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December 8, 2011

Bad photos are like everyday food.  They provide what is needed to preserve us, to sustain us.  They fill an ache to hold on to moments in the past with the aid of an image.  They are food gulped down from the necessity to live, food not celebrated for its choice of ingredients or presentation on the plate, but food taken in to keep us alive.   A blurry image, a crocked image, an uncomposed image, or perhaps one that was composed and is full of imperfections all keep memories alive.

We live in a culture where photography is like gourmet cooking.  It is expected to be good to be called photography, to be worth any attention, to deserve any comment.  If you plan to show anyone your photos, the pictures had better be good. 

I took over six thousand photographs when I went to China with my son in the fall of 2011.  Many of them are not good photographs.  Other people seeing the sights I saw, walking the streets I walked, shopping, talking and visiting as I did also had cameras and chose to pass by or take pictures of the same things I saw.  When they took pictures, they may have taken better pictures than I did. Perhaps not.  Maybe their pictures were shot with a finer camera, maybe they circled the subject several times, finding a certain angle, waiting for the best moment or catching it by coincidence. They may have deleted several dozen photographs while reviewing them on their cameras, tapping the trash can icon until they found just the one.  I, as is my way, deleted nothing.

When I shoot pictures I click away eagerly, barely composing the shots, clicking in continuum as though my camera is making clean sweeps of extended moments.  I shoot mostly stills, but the stills collect like motion picture frames and collect into a narrative.  They preserve my experience better than note taking could.  The abundance of images are meant to jostle from me the text of my experrience.

I experienced my trip in a number of ways and in the end sorted the photos into two ways of viewing what I experienced. First, there are the place albums, each library I visited as part of my residency, each city I toured as a first-time explorer.  Then, there are the category photos, divided into the themes of big buildings, dining and food, historic sites, gardens and zoos, Liam, Nell and Beth (my family), libraries, new colleagues and friends, people at play, people at workshopping, signs, menus and packaging, steet scenes and transportation.

While in China I downloaded photographs daily. I painfully processed each image through a slow computer on a slow internet connection.  I needed to empty my stuffed camera everyday of its contents. I knew the day that followed would require the same storage space currently occupied.  I speedily sorted these photographs into place name folders.  It was after I got home and considered the size of the collection that I began to select.  First I created a folder called “A Selection,” but then broadened how I would present those that I considered the most representative by creating folders that would allow me to construct a text based on each theme.

For those who are eager to see all of my trip to Beijing, take a look at the 1854 photos uploaded to Fotki.  In fact, you can visit this folder and see all the pictures you could care to see of Beijing, Shanghai (excluding the libraries), Suzhou and Lianyungang, my son’s hometown.

For the complete collection of photos related to my library residency, colleagues and other librarians may want to look here where there are my pictures of

Either approach… pictures by location or pictures by a theme tell pieces of the story. For those who care less to be saturated in images and crave a narrative, consider following my blog as I reconsider any number of the photos, and bring in a video or two. I will tell the story of China as I lived it, studying, touring, sharing and comparing and fostering the bonds that enrich myself, my profession and my family. Follow the blog and see how bad photographs can reveal good memories.


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  1. As an archivist I am guilty of keeping every digital photo I’ve ever taken (excluding, say, the ones where I forgot to remove a lens cap or had my finger over the lens), and yes, 90% of mine stink (even the ones not blocked by caps and fingers). It doesn’t help that I am too anxious and impatient to be one of those people that looks for the best angle/lighting, etc.

    One thing I’ve done is go back to film, which reduces my amount of images taken, forces me to consider each frame more carefully (each image is more expensive to develop), and makes me think ‘quality over quantity.’ Well, that’s the plan, anyway…it’s that, or add another TB or two to my home computer.

  2. Beth Evans permalink

    Interesting approach, Phil. Hope this leads to that special photo you are seeking!

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