Revisiting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Adventures of Sherlock Holmes on a recent vacation, the following excerpt from “A Study In Scarlet” rung a bell:
“You see,” he [Sherlock] explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”
For Doyle to have articulated his point in a time well before the information age took its first Frankenstein like steps off of paper media and into the tiny black mirrors we carry around everywhere, his words are incredibly prescient. The “useless fact” has been taken to a whole new level; these days, EVERYTHING is news and share-worthy. Today’s headlines include such things as a reporter asking Alexa about Amazon buying Whole Foods, the birth of celebrity twin babies, a former president being asked to be an honorary football captain, another celebrity setting a Twitter record, that same celebrity’s former boyfriend missing her, two reality TV stars marrying “amid controversy”, and so on and so on. With all of these useless facts crowding out the useful ones, it’s no wonder we have to have a day called “Father’s Day” to remind us to appreciate the person who brought us into the world.
Anyway, relevance to photography, right? Trying to stay on point here. No matter what type of image a photographer is looking to make, the boundary of the frame is finite – the entire world seen through a lens is ultimately chopped, flattened, stacked and shoved into the four walls of a final image – just like so much lumber in an attic. One step further, to the viewer the totality of that single, final image becomes one more visual “fact” in a boundless sea of images, each seemingly begging for attention and remembrance. And we wonder why not enough people seem to appreciate our work?
One of Detroit’s most important photographers and teachers of the craft, Carlos Diaz, was once asked on a panel discussion what he considered to be the difference between an amateur and a professional photographer. His response was no doubt a nod to Ansel Adams’ similar quote, and yet pithy: “Knowing where to stand.” Or, as, Joel Meyerowitz eloquently put it, “What you put in the frame determines the picture.” I take those words to be a call for discernment on the part of a photographer. The very technology of today’s cameras (xx frames per second, WiFi sharing, instant upload to Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, Snapchat, etc.), while extremely valuable for journalists, encourages the average photographer to “spray and pray” as it were, and then to share that subsequent deluge of images as quickly and as broadly as possible. Perhaps a little more discernment would serve us well in making individual images more memorable; more contemplation and technique into composing what constitutes a “useful fact” into the frame and having the discipline and restraint to share and present only what we feel is our very best attempt at filling the attic. Of course, you have every right to flood your feeds with thousands of your own images, but when it comes to having all of it appreciated en masse, shooter beware: ain’t nobody got time for that. That said, I’m off to throw out some of my own dead wood.