There was a time when I was very interested in photography. I learned how to shoot pictures when one used an external meter and instructions on the box. My dad was a photographer during WWII. He had a darkroom in the basement, and I loved messing around in it. My husband was as keenly interested as me. Both of us shot in black and white and that wonder of the 20th century, Kodachrome.
Pretty early on, I went over to the “dark side,” as Kodakers of the time called it, with a series of digital cameras. These were always pretty high-end, and always seemed to be obsolete after about 18 months.
As I spent more time doing landscape painting, I became less interested in toting a camera bag filled with lenses and accessories. I wanted something I could slip in my pocket and hopefully not break.
The perfect camera for that is, of course, my cell phone, but it has technical limitations. Now I just carry cheap point-and-shoot cameras.
In Alaska I had a few brief moments of camera envy. Tourists, mostly men, were shooting with monstrous telephoto lenses and gazillion-frames-per-second cameras. Some showed me their shots, and they were all very proficient. (They were also a tad monomaniacal. They leaped up each time a blade of glass rustled and blocked every available viewpoint.)
In my youth, I would have shot five rolls of 36 exposures on a two-week trip, and then agonized over the cost of developing them. When I finally ponied up, I would have 180 slides. Carousel slide trays held a maximum of 140 slides, so I would edit my collection down by at least a quarter. That was more than enough to put most people to sleep.
On this trip, I shot 1764 images, despite being so laconic about it. I suspect that’s actually a low number compared to anyone using anything bigger than a cell phone. Alaska got about 2 million tourists in 2013. If one in a hundred of these brings a “good” camera, and if each these people shoots 2,000 photos, they take about 40 million photos of Alaska each year. A large percentage of these end up on social media… without compensation to the artist, in most cases.
This is not to say that there aren’t fine nature photographers out there—Fred Kellerman and Ralph Lee Hopkins both come to mind. But we are buried in a sea of digital photographs. Many are technically excellent, because even cheap cameras take good photos these days. A special few are inspired.
Yes, photographs record time, place and detail with great fidelity. Some even move us. But the vast profligacy of amateur photographers and their greed to capture and publish absolutely everything leads to a paradoxical desert of creativity.
Painting, in contrast, is time-consuming, highly subjective and idiosyncratic. It isn’t interested in meticulous recording of details, but in telling you something about the subject. The surfeit of photographic images in our lives, paradoxically, makes paintings stand out like jewels in comparison.