What do you enjoy photographing most? In all forms, there are more cameras than humans on the planet and billions of photos are taken, uploaded and shared each day. In myriad ways we consume pictures almost by the pound every second; they’re in the news, on our social media feeds, product packaging, magazines, billboards, books, city walls and advertising/promotional material. But steeped and sinking in such a sea of imagery, have we ever interrogated ourselves on the types of pictures we enjoy viewing?
I recently undertook a personal project digitizing a collection of old family photographs which had already spent two decades aging in a shoe-box. The process is taking longer than I budgeted for because I end up spending more time re-visiting the time and place depicted in the image than I do scanning and fixing the actual photo. A couple of weeks into the project I developed a new and time-consuming habit; I started combing the internet for other people’s images of those times and places I grew up in. I grew a fascination for old photographs, not just of the place I lived, but for places I’ve visited or seen and also for places I have a general unexplained interest in. Its a curiosity about how these places looked in earlier times compared to today. I am intrigued by the change and the progress, sometimes, even the lack thereof.
“if I were to take a sharp knife and slice out a sliver of time — a moment — from this locale in this era, what would a representative slice of everyday life look like?”
The images I hunted did not need to be special in any regard. No beautiful lighting, no clever juxtapositions, no decisive moments and no compelling compositions; just everyday images of people in their place and their time, the more mundane the better. What happened to me? As a street photographer I had an appetite for everything but the mundane; I scavenged the streets for the dynamic, the clever and the decisive. Mundane would be the last word I’d ever want to have associated with my images or my taste in photography. Did I grow old without realizing?
What is Ordinary?
It is a tragedy of modern life that we’re spoiled so much by extraordinary that we scarcely any more have an appreciation for ordinary. And this is so with as much regard to image-making as to the many other aspects. We’re constantly on the lookout for what’s cool, what’s new and what’s different, disregarding everything else that even faintly resembles pedestrian in the process. We’ve desensitized ourselves to the ordinary without remembering the value it carries. If we see a landscape image we expect that the composition is dramatic and the lighting is captivating. More points are added for exotic locations, tinted waters, white sand beaches, hyper-saturated color-bomb sunsets or snow-capped mountains. We expect that street photography be witty, clever or even provocative. Bonus points awarded for clever play of shadows and light, unlikely juxtapositions and frozen moments of emotional outbursts.
By contrast, ordinary is literal; it says this is life as it is or was in this place and time. There is no metaphor requiring interpretation, there is no allegory to be found in it; WYSIWYG. Ordinary is valuable to me because it answers the question of my newfound distraction: if I were to take a sharp knife and slice out a sliver of time — a moment — from this locale in this era, what would a representative slice of everyday life look like? What are the people wearing, driving, eating, playing? What did the buildings look like and what did they sell in the stores?
The extraordinary is important too; images are evidence and information. Evidence and information are tools against injustice and ignorance. Dynamic and extraordinary images have furthered the sciences, shed light on inequalities and increased awareness of the sufferings we’ve allowed to thrive within our shared human race. Extraordinary images can call us to action or stir up discomfort over issues which warrant it. There is clear and undisputed value to the extraordinary but it ought not to come at the neglect of the ordinary.
Ultimately, our very own lives are made up of more moments which resemble the ordinary than they do the extraordinary. Just as with our consumption of images when we neglect the former in search of the latter we find that we have dismissed the greater portion of our days just so that we can savor the lesser. We sometimes describe the ordinary as something we endure just until we make it to the extraordinary without recognizing that something is considered extraordinary only relative to what is known to be ordinary. The ordinary thus gives meaning and flavor to the extraordinary. It can be rightly said that the two concepts are complementary, possibly even intertwined.
Appreciation for the ordinary has changed my own photography. While just one year ago I’d roam the streets in search of unique, quirky and coincidental, now I shoot that which I feel would be honestly representative of life as it is today in the places I live or visit. I have this weird idea that 100 years from now another human just like myself may sit browsing whatever version of the internet they have then, searching for ordinary images of the past era.
Thinking back to these old family photos, I cannot view these images and ponder on them without acknowledging that these ordinary captures were shot in a time when each frame mattered. These photos were all made on 35mm film; every press of that shutter release button came with a real and measurable financial cost. And money in these times did not come by with enough to spare. So it tells me that the photographer saw genuine keep-worthy beauty in this ordinary moment. They measured the beauty against the cost of capturing it and in a fraction of a second decided it was worth it. Doesn’t this in itself make the ordinary, extra-ordinary?