Since taking up photography, I have tried to see as much of the art as practicable. Most recently, I visited Hillwood in Washington, D.C., the primary estate of the late Marjorie Merriweather Post, turned into a museum for her tasteful collection of expensive objects, and saw a collection of prints by Alfred Eisenstaedt on special exhibit. The examples are educational. They are as inspiring as they are daunting.
“Why are you carrying the camera,” asked my colleague the curmudgeon. We were having lunch around the corner from the school. He in fact is much nicer than he pretends to be, an affable fellow who wanders the hallways offering observations about our work as scholars and teachers. The most compelling photography is an attempt to penetrate the surface, because appearances deceive, first impressions more so. Thus the cliche about capturing the character of an individual or even a community.
The highlight of the sesquicentennial celebration of the transcontinental railroad for me was meeting an amateur photographer toting his vintage field camera. I was honored to be there on May 10, 2019, for the 150th anniversary of the Golden Spike ceremony at Promontory Point, Utah, when the line from the west and the line from the east were joined in standard gauge, an iron bond that brought together the United States as a nation, realizing Manifest Destiny. The event was historic, and it included the diversity of this “shining city upon a hill” as had not been done at the actual moment, nor a half century earlier, for the centennial in 1969, when actor John Wayne’s appearance led to representatives of the Chinese American community being forced off the program.
If anyone had doubts about it, the comparison of digital photography and film photography presents a compelling argument for the norms of private property and the capitalist marketplace. Simply put, because I incur negligible incremental cost taking an additional digital photo but significant real cost taking each film photo, I am careless about the former and careful about the latter. A price is only a proxy for value. But it serves its function.
I recently took two tours that revealed different philosophies about how we look at the world around us. At the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, there are no title cards for the art on the walls. At the Woolworth Building in New York City, the guide scolded me for being too enthusiastic about taking photos without having listened to his explanation of the corbels and other features. I am not sure which is the better approach: to look at something as a subject for photography as simply that or to see it within a story. Perhaps as with much else, it simply depends.