Staying in focus

By Chuck Sigars | Dec 12, 2012

Assuming the Mayans made a miscalculation – and to be fair, that could happen to anyone – we’re about to walk right into 2013.

If you’re like me, you’ll be relieved to realize that you never again have to read a million Facebook posts about how it’s 11:11 on 11/11/11 and isn’t that fascinating?

If you’re also like me (and now I know I’m losing most of you), you might note that we’re only two years away from the society depicted in “Back To The Future Part II.” I hope someone is working on hover boards.

It occurred to me the other day, though, that we will also be only 13 years away from a bicentennial of sorts. Of an important sort, actually.

Origin stories are by definition a little blurry, particularly when it comes to technology. Who invented television, or radio? Or the Twinkie? Depends on who’s telling the story, sometimes.

But it’s generally agreed that at some point in 1826, French inventor Joseph Nicephore Niepce produced the first permanent photograph (there were other photos before that, but they tended to inconveniently disappear when exposed to light).

Called “View From the Window at Le Gras,” you can find this original image online, although it’s not much to look at.

The chemistry involved in preserving images was primitive, of course, and required long exposures. Twelve years after Niepce’s original, his partner Louis Daguerre pointed his camera apparatus out of his office window in Paris and opened the shutter.

A bootblack was shining the shoes of another man, both of them stationary long enough, given the exposure requirement, to ensure their anonymous fame; this was the first photograph of human beings.

For nearly 200 years, then, we’ve been preserving our past with light and shadow, and relearning what our species has probably always known: An image evokes, moves, transforms us in ways that are unique to the form.

Matthew Brady’s Civil War photographs. Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue. A shadow that sort of looks like a monster in a Scottish lake. A Buddhist monk on fire, a young man standing up to a tank in Tiananmen Square, a firefighter holding a dying baby in Oklahoma City.

In 1963, a Dallas clothing manufacturer pointed his Bell and Howell movie camera at a presidential motorcade. And so on.

We’re now living in a different world, though. A world in which many of us carry a camera at all times, neatly tucked into our smartphones.

And while this is good for preserving moments, for ensuring that spontaneous history has a great chance of being captured by a lens for posterity, we also have to realize that privacy is being invaded on a daily basis, probably most of it with the best of intentions but occasionally not.

For example, there are probably hundreds, possibly thousands, of websites devoted to capturing innocent bystanders, poor people who are guilty of only walking through Walmart while obese, or demonstrating questionable fashion sense.

Just being people, in other words, minding their own business, and now disseminated across the Internet for other people to snicker at.

And the poor cats. Think about the cats.

The point here – and I had one when I started – is that I recently bought a new camera. I’m now prepared to stand athwart history and shout, “Stop! And act natural!”

I know something about cameras, although most of it involves hiding whenever one is pointed at me. There was a time, though, at age 12 or 13, when I became fascinated by the subject, and even had a darkroom and a dream.

I got sidetracked, though, and eventually forgot about f/stops. Then I became a parent and really, it’s all a blur from there.

I kept my desire to document but satisfied this mostly by taking 10-minute videos of my baby daughter sleeping, although I did get enchanted by early digital photography.

I actually bought one of the first commercial ones, a Casio as I recall, which took wonderful pictures that had the resolution of your average security camera. I took lots of pictures of my family, all of them looking like they’d been caught sticking up a convenience store.

Technology is a constant temptation, though, and even though I no longer have willing subjects (i.e., sleeping babies), digital cameras can have a high-tech feel, and nothing tempts me quite as much. Stick a digital display on a plate of broccoli and I’d probably consider eating it (the broccoli).

So I bought one the other day, a reasonably priced mid-entry level DSLR, a camera that will not make phone calls (or inspire me to eat more green leafy vegetables) but does take amazing pictures.

I’ve spent the past week getting used to it, learning some tricks, understanding concepts and taking many, many pictures of stuff sitting on my kitchen table, which always has stuff. I have some stunning photos of dirty dishes.

So be ready, neighbors. There’s a new camera in town. Somebody go out and make history, please, or at least invent a hover board, so I can take a picture of it. Because I really need to wash those dishes.

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