Flickr, I blame you…

Dear Flickr,

It’s all your fault. I didn’t grow up taking pictures. One brother kept a brownie strapped around his neck on our trips, snapping away at who knew what (I don’t remember his photos or if he ever shared them, but I do remember his flash going off in my face…); my mother had a Minolta that she and my other brother commanded, he growing into a photographer of elegant moody abstractions, she capturing the family in all its boisterous moments. My dad and I just looked. And I jotted things down in a notebook.

last sunset in january

Okay, yeah, I majored in art history. That choice had as much to do with it being the only major in my college in those days that pushed students to look at culture from a variety of perspectives: history, literature, religion, science, political science, anthropology. That I loved looking at pictures never struck me as anything special–it was a way to see how artists saw the world, and artists saw the world. (Besides, looking at slides in class and hanging out in museums as homework sure beat listening to famous teachers drone on in lecture and reading indecipherable textbooks or having beloved novels and poems shredded by this theory or that.)

from window to window, Wiscassett Maine

So why do I find myself as drawn to my camera as to my pen? It’s you Flickr, it’s you.

Interested as I am in transformation and transition, in creativity and culture, I wonder about this shift. Am I an example of the fact that “our historical moment is experiencing a pictorial turn” ? (W.T.J. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation, p.13) Evidence of Michel de Certeau’s assertion: “From TV to newspapers, from advertising to all sorts of mercantile epiphanies, our society is characterized by a cancerous growth of vision, measuring everything by its ability to show or be shown and transmuting communication into a visual journey” ? (The Practice of Everyday Life, p.xxi) Am I incapable of paying more attention to something than the seconds focussed before snapping the photo? Am I using images because “they are no longer just representations or interpreters of human actions[?] They have become central to every activity that connects humans to each other and to technology–mediators, progenitors, interfaces–as much reference points for information and knowledge as visualizations of human creativity.” (Ron Burnett How Images Think, p. xiv) Am I part of the tide of vernacular creativity?

And yet I am not a collector of moments. Of human moments, that is. I’m not trying to convey directly what I think & observe & experience. I work in metaphor. I am not a chronicler of much of anything except the detail of light and color and bits of things. I’m a fragmenteur. Funny for a slow (long-post) blogger.

from the hibiscus

But it’s true, Flickr, I find myself at the screens of groups such as this and this more than blogs, or books. This is nuts. You’re my first stop each morning, before email, Twitter, blogs, Facebook. I comb your riches for clues about taking better pictures. I read the conversations, leave comments, check out the tips, and wander around sideways, discursively, looking looking. I check to see if Alan has written any more Flickr posts, bits and pieces of his everyday musings. I look to see if Bryan has fresh bread on his counter. What Jen’s kids are up to today. What new drawing Nancy has posted. What D’Arcy has seen from his bike. I haven’t even met Jen or D’Arcy. I “see” all these folks on Twitter and blogs, but it is here on Flickr where I find them most compelling.

But there’s more I blame you for–. There’s that one group, especially that group. That group, you know. Or perhaps I need to blame D’Arcy or Alan for the 365 Day Flickr Group, that fascinating slice of vernacular creativity. Some people capture everyday moments, some work in metaphor. Some are serious about each image, others about sharing their lives. Conversations abound there. Little ones that spread out between group members. It brings more viewers to my photos, and then me to other Flickr-ers. People whose work I admire in other venues, for instance, also take photos that charm and surprise.

What this group has really done to me, for me is make me stretch to take one really good photo every day. Some days I’m pleased. Some days I think, not so much. I have looked harder at my regular haunts; I pay attention to qualities of light and air and angle and color and shape when I travel. Yesterday, as I drove back from Maine, a bald eagle flew over the road and banked so beautifully that the light infused his white belly with an unearthly glow. All I could think about for a moment was how great a shot that would have been–Yikes! Only later, a mile up the road or so, did I realize that it was the first time I had ever seen a bald eagle in Vermont. How extraordinary that moment was. He wasn’t a picture or the subject of a picture, but a bird endangered in this part of the country. Put the camera down, Barbara. But…would I have seen him if I hadn’t been looking around with that kind of intensity?

overseeing the last sunrise of the month

I’m getting up before dawn to watch the light slip up and over the mountains. I have a favorite tree I check out every morning. You see, Flickr? This is getting out of hand.

I have so much to learn. My brother (of the elegant moody abstractions) scolds me for not attending to the corners of my images. My daughter, who has studied photography and takes gorgeous shots that make me re-see her subjects, urges me to sharpen my depth of field. My old student and soon-to-be intern critiques my photos in Flickr,
recently expressing his ambivalence about a photo I had thought was pretty interesting, and suggesting ways to improve it. These are invaluable responses to my work; I wish more comments were of this ilk. Now, dear Flickr, I would like nothing more than to spend a week in a photography workshop, learning the technical aspects of shooting in RAW, of composition; looking at photos, having my photos critiqued. I even slid in a suggestion for a pre-Northern Voice WordCampEd session on shooting pictures and attending to blog visuals.

After checking out Flickr each morning, I head tosome of my favorite blogs, and why look at that, they are all about the visual. And only then do I move into the day.

I’m out the door now, headed to New York City for a few days, both work and play, and I’m thinking about the great people and meetings and dinners and museums down there, but really, it’s all about the camera, as About New York knows.

So, thanks a lot, Flickr. Having a place to share my photos, to connect with others around photography, and to learn more about my aesthetic, and about the ways in which people understand the world through image, has transformed my creative expression, my more scholarly discourse, and, well, my life.

Now, where’s my camera–it’s 8:30 a.m. and I haven’t yet taken a single picture today.

picture-1

The iPhone comes to Vermont tomorrow: Who will go out and get one?

I’m thinking about braving the crowds (and cold) tomorrow and lining up for an iPhone at one of five stores that will have them available in the state. The truly-with-it (and wealthy) figured out a long time ago that if they really wanted one, they could, with a New York phone exchange. (And the bills accompanying that choice.) Now that it will be possible to have a Vermont number, I wonder who will be in those lines tomorrow. Who will (have the luxury to) think of such a purchase.

shades
Who might be there (and even more, who surely will not) interests me because of intersections between my reading and my work in small rural communities, towns with sketchy cell phone coverage, iffy internet access and uneven (unequal) access to computers.

In The Power of Place, Harm de Blij speaks to this reality in his opening chapter, “Globals, Locals, and Mobals,” a sharp and simple reminder of how deeply tied (chained? rooted?) much of the world is to locality. “Earth may be a planet of shrinking functional distance, ” he writes, “but it remains a world of staggering situational difference. From the uneven distribution of natural resources to the unequal availability of opportunity, place remains a powerful arbitrator….Of the seven billion current passengers on Cruiseship Earth, the overwhelming majority (the myth of mass migration notwithstanding) will die very near the cabin in which they were born.” (p.3) While he is not writing of rural communities in North America specifically here, it is helpful to remember the pull, the demands, the realities, the power of place. Even when we have iPhones. At least around here. Climate, landscape, size and spread of community, proximity to a highway or to a town of some size have a profound impact–still–on the people who live here. iPhones (or any of the competition) are irrelevant to so many who live here although cellphones can be lifelines in remote places.

past limbo

My work table is strewn with books, my desktop cluttered with articles and blogposts, images and metaphors in the hopes that they will help me to think through the conundrum of helping small rural communities explore social media practices. It is no simple matter. Platitudes and generalizations don’t work to describe the complexities of rural life. This is slippery territory, murky, confusing, mysterious. I have to stop myself every few days to ask, “And why do I think this is a good idea, this new-old open community learning space, a third place fluid computer center/ office/lab/studio/collaboratory/exhibition/meeting space for communities that perhaps have spotty high-speed internet, few public computers, and some (sometimes more than some) suspicion that going online means losing oneself, or worse, one’s kids?” Several upcoming talks and conference presentations will tease out some of these idea, including one with Nancy White and Laura Blankenship at Northern Voice .

Doing the Limbo. Out on a limb-o. Stuck in limbo.

through the window, first light

The iPhone has me thinking about gaps, the betweens created by lack of broadband and computer access as well as cellphone coverage, by a lack of extended conversation about creative and/or social media practices, and a confusion over what we mean by openness on the Web. I’m worried about the widening gaps between locals, mobals and globals. I think about what Clay Shirky has observed about the way people are wrapping themselves in bubbles of perceived privacy as they talk loudly on their cellphones, or text while engaging in conversation with someone sitting right there in front of them. I’m concerned about unfounded fear and anxiety, how they creep about and lead to misinformation and disaster (hey, look at our government’s actions over the last eight years), how they influence online behaviors and attitudes about online behaviors. Sometimes there’s not enough fear about things that ARE threats. But in a country where it is so difficult to talk openly about the scary things and places and practices, we often don’t even “see” racism, sexism, domestic and sexual abuse, social injustice when they’re right in front of us. (Another must-read book on my table is one Joe Lambert suggested: Sundown Towns by James Loewen ). I worry about how “the systemic bias for continuity creates tolerance for the substandard.” (Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, p.250)

green

And there’s the visual, the digital image. The iPhone, having as much of a visual impact as an audio one, with its big screen and camera, makes me think about the impact of images in small rural communities. Digital photos have exploded onto the Web (see Susan Sontag’s NYT piece “Regarding the Torture of Others” and BagNewsNotes‘ reading of visual media day in and day out, Pedro Meyer’s writing on Zone Zero, among many others) and so we need to think about our use of and response to digital images, both professional and vernacular. About cameraphones. Images on the Web. How we circulate images, how we communicate with them–and what all this openness really means. Blogposts such as Alec Couros’ Flickr Perversion, and the conversation it has sparked in the comments and blogs, and articles linking unsafe visual social media practices to crime, such as this one in Vermont’s statewide newspaper, show us how urgent it is to talk about our practices as well as to go out there and practice.

Having a place in town to learn, to talk, to mess around with digital media could lead to active, informed participation. I think it could also lead to stronger bonds within the town between generations, groups, traditional divides. I’m seeing it happen already. People want to share stories, ideas, connect over the things that matter to them. They’re nervous about it–wonder if it’s okay to do online. And there’s the problem of time. We want our Web stories to look good and be easy to make. We often want them to be like StoryCorps stories or what Sarah Kramer, friend and board member, is working on with “One in Eight Million,” a new web experience via the New York Times, elegant stories of the people of New York. These are simple, short. Folksy yet polished. These stories seem easy to make: just push RECORD and the story spills out. Click STOP and there it is. Start a blog and people will listen. Open a wiki and people will contribute. Ha. How realistic is it for people to learn to edit, to share, to contribute, to tend, to share feeds and participate online when we can’t find the time to attend town meetings or to volunteer? We’re a now culture. We have no time.

And then there are those, quite a few of those in rural communities, who think we should run away from technology, toss the iPhone while we’re at it. Return to some “better way.”

I am pulled to balance on this score by David Gessner, who writes:
“What I want to leave behind is false romanticism. What I want to carry into the fight is the original romantic urge for the specific, the local, the real. What I want to leave behind is quoting Thoreau; what I want instead is to follow more deeply the complex spirit of the man. What I want to leave behind are pages of facts. What I want to carry forward are facts marshaled for purpose, facts enlivened because they follow an idea. What I want to leave behind is the sanctimony of quietude and order and “being in the present.” What I want to embrace is loud and wild disorder, growing this way and that, lush and overdone. What I want to leave behind is the virtuous and the good, and move toward the inspiring and great. And while we’re at it I want to leave behind anything false, false to me that is, false to what I feel is my experience on this earth. What I want instead is to wade through the mess of life without ever reaching for a life ring called The Answer.”

Yes. And so, it’s not enough for us to talk here on blogs. We’ve also got to go into our towns and engage our neighbors in these essential, messy conversations of our time. To think about place but not think only of place–if we’re fortunate enough. I want to move toward “the inspiring and great.” Fearlessly but not stupidly, blindly. So I’m going to get an iPhone, maybe not tomorrow, but soon. I want to participate actively in the remarkable creative, connective world of the Web, but balance what I do there with actions in town, in person. So, if I talk online about Flickr and fear, then I’ll talk about it in town as well. If I make a digital story, I’ll show it to people where I live as well as to the whole World Wide Web. And I’ll pull out my iPhone to do it. And then we can talk about that, too.

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