I've been taking lots of photographs lately. Since July, hundreds and thousands of them--twelve gigabytes of digital record (or some 3000 + images) during the three weeks we were in the Arctic for example, and probably at least half as many again since then.
Some of our fellow passengers were professional photographers; others were simply affluent and passionate amateurs with, in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars worth of professional equipment--lenses of a variety and quality I'd never before seen. In this environment, it was virtually impossible to be anywhere--even long after midnight, for of course the sun did not set in August above 75 degrees north latitude--without someone clicking away.
An iceberg? Click. A bergy bit hissing as it dissolves in the sea. Click. A polar bear too far away to look like more than a yellow-white smear against the pack ice. Click. A rumour of muskox in the distant hills. Click. Mossy caribou horns or a stripped and perfectly clean skull. Click. Narwhal swimming along the bow. Click. Polar bear skins hanging on a clothesline. Click. Children crowding into a community center, hoping to get a couple of mouthfuls of bannock. Click. Barges carrying away dismantled bits of an old DEWline station. Click. An abandoned Hudson's Bay Company post, a gravesite, another, a rusted bucket on the beach, a desolate and now disbanded RCMP detachment post, seal skulls littering the yard. A rotted Singer sewing machine. Oil drums everywhere. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click.
The Art of Travel (Vintage, 2002) entitled "On Possessing Beauty." Since there was nothing "out there" to see but fog, and, like anyone who has lived in Nova Scotia for some years, I've seen more than my share of that, I fell upon the book with a voraciousness previously reserved for the view.
De Botton reviews Victorian art and social critic John Ruskin's reflections on "the traveler's dilemma": "how is one to possess beauty?"--which is to say, how is one to relate to the things one sees or encounters? How indeed?
Very soon, however, Ruskin turned against the camera eye, characterizing it as a "lower" order expression: to take possession of something by photographing it was akin to scratching one's initials into a tree truck or a table top. The only way, truly, to possess beauty--or even to see it really--Ruskin began to argue, was to try to understand it, to try to meld, consciously, vision, affect and intellect. Such a relationship could only be achieved by writing or drawing: slowly, painstakingly learning to see, to apprehend relationships between spaces, persons and things, within and despite appearances.
In fact, Ruskin would be still more pointed about the uselessness of accessing landscape at great speed: "No changing of place at 100 miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, happier or wiser. There was always more inthe world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast; and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being" (Ruskin, cit. de Botton, 218).
The problem with photography then is that it can infinitely multiply its views without ever, necessarily, entering a digestive stream. To click is not to see; to click is not to know; to click is simply to capture something just there, then. The danger of photography, according to de Botton, is that "rather than employing [photography] as a supplement to active, conscious seeing, [we tend to use] the medium as a substitute, paying less attention to the world [than before]...The camera blurs the distinction between looking and noticing, between seeing and possessiong.... It suggests that we have done all of the work [of looking, thinking, apprehending, understanding] simply by taking a photograph" (de Botton, 219-220). It is, at bottom, a species of conquest, a narcissistic claim: here was I, I was here, suffer my record.
My own continue elsewhere, too. Thankfully.
Links to Karin's Arctic photos:
Rob Poulton's site: www.rpoulton.com