What the Camera Tells Us About Ourselves


If you look closely at the famous image above, you will see the first photograph of people — a historic event. It dates from 1838 and apparently shows one man having his shoes shined by another man. There were doubtless other things going on in the streets and on the sidewalk — moving carriages, animals, strolling couples and the like — but the technology of early photography permitted the camera to capture only those things that were relatively stationary for about 10 minutes or more.

With this photo, a new history begins that has social as well as technical implications: our concern over how we look to the camera’s eye. In other words, one more thing to manage and one more reason to be self-conscious. Such is the price of progress! A new and very personal preoccupation had been created by the genius of human invention — an unintended consequence of a set of scientific advances, one I’d like to say a few words about, as it relates to everyday life and the need to change your life, too.

Of course, mirrors existed thousands of years before photography was invented, but allowed mostly for private consideration of one’s appearance. Cameras made the private public and gave new perspective to how one looked, since a mirror only told you about the image you could see looking directly back at you, not from behind or in profile. For a long while, photos were largely posed and often took the place of painted portraits that a family of means might hang proudly at home.

Posing gave the subject some control over the picture. He could dress up, choose the background, and count on the photographer to use only the best of his work; that is, to create a finished product that made the subject look good.

As photography expanded to non-professionals, snap shots were, by definition, relatively spontaneous, with no guarantee to flatter those captured while walking, talking, eating, and the entire range of activities that others might observe “in (unstaged) life.” The internet brought us to our current situation vis-a-vis our photographed appearance. Pretty much anything is now fair game, including pictures that are embarrassing. Indeed, one suspects that unattractive images are more likely to be posted than those that make us look desirable, at least when others are doing the downloads. Appalling has trumped appealing.

A Korean Puppy and a Fifth Air Force Aerial Camera, 1951. Sourced from the US Department of Defense/Wikimedia Commons

A Korean Puppy and a Fifth Air Force Aerial Camera, 1951. Sourced from the US Department of Defense/Wikimedia Commons

We now live in an age of the big “reveal” or, to use English properly, “revelation.” We are revealed in more ways than we can manage, with the internet playing its part. No longer can a permanent view of us at our best be guaranteed. The result is either to accept that we will sometimes look like crap to those who chance upon our picture, or to make sure that only our most trusted camera-ready friends see us as we really are, without carefully arranged hair, makeup, a good shave, and the happy face that we show to everyone else.

Daily life has changed with the ubiquity and portability of the camera/phone. Not only can those who are not present use the dark magic of the lens to see our shouts and frowns and scowls, but we see them too. We see, if we are open to it, all the things that make us look good and bad, not just in terms of physical beauty, but decency, as well.

The camera has become a kind of moral score keeper. Potentially, at least, we observe even those qualities that we wish we could block from self-awareness: expressions of unkindness, indifference, and contempt.

Before a time when the photographer forced his images upon us, we only knew what others risked telling us about ourselves. And, of course, in polite society, this still doesn’t happen with regularity, unless you are a public figure. Our friends don’t want to hurt our feelings, so, whatever they say usually is spoken tactfully. And, our enemies can be dismissed, at least most of the time, because they are, after all, our enemies.

The unposed photo has removed the friend and the enemy from the conversation, equally. We now are face-to-face with ourselves more often than ever before, and in a way that only the camera makes possible. We have a more “god’s eye view,” a little harder to deny, a bit more insistent on truth. As the poet Rilke observed in writing about the Archaic Torso of Apollo,

…for here there is no place

that does not see you. You must change your life.

The photograph now sends us a message. Be the best you can be, not just in appearance. Shrink your vanity and become comfortable with yourself, so that you care less about the opinion of others. Be as good in the shadows as you are on stage. Control your anger. Show kindness. Whether privately or publicly, don’t do those things that would shame you in a crowd. Indeed, you must change your life. So must we all.

The top image is Boulevard du Temple by Louis Daguerre, 1838. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Going Out on Top: the Difficulty of Making a Graceful Exit


Athletes know, perhaps better than the rest of us, the difficulty of a graceful exit. They must leave the playing field one last time while most of them are still reasonably young. It has been said that an athlete dies twice — once when his career ends and, of course, a second time when his life ends. Not an easy thing. As A.E. Housman put it in his poem To An Athlete Dying Young,

“…Now you will not swell the rout

Of lads that wore their honors out,

Runners whom renown outran,

And the name died before the man…”

The loss of that renown, the fortune and fame, the heady access to everyone and everything, and especially to the cheers — that must be a very tough thing indeed for the famous person to give up. Lots of names come to mind, the names of those who stayed on stage too long.

Start with Willie Mays, a meer shadow of his youthful speed and grace when he played his last games for the NY Mets at age 42, hitting .211 in his final season, well below his .302 lifetime average. Or Frank Sinatra, croaking out the oldies well past his prime.

Then there were the twin titans of symphonic conducting in the first half of the twentieth century, Wilhelm Furtwångler and Arturo Toscanini. The former continued to direct symphonic concerts even though he knew his hearing was failing, while the latter famously went blank and stared into space during his very last concert with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1954 at age 87.

But every so often we have a different sort of model, someone who walks off stage with his head held high, at or near the peak of his performance, and so our memories of him in his youthful prime stay in tact.

Think of Sandy Koufax, the great Dodger lefty, who won 27 games in his last season of play, deciding at age 30 no longer to endure the pain that his left arm exacted as the price of pitching excellence. Or Ted Williams, who hit .316 for Boston in his final season and hit a home run in his final at bat at age 42. Or Joe DiMaggio, hobbled by injuries and not at his best in his last year, ending his career before he embarrassed himself and let down his teammates.

It is always difficult to give up something you love, all the more if you are paid handsomely (in adulation and dollars) to do it. Indeed, we are at risk of holding on to lots of things too long: our children, a dead love affair, a common stock, a job, perhaps even a hair style or an old suit, and sometimes (a few would say) life itself.

They also say that timing is everything and, whoever they are, “they” are often right. “Going out on a high note,” or “knowing when to quit” — there are lots of phrases that emphasize the same point. And now the Baby Boomers, especially the teenagers of the 1960s who were advised not to trust anyone over 30 and thought they were the universe’s center, find themselves about to collect Social Security.

When I’m Sixty-Four is no longer just a song title, but a place just around the chronological corner for a bunch of aging flower-children. And even though most of them are not great athletes, heros, or symphony conductors, the timing of the retirement process may still be full of challenges — leaving with enough money, while you can still do the job, before you lose that ability and risk the humiliation that comes with letting down your colleagues.

I suppose it is easier if you realize at some early time that nothing is permanent, except perhaps, the Earth itself — at least if we don’t screw it up. In a sense, an occupation or even a life is a little bit like an apartment — something you rent, according to the late violinist Nathan Milstein, who, by the way, was still playing wonderfully at his very last public concert when he was 82.

Seneca said it a little bit differently, suggesting that a man should live “as one who is on loan to himself and intends to return everything without complaint when the debt is recalled.”

Clearly, the way to leave the stage is with a smile and a bow — saying, in effect, “thanks for your attention, your applause, and the chance to perform for you, to do something I love.” We all have our share of chances to do this, whether it is quitting a job or a relationship or any other time when there is an ending and we say “goodbye.”

So, if  “practice makes perfect,” perhaps there is hope to do it right.

Good luck for those times when it is, inevitably, your turn.

The above image is The Photographer by Joaquim Alves Gaspar sourced from Wikimedia Commons.