Your Camera Roll Contains a Masterpiece

In the nineteen-eighties, I studied photography at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, not far from the White House. Students were poor and film was expensive. We were amazed, therefore, when a classmate interning at National Geographic told us that a photographer there had returned from an expedition with six hundred and fifty rolls of exposed film. At thirty-six frames per roll, that was twenty-three thousand and four hundred exposures. There was logic to this overproduction: it was the job of the Geographic’s picture editors to distill all those frames into an article that might include just fifteen or twenty shots, and the editors wanted a surfeit of options. To end up with a small number of visual motifs—cowboys in a bar, say, or branding irons in a fire—they needed to start with a larger number, and, for each motif, they didn’t want a few alternatives but hundreds.

Brute force is one way to get good photos. Another is control. After graduation, I worked for a D.C. photo studio. This was before Photoshop, so everything in our photographs had to be controlled. Once, we had to do an overhead shot, looking straight down, of two models, a man and a woman, on inflatable rafts, floating in a dazzlingly blue swimming pool, facing opposite directions but holding hands. It was overcast when we did our test shots, and we realized that our flash units couldn’t reach through the water with sufficient intensity. On the day of the shoot, we’d be dependent on the sun to illuminate the bottom of the pool. The boss fretted and stressed. All the expense, all the planning, only to have our success depend on acts of nature? It was almost more than a self-respecting control freak could stand.

Both approaches aim to solve the same photographic problem. The problem is that photography is subversive. It subverts our intentions, desires, and expectations at every turn, in a thousand ways, and then bestows its gifts whimsically and serendipitously. Some pictures work and some don’t, for reasons that are perpetually surprising. More precisely, a few work and most don’t. The late Erich Hartmann, a past president of Magnum, once showed me his friend Henri Cartier-Bresson’s negatives and contact sheets, stored at the famous photo agency’s New York offices in rows of three-ring binders lined up on shelves. Sheet after sheet contained not a single photograph I recognized. Some worked, most didn’t—not even for H.C.B.

Happily, there’s another side to the equation. If you take enough photographs, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll eventually get an extraordinary one, for reasons you might not understand. Cartier-Bresson was a hunter in his youth, and photographers have often described his brand of street photography as a kind of “hunting,” but it might be more accurate to say that it was like fishing—a sport in which you can do a lot to optimize your chances but still can’t know for sure what you’re going to get. Chance is pretty much always in play. Sometimes everything comes together before the lens, and the visual world sorts itself within the frame, and you get a little gift. None of us really knows for sure if or when the magic’s going to happen.

Today, of course, we’re in the age of digital photography. Back in the eighties, I remember reading that six billion photographs were taken each year, a number that seemed as big as the ocean; currently, although exact numbers can’t be known, the world probably collects that many images every three and a half days. There’s a new way in which we can miss out on great photographs: they can be buried forever in the digital tsunami.

Many of us are now like those National Geographic photographers. Almost without trying, we can find ourselves with twenty-three thousand pictures on our camera rolls. Unfortunately, we don’t have picture editors to do the work of sifting and culling and considering. No one helps us discover which shots “have legs” and stay interesting the more we look at them; no one shows us which photographs say what we mean to say; and no one tells us how to identify the best and leave aside the rest. Many of us have also stopped printing our photos. It used to be that we were constrained by our physical photo albums, that we had to choose which pictures to keep and which to leave out. “Redaction is what transforms a quantity of images from a heap to a whole,” the photography critic A. D. Coleman once wrote, referring to the process of culling. The cloud is big, so we don’t redact. We live with our heaps.

Redacting takes time. You can’t edit pictures by thinking; you have to do it by looking. The more pictures you have, the more you have to look. Everyone’s different, but here’s how I worked back in the film days. Every other night, I’d develop three rolls of Kodak Tri-X film, standing at my kitchen sink. With a lighted magnifier, I would carefully examine the three contact sheets, each containing thirty-five frames. Looking at the miniature pictures, I knew the cost of each one to the cent. From them, I’d select maybe fifteen pictures, making eight-by-ten work prints of them. At first, I’d think they all showed the same promise. But then I’d pin them up on the wall for five days and look at them. Day by day, something mysterious would happen. Perhaps three of the pictures would pull me in further, with force, until I loved looking at them. The other twelve I’d never need to see again.

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Taking five days to decide which frames to keep—it seems almost inconceivable now, in the Internet era, when time lavished on any one thing always feels stolen from something else. And it’s hard to find a digital equivalent for such a process. My iPhone’s camera roll is a chaos of pictures and occasional videos, arranged in chronological order. I don’t use my phone for “serious” work as a photographer, but I rely on it for everything else: I use its camera for instant communication, note taking, the creation of family memories, and illustrations for my blog posts. Sometimes I take photos just to capture something I find remarkable—the waterfall in my back yard after it rains, twelve turkey vultures wheeling in the sky at once. It’s all in there.

How do you decide what’s good—what to keep, what to delete? A first step is to look more carefully, with new eyes. Give each picture time to breathe. We launch our camera apps for sentimental reasons (a cute puppy!), for status signalling (look who we’re with!), for comfort against insecurity (does this shirt fit?). But try forgetting why you took the pictures in the first place. Look for subversive photos that wriggle out of the intentions with which they were taken. Some pictures will stir your soul and cause a rustle of recognition. Others will seem to touch something deeper—a mystery, a meaning, some subtle sort of grace. (I once found a still-life that looked like art in a china catalogue.) A photo might freeze a movement, or capture a gesture, or look unlike any picture you’re used to seeing. Why does a particular color seem as familiar as a long-forgotten scent? Which photograph makes you pause and look the longest?

If you want to, try swapping phones with a good friend who loves visual things of any sort. Look on behalf of each other. A friend of mine used to make “matchbook portfolios”—little two-by-three-inch prints of his photographs, arranged in a stack about the size of a pack of cards and stuffed in a homemade box with open ends, in the manner of kitchen matches. When he got into conversations with artistic people, or anyone else who was interested, and they said, “I’d love to see your portfolio,” he’d show it to them right there. He listened to their comments, but also watched their body language. Which pictures did people linger over? Which ones prompted changes in facial expressions, or emotive murmurs? For a few minutes, someone else can be your picture editor.

Looking is about more than just noticing the visual qualities of a photograph. It’s also about giving yourself time to feel. Not long ago, I decided to go through my own camera roll, mining for gold, and a few pictures stood out. In one, a woman in dark clothing stands ankle-deep in the Pacific, looking out to sea; the gray clouds are pearly with light, and the colors of the sky, sea, and sand shift in discernible shades from blue to green to brown. Although you can’t see it in the picture, the beach was deserted for miles in both directions. The air and the water were chilly. We had gone to California so that I could meet her parents and see the landmarks of her life from when she was growing up. She liked that beach because there was usually nobody there. We had to hike in.

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but the act of taking the picture was moderately transgressive on my part: she didn’t like having her picture taken. And the photograph shows an ending, too. Just like you can’t force a picture to work when it doesn’t, you can’t force people to love you when they won’t, and not long after the picture was taken we split up. As I’ve got older, I’ve learned a new trick: instead of grieving, be grateful. I had a special year with a woman who had been my dream girl. How great is that?

Put “woman staring out to sea” into Google Images, and you’ll get a lot of hits. It’s hardly a unique visual motif. But photography is never actually generic. Even if an image is similar to ones that many others have made, it remains stubbornly specific. Ultimately, specificity is part of photography’s subversiveness; a photograph can never really be allegorical. You’re you, and your pictures are yours, and what you bring to a photograph is not separate from it.

So that’s what to look for. Scroll your roll, and find the pictures that please your eye and touch your heart and stir your feelings because you’re you. If your photo library is big enough, those pictures will be there. Every now and then, you’ll find a gift—a masterpiece, at least for you.

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