36 shots


Along with the usual flow of annual family newsletters and photographic Christmas cards, featuring matching cable-knit sweaters and first visits to Santa, this year I received a handful of emails with links to online photo albums. Lots and lots of pictures of babies and toddlers – many clearly taken within seconds of each other. Dozens from a single evening.

It occurred to me that this generation of kids will certainly be the most recorded one in human history.

A couple of hundred years ago, only the wealthiest people in only the most advanced civilizations could acquire portraits of their kids. Even so, such a family during that time might have one or two at most. The advent of photography democratized the portrait, but until just a generation ago, pictures were still special. For one thing, you had to pay for film. You had to go to a store, choose a film stock based on camera type, optimal ISO speed and number of frames per roll, and shell out real money before you captured your first shot. You had to load your camera – carefully – and because you’d paid for the film, you had to consider and reconsider each picture before, during and after you shot it. When you reached the end of the roll, you had to go back to a store and hand it over for processing, which often took a few days – unless you were willing to pay a premium for a 1-hour turnaround.

Fetching your pictures from the store was always kind of magical, because you had no way of knowing whether you’d aimed right or focused right, or whether your mom had blinked at the wrong moment or your friend’s face was hidden by an unforeseen shadow. Also, the photographed events themselves had already started their slide into memory and forgetting, so to see the pictures was to get to relive a little.

In the era of digital cameras, pictures have joined the growing list of things that have stopped being special. It’s a bit sad, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. I would never suggest we return to the medium of film, with its chemicals and waste, but I like the idea of reintroducing some restraint into the act of picture taking.

The other day, I learned about something called the 36 Exposures Challenge that aims to do just that:

…this ease of use and surfeit of images comes with a price. In the analog era, when we had to pay to see what we shot, we were more careful when we took photographs. This forced a discipline that is hard to imagine today. In the words of Stephen Shore, “[Today] there seems to be a greater freedom and lack of restraint…as one considers one’s pictures less, one produces fewer truly considered pictures.”