A few years ago we were wandering around Ireland and came across Staigue Fort on a cold, cloudy day in late June. We took photos, climbed the stone walls, and marveled at how something could last so long without so much as a dollop of mortar.
Then one day it turned out the fort needed to be the setting for a collage. A 5K had just gone past our house and I shot dozens of pictures of runners knowing they’d rather run atop the fortress than down some city street.
Memory, she said, is like a collage. We remember patches of things and cut and paste them into something like the past but different, more dreamlike. She says things like that, or at least that’s how I remember it.
And that’s how dreams are, weird collages of memories and hopes and fears.
I cut up my photos and collate the mundane pieces into something more interesting to look at (hopes I). That process bleeds into life itself and the memories become more dreamlike. Didn’t I actually see a 5K going across the top of little known fort in Ireland?
Awhile ago, my devices informed that I was running out of storage space and that if I didn’t do something about it, well, there’d be consequences. That ominously vague threat was enough to spur me to action. Action.
“What can I, a mere mortal lacking basic common sense do?” I asked.
“Not our problem!” my devices cried out in unison.
So, one day, while under the influence of god knows which substances (who can keep track these days?), I began the task of reviewing and deleting photographs. I take dozens of snapshots of a subject in the hopes that one will be a keeper. I discovered that hidden away in many thousands of unremarkable images, was often a single element that I could use elsewhere. So, meh photo, but one usable component.
Some quick math. I’ve had a digital camera since the early ’00s, when there still was a glimmer of hope for humankind. I estimate that I’ve taken at least 60,000 digital photos. Often, I delete images in camera. I immediately get rid of those that are blurry, out of focus, have a thumb blocking the subject, etc., and it’s safe to say that I’ve done that with about 10,000 photos over the years. Next, when I download them to my device, I further review and get rid of more…and I’d estimate that additional 10,000 have bit the digital dust in that manner. Then, when I’m editing, deciding which to share on which platform, I eliminate more, all of which left me still with about 32,000 photos and videos awaiting either destruction or salvation.
That’s a lot of photos, and I’m not really a very good photographer. Out of 32,000 images:
1,000 are decent
250 are pretty good
100 are suitable for framing as an 8 x 10
25 I’m proud of
One or two are good enough that I’d brag about
None of them, however, rise to the quality of the masters. Here, for instance, is my most liked photo on Flickr:
Here’s a photo taken in NYC about ten years ago. A woman taking a shot of a woman striking a pose. I like shooting people who are shooting other people. So shoot me. Without describing why it is a so-so photo, this is a so-so photo.
I zoomed, cropped, and converted to black and white, and still, nothing to write home about:
I ended up printing the above, and manually, with scissors and a hobby knife, cut out the background, leaving only the woman. Then, along with dozens of other photos, I cut and glued them together to make a collage:
I’ve gotten the photo library down below 22,000 and my devices have shut up for the time being. I’ve categorized those that remain into groups I can use for future collages: buildings, people, roads, animals, landscape, and so on. It’s something to do while the world outside continues to unravel.
Take lots of pictures. Photograph nature as much as you can. Take pictures of trees and flower and shrubs, and all the commonplace plants you see every day in your neighborhood. Shoot butterflies, bees, and birds, rabbits and chipmunks and squirrels, whatever it is that hops, crawls, buzzes, wings, strolls, and races through your yards and gardens. Snap images of the natives and the invasives, the weeds, and the intentionally planted.
It’s your record of what the world looks like midway through 2022. Take note of the differences. What has disappeared? What is thriving? Are there suddenly more of one thing and dramatically fewer of another? What about the smells?
Photograph the garbage you see, strewn by the roadways, littered everywhere, so everyday you don’t even notice it. Photograph the decay, the new, the old, the forgotten. It’s your documentary so that you can show your children the world as it was.
Things change, sometimes so slowly you’d barely notice. Sometimes in the blink of an eye. The human population, for instance, is more than double than the year I was born. The wildlife population less than half. I’ve noticed it on my windshield. Summers of my youth, my windshield was splattered with insects so thick I had to stop and clean it off.
My high school did a ride from the Philadelphia suburbs to the Jersey shore and I rode in it my junior year. The principal of the high school led the way as dozens of us crossed the Commodore Barry Bridge on a May morning as the sun rose on the New Jersey horizon. We wore regular clothes. I wore cut-off Levi’s and a t-shirt, a sweatshirt rolled up around my waste. My ride: a too-small Scwhinn Varsity that I’d been given for my twelfth birthday.
There was a long, car-less stretch of road surrounded on both sides by trees and open fields. For miles, snails by the thousands were determined to get from one side to the other and we had to swerve and dodge to avoid them. There were so many snails, some inadvertent snail squishings couldn’t be helped and they crunched beneath our tires and some combination of snail goo and shell stuck to them for miles after. That stretch of road has filled up with housing developments and places to buy things. The road was widened to accommodate the increased traffic. You can imagine the fate of the snail population.
The point is, things that are now gone were once common. My kids don’t believe me about the windshield insect apocalypses because they’ve never seen one for themselves. My grandparents were alive to see carrier pigeons blackening the sky and lived in cities where the streets were filled with pedestrians, bicycles, and horse traffic, only occasionally interrupted by the belch of an automobile. Of course, it wasn’t all rose petals and rainbows. Soot from coal burning coated the buildings and blackened the air and children worked long days in factories.
This morning I came across this image from 2014 and I can’t stop staring at it. I don’t know if it’s even a good photo, but it does have an odd hold on my attention. Everything in this image is subservient to the typewriter curiously perched on a shelf that fits it perfectly. The door, slightly ajar, points to it. The spout on the watering can is aimed directly at it. But what’s the damned typewriter doing there? What’s its purpose? While we’re at it, what is the purpose of anything? What is the purpose of people?
It makes no sense. The watering can, the urn with twigs, one of which twines out to above the slightly open door, the objects on the wall, the writing, the sign on the door, and the goddamn yellow typewriter.
This swing set is stationed on a beach near San Clemente. Sand, rocks, the gentle surf, a fence to keep people out or in. I can’t take my eyes off the garbage. There’s the plastic cup in front of the fence and then there’s the Starbucks cup by the one potential swinger. Was it there when they arrived? Will it be there when they leave? I see garbage everywhere. We the people of the planet earth excel at making and distributing garbage. We’re also experts at melting ice.
Sometimes we take the train to or from New York and I aim my camera out the window. As the train works its way through North Philadelphia, I snap photo after photo of the past, the once vibrant manufacturing housed in now abandoned factory buildings. Some have been converted to apartments, but most serve as canvases for graffiti artists and targets for rock throwers. Philadelphia Pants lived in two of these North Philadelphia buildings. One at Tenth & Berks from 1960-1980, and another at Nineteenth & Allegheny from 1987-1989. There were other homes in South Philadelphia and Center City. Listen carefully and you can still hear the echos of sewing machines and the hiss of steam presses.