What I’ve noticed about the kinds of pictures or videos I take is that often I’ll be walking down the street, and I’ll see a vivid image (crazy colors, rioting flowers, puppies, the sun filtering across a pretty wall), and I’ll keep walking. And if, half a block later, I can’t stop thinking about the image, I go back and take the picture. I go back because, if I don’t, I won’t be able to stop thinking about the image. It will stay in my head, and bother me and bother me and bother me, and I’ll be caught up in imagining what the image was, rather than being able to look at it and connect with it, and put it to rest. That’s what it is: putting it to rest. If I take a picture of something, I can finally forget about it.
They don’t make filmmakers like Martin Scorsese anymore. He was obsessed with cinema, the art and the language of it, and he wrote and wrote and wrote about it, in brilliant essays. In one of them, he says that images take us to the core of who we are. They allow us to connect with an emotional truth that is too hard to articulate with words alone. He calls this a “mystical urge — to explore, to create movement, to go faster and faster, and maybe find some kind of peace at the heart of it, a state a pure being.” I read this and imagined something rotating on an axis, wobbly at the beginning, and then stabilizing as it gains speed. The more we explore these emotions (the ones that inspire art), the more literate and adept we become at accessing that core of pure being. Scorsese also talks about inference on the part of the artist and the viewer, and how it becomes a dialogue with life. In a way, images give us an opportunity to capture time, and to analyze it in a way that helps us to make sense of our emotions, of our lives. This idea of things wobbling and trembling, and we take a picture in order to stabilize it, to stabilize the ground on which we walk.
I remember right after my mother was diagnosed with cancer, I discovered Instagram. It was late fall in Washington state, and everything was dark and rainy and trembling. It’s the worst time of year to be outside in the Pacific Northwest, but I flung myself into living. Always with either a friend, or one of my brothers, or both, I hiked for hours through the snow up to skip rocks across a frozen lake; or went out to the northwesternmost lighthouse and screeched with the seagulls out into the ocean; or laughed by a bonfire in a forest under the stars and the smoke; or cried in a backyard sauna with three of my friends; or lost my breath for ten seconds jumping into an icy river in February. I saw the world at dawn and dusk, in remote places that maybe a dozen people visit per year. And the emotions of these places were strange and ephemeral and huge in a way that I couldn’t describe with words, but really, really wanted to share. Insane, technicolor sunsets. The texture of a long low tide on the coast, the way that the abandoned seafloor ripples out for miles. The taste of silence and emptiness at the top of a mountain. If I sat here for hours and detailed what I saw, it wouldn’t even come close to the reality. I don’t think my words alone could create that third image, the inference, for you. And I know, because I tried last night, writing this, and it didn’t work.
Around this time, I also got a new phone, with an HDR camera. I started taking pictures as a way to bring me back into myself, to remind me that there were real things in the world, things that tugged on my mind long enough to make me stop, take my phone out of my pocket, open the camera, take a picture, and post it online. Scorsese talks a lot of smack about modern “cycles of popularity” in contemporary culture; he’s referring to the box-office, but I think we could extend the metaphor to social media. Flat Tummy Tea has a million and a half followers on Instagram, but is what they’re posting of any substance? Getting thousand of likes on a picture doesn’t necessarily mean you have “seriousness and real passion.”
But actually, I think that’s okay. The likes I got on the pictures I posted on Instagram reminded me that these images touched other people too, in some sort of similar way. It made me understand that, just as our joys are not our own, neither are our sorrows. These images didn’t exist in a vacuum. My sadness made me take the pictures in the first place. It inspired subject, and composition, and angles, and editing. So though most of the people who followed me on Instagram had no idea who I was, they were participating in this emotional circuit that we created together.
In fact, the most interesting thing about my obsession with images was the images that I began to not take. One afternoon, at the mouth of the Sol Duc River, I tried to take a picture of the salmon run. I struggled to get a good shot. I kept trying and trying and it just wasn’t coming together. I was with my little brother, and at one point, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Some things just aren’t meant to be captured, they’re meant to be enjoyed.” Which at the time I thought was so lame, and I rolled my eyes at him. But it stuck, and I think that it is as Scorsese says, that the more we explore and create art, the more we’re giving to other people — and also to ourselves, beyond the images themselves. We’re accessing that state of pure being where we can interact with the original “image”–with life–and see the truth. And we don’t need to take a picture of it to see it.
So that’s not to say that there will be less need for art, for images. There will always be images. But the images that we choose to create will, I think, be more powerful and true. And our inference, our third image, will then be informed not by the need to stabilize, but by the desire to connect.