Janie B. Cheaney – An ode to the family photo album


MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Wednesday, February 26th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Megan Basham.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Next up, Janie B. Cheaney with an ode to the family photo album.

And, young Megan, what she’s talking about is prints on photo-paper.

BASHAM: I don’t know about those–I have old phones under the bed! And Janie’s commentary has some wise words for those like me.

JANIE B. CHEANEY: Do you have boxes of old photographs under the bed or in the closet? Vacation pics from the Grand Canyon or that collection passed down from Great-Aunt Susan that never got labeled?

As I was sorting through my latest box of photos, it struck me that none of them were more recent than 2008. 

It’s not that I haven’t been taking pictures. I’m taking more than ever, but they don’t end up in boxes or albums. Ten years ago, when I bought my last camera, big names like Cannon and Nikon had successfully weathered the digital revolution. But worldwide sales since then have fallen off a cliff: from 110 million units in 2008 to 20 million today. The steepest drop is in pocket-sized snapshot cameras. But high-end Leicas have also taken a hit.

Turns out, digital technology per se was not the problem. As consumers grabbed the latest iPhones and Androids, technology improved to make phone cameras better and better—and what they lacked in finesse, they more than made up in convenience. Meanwhile, social media made “sharing” easier and faster. Camera manufacturers couldn’t keep pace, because with technical change comes social change; in this case, not just in the way we take pictures, but in the way we use and even think about them.

That box of curly-edged photos is a record of times past. The endlessly-scrolling pictures on your phone are more like ongoing commentary. They are postcards sent from our daily travels, whether to Italy or to Starbucks. Though it’s cheap and easy to print them, we seldom do. They remain in the cloud, a monologue too crowded for reflection. Nothing is history; all is data.

New research can call old facts into question. Even new technology can add to our perceptions, like the colorized and re-digitized World War I footage in Peter Jackson’s documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old. What traditional historians fear is not revisionism, but, quoting the poet John Dos Passos, the “idiot delusion of the exceptional Now.”

Organizing photos in an album requires time and thought; likewise organizing events in a pattern, or insights into a coherent philosophy or a reasoned argument. Technology that leapfrogs both time and thought can easily succumb to the latest delusions.

We’ll keep taking pictures on phones and sharing them on Instagram. But once in a while we might take the time to select a few and organize them in a way that testified to life and its meaning. Sometimes the “Now” is truly exceptional, and sometimes it’s just an “idiot delusion.” Our children may thank us for knowing the difference.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Janie B. Cheaney.


(Photo/Creative Commons, Flickr)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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