remember of the bridge, of my standing in front of it or not standing in front of it, will not necessarily be retrieved by looking at a photo of my grinning face.

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