Tangible Matters


Yesterday, I went into my garage on the search for some missing kitchen linens which I thought may have been lurking in a still-unpacked storage box from my last move, a couple of years ago. I had to dig through a few boxes and one of the boxes I opened contained photographs.

At that moment, I completely forgot about finding the linens. I was sucked into that box of photos.

Now, when I say I found a box of photos, I mean snapshots. These are (with a few exceptions) photos I made or someone else made with my camera (because I am in some of them) that are certainly not works of art. They are mostly of friends and family, at various events like parties or Christmas or on trips. Some are shots out the window of my old, amazing loft apartment near downtown Columbus, Ohio. Many are of my dog and cats. There are exes and old friends and places I’d almost forgotten I’d visited.

As soon as I’d picked up the first one, I was compelled to go through them. In the doing, I noticed some things.

The act of picking up a print and looking at it invoked memories in a different manner entirely from seeing images on a screen. There is a sort of physical reaction. It is a deeper connection, somehow. I think that the lack of metadata to date them precisely or to know the exact GPS co-ordinates of their making forced me to think about and engage with the photos more deeply. And there is the added sense of touch used in the process–the physical act of touching the object.

Here is what I finally decided (and I suspect I am not original in this thought): a photographic print (or transparency) is an actual, tangible moment of time that also captures the sublime beauty of impreciseness.

We have lost that ability to physically re-capture a moment of time as a concept and not a digitally-coded exactitude. Actually, we choose not to have the artifacts which permit this because we no longer have all our images printed (and printed in some sort of archival manner). Thus, we have lost this ability to open a box, or an envelope, and be transported to a personal (and imprecise) moment, as opposed to an atomic-clock-precise time.

Now, I know many of you will argue that looking through images on your computer does the same thing–that is that it evokes memory, but I think there is a difference–and one that is very difficult to articulate.

Without writing a thesis on the subject (although I’d very much like to), I’ll leave you with this example. One of the photos I found was the one above. I made that polaroid using a Fuji 680 on my very first day as a studio manager for Stephen Webster. It was my first day working full-time in the photo world and he thought that teaching me how the Fuji worked, and how strobes and hot lights do, would help me to understand his process and would permit me to assist when necessary (he later also taught me how to load 4×5 holders and to print a bit). That day was the first day of a new life for me. I had been a PhD candidate before taking that first real, grown-up, full-time job with Steve. Anyway, picking up that polaroid was tantamount to stepping out of the Delorian–I was there, again, on that first day. I could feel how scared and excited I was, what the studio looked and even smelled like, the breeze when the inside door was opened by the UPS man (because the big outside sliding door was anything but sealed), the squeak of the light stands and the shhht-thenk of the camera (which I would later learn sounded entirely different from a Hasselblad’s solid thunk, etc.).

I have this thing, this simple object, that can do that with a look and a touch. I don’t get anywhere near as strong a feeling as I look at it on my screen here. Here, it is just an image and, sure, I know about the its origin, but it is simply not the same. I think it is the physical act of picking up the polaroid (like a print) that brings the added force of my own personal time-stamp of memory.

All of this is a long way to go to encourage you to think about this as you make your work now. When we don’t convert the images into physical form, I think we are losing something profound about the experience of the work. It is not only about evoking personal memory, but by making your work physical (prints) you permit others to more fully engage with your work. Even if you only pile those prints into boxes at some point… imagine what it would be like for you, or for others, to find them.

9 Responses to “Tangible Matters”

  1. john Says:

    And image the difference during a client interview when the client has to pick up and feel the weight and texture of that 11×14 velvet print rather than look at on some stoopid ipad?

  2. Julie Schirmer Says:

    I love this! Spot on. Although, printing out “polaroids” from digital files is possible, it is truly not the same as pulling them on site and looking at them in your hands 90 seconds later. The digital printouts are a far cry from their original brethren. But as times change, so do methods and I agree, tangible prints evoke a deeper emotional response for me than images on screen. So print on with those faux polaroid/lighting setup/tests…if only to document the people, places and times we all eventually desire to remember.

  3. Zeb Andrews Says:

    Wonderful evocation! I read once, about memory, that anything transferred from short term to long term memory is kept somewhere in our brain for the rest of our life and then it becomes a matter of recall, which is greatly aided by association. The more associations we can link to a particular memory, the better we recall it. I think something similar happens with prints. They become an added association, another link in the chain that helps us recall better those moments during which the image was created. In some cases, the physical print associates with memories that the image does not, further making the whole experience even richer. When we look at an image on a screen, we have certain associations but much of the metadata doesn’t add to the experience (who is going to remember something better based on GPS coordinates or the exact minute and second an image was made) like a print does.

    I guess one other thing worth mentioning too is how even a snapshot can accrue value over time so even though it isn’t a piece of art, sitting down and looking at it again years later has a richness to it that is enjoyable. If this image had been made originally on a DSLR would it even still exist? Or would it have been deleted upon a quick review and that box in your garage would have been that much emptier – both of photos and memories?

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. Dayna Says:

    As a darkroom monkey for my father many years ago, I can still pick up any of his photos that my sister or I developed and printed and be transported to that basement laundry room with the sloshy trays on top of the washer and dryer.
    At work I recently had to explain to a young colleague how postage stamps work, and what the term cc really refers to, waving the dark blue paper in my hand. Oh brave new world that has such people in it!
    Now I will REALLY order decent prints of digital files! I keep meaning to….
    thanks for wonderful piece.

  5. Donald Giannatti Says:

    Probably one of the best articles on the power of a photograph I have read in a while. Wonderfully written, Leslie. Love it. And you couldn’t be more right about the sensory wonders of holding a photograph.

    In your hands.

  6. info Says:

    Wow… thanks!!

  7. Ann Says:

    I think the same is true for music. There is nothing like flipping through a case of CD’s to send your mind back in time. I wonder, with the disappearance of music’s “physicality” what this means.

  8. Lizz Says:

    This, along with Brooks Jensen’s blog, has me thinking more and more about folios. I’m planning to start making some in the near future.

  9. Kevin Shank Says:


    I’m in a transition phase in my career. I’m processing images and focusing on getting them to the WEB! Wooo Nelly, now I see what I have been doing wrong. During the last 9 years all the images I appreciate and have success with are printed! So as I go into this photography endeavor further I will print more and used printed images to promote me. Thanks for bringing me back to center. (No in focus puns today).

    Thank you!