Adjusting to New Developments: What Photos Mean to Us

Adjusting to New Developments: What Photos Mean to Us

Ah, so seventies. Would I have shared? It means much to me, memories of writing.

Photos of the meal you are eating, the dress you might want to buy, the garbage cans left out on a neighbors’ driveway, a car crash on your street, the rash developing on your face–all examples of photos that will probably be deleted from your phone after they have fulfilled their purpose. Because in our age, the ability to carry a camera has changed the way we think about photos and use them. It’s a new development in our society. But is it always a good thing?


In his new book, TERMS OF SERVICE, Jacob Silverman, referred to as a “thoughtful critic of our evolving digital lifestyles,” points out the negatives (excuse the pun) in our picture-snapping culture. “Photos become less about memorializing a moment than communicating the reality of that moment to others.” He develops this idea by claiming that often the purpose of the picture is not to live in the moment, capture the moment, but to deal with the anxiety we may feel that others are doing things more interesting and more fulfilling than we are-at that same moment. The photo has entered into some timeless competition. He claims that some party goers forget about experiencing fun as they angle to get into a Facebook Photo that tells people YES, I’M HAVING FUN. LOOK AT ME!

I do find it interesting that in this current time (which probably will become even more frenetic and not go away) we feel the need NOT ONLY to send photos of all that we do, BUT ALSO to go somewhere and practice MINDFULNESS, listen to our breathing, so we can learn to live in the moment. REALLY? How ironic.


So let’s all take a step backward, because before all of THIS, the constant need to capture an action or a prop in time and shout it to the world–there was the mind, the thought. Let’s try to sort it out this way:

1. The purpose of a photo, of taking a picture was to PRESERVE a human’s image so we would know that person and remember them. Previously, those with wealth sat for a portrait painted by either a really good artist or an itinerant one–but in any case the job got done and so we know what Elizabeth the First of England supposedly looked like as well as George Washington etc. You get the picture. (oops, pun)

2. The purpose of a photo also became its ability to record history. Yes, there are paintings of battles, coronations, but they took months. Photographs was more immediate and allowed for a variety of views. Thus we have Mathew B. Brady (May 18, 1822 – January 15, 1896) a photo-journalist, one of the first American photographers, whose name became synonymous with photos of the Civil War.

3. As the decades progressed, the daguerreotype and the tintype gave way to a process where a dry gel on paper, film, replaced the photographic plate so a photographer could take photos without the clumsy boxes of plates and the toxic chemical previously needed. Film was developed by George Eastman, of Rochester, New York, in 1884. As early as 1888, Eastman’s Kodak camera was available to consumers. His slogan: “You press the button, we do the rest.” By 1901 the public could take photos using the famous Kodak Brownie, a great little camera that took pretty decent photos. ( I owned one once.)

4. But that was truly the beginning–because now you didn’t need to hire someone to paint your portrait. Families framed photographs and hung them on the walls of their homes to honor grandparents and remember weddings and births or to help the aching heart that missed those who were miles away. In some cultures, people even took photos of their loved ones lying in coffins surrounded by flowers. But it was all about remembering. It was all about preserving and honoring the moment–BEING IN THAT MOMENT.


In some ways, you could say that holding a photo of your sweetheart as a GI during World War II or glancing at one taped to your flight deck as a pilot during any conflict became a moment of mindfulness. The photo carried you away from the trauma of where you were and for brief moments you could be present to the person that you loved. Photos were and for some maybe still are a talisman of memory. Photos ignite thought.

But not so much any more. The ability to take so many photos and of things that are truly worthy of remembering and of things that you might forget about in 15 minutes–has changed our attitudes toward the photos themselves. We take a photo and delete. We worry about how we look–we probably always did, but film was costly and you didn’t SEE the photo until after it was developed. Photo phones changed that whole process and thus truly changed what picture-taking meant in the moment. Because it’s not a moment–it’s a photo-shopped or deleted moment until the right moment comes along.


And let’s not forget the Polaroid! It saved folks from the following scenario: you take your roll of film to the local drugstore to be developed and when you return for it, you have to meet with a manager and maybe even a policeman. (This happened to a friend of mine as recently as the 90’s. She took some photos of her children naked in the bathtub and too much anatomy was showing.)

But the Polaroid allowed people to take such photos–because they developed right there in your home. Now of course, the concept of privacy isn’t even on anyone’s radar and thus some young people have been labeled sex offenders because they were not aware of the dangers of clicking without thinking first. Those images could hardly fit into some nostalgia category or talisman of memory or thought. Again–change change change.


I have taken photos forever or been extremely grateful to my husband who is a great photographer. But why? Because I love my family and want to remember them at all there amazing stages. Because I treasure all the homes I have been privileged to live in–from the one you saw in my post When I Was a Kid to the bigger footprints we have enjoyed. But I didn’t take these photos so I could put them somewhere so everyone would say WOW. (well, maybe they wouldn’t say that anyway)

And I think photos of family should be protected and treasured. I don’t think everyone needs to see them and I don’t believe that we are that protected online. Silverman would probably agree with me. Jacket copy on his book reads: Social networking is a staple of modern life, but its continued evolution is becoming increasingly detrimental to our lives. Shifts in communication, identity, and privacy are affecting us more than we realize or understand…(the books discusses) the identity-validating pleasures and perils of online visibility; our newly adopted view of daily life through the lens of what’s share-worthy; and the…(ability of ) social media platforms—Facebook, Google, Twitter, and more—to mine our personal data for advertising revenue…(is invading our privacy)

So I treasure my old photo albums which I have been keeping since my marriage. I can show our children photos of them at any age and during any vacation. Weddings and graduations are definitely preserved–for me, for my family. If I share online, I am judicious in what I share. And I do it infrequently. Because when I look at my photos–they mean something to me. They bring about mindfulness–they create thought. The photo leaps beyond the photo to the smells and sounds and feelings of that day, that moment.

What do your photos mean to you? As a dear and wonderful friend of mine once told me in her practical and knowing way: if your house catches on fire, grab your photos albums. Everything else can be replaced. Well people, I guess you better take your phones!

Adjusting to New Developments: What Photos Mean to Us

IRONY: I could bring this old photo to you, because of my IPhone

Thanks to Wikipedia







11 thoughts on “Adjusting to New Developments: What Photos Mean to Us

  1. No, I will not excuse the pun – I love it – re. negatives. 🙂 You have another one, too, shortly after – develops.

    Love this post – also, totally agree that it’s vital to experience the experience, drink in the scenery, feel, taste, touch. All those things that are a snapshot of our moments in time.

    Photos help us remember, but we need the heft of the experience to add quality to our remembering.

    I love this post, Beth. Thank you.

    Is that you in the photo, book in hand?

    • Oh yes, that’s me and my brother. Thanks for your positive comment. I enjoyed writing this one very much and articulated some thoughts I’ve had for a long time. Wishing you the best, Beth

  2. I enjoyed this post, and had to smile at the insights that Boomer Highway presents here. Because stopping to think how the world changes around us at every turn is not something we all do. We leave that to the writers, poets, and sociologists. But the advent of the cell phone with camera and video recorder has shifted many a process for all of us. But something about the photos taken on a Brownie camera, having to pick them up (after development) at the drugstore, and then fumbling through them, glancing quickly at every image!!!!!!!!
    For me seeing the photo at the end of this Boomer Highway entry of my big sister reading to me, her little brother brings back a flood of memories. I don’t remember ever seeing the photo before, but I sure remember my big sister reading to me…..a wonderful memory, held forever in a wonderful photo.

  3. Hi Bill–
    This photo of you and me was taken by either Marge or Lucia or both. We were in the living room doing a photo shoot for Scott Foresman. In the end, they used a photo of me and a boy, relative of someone else. I guess I went downtown for that photo shoot. But it was you and me, Jeanie, Carolyn Foskett and Katie Norris doing this one!!

  4. Thanks, Rena. If your work and your relationships thrive on photos, then that’s the world you live in. I guess I would just advise to have some printed photos of those in your life that you love–so you can have that mindful moment and have them
    fill your heart. Thanks for your response. Beth

  5. Pingback: Cleaning and the Spark of Joy | Boomer Highway

  6. I find this a very thoughtful perspective. Will the 20 somethings go back through their Facebook photo postings and be able to remember the story behind the photos? Will the 50+ year olds be able to do the same? Will sharing mean disappearing?

    • Haralee,
      Your last thought is profound. Does the over-sharing of everything we experience on FB– instead of accentuating who we are, make us just one of the pack? Do we disappear when we become LIKE everyone else? Powerful questions. And of course there is always the concept that we have taken the privacy of our memories and just thrown it away. Take care, Beth

  7. My photos are precious. I just found 2 old family photo albums my daughter had swiped and was delighted to get them back. The memories on each page were priceless.

    • So happy for you. When I look at the photos my grandmother had when she was a mother–they were grainy and she had very few. Now we can literally take a blow by blow of everything–but in some ways the rarity makes them more precious. Beth

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