Two years ago, Beyoncé posted a portrait of herself on Instagram to announce her pregnancy with twins. Within hours, the image had garnered over 7 million likes, and it’s since settled at well over the 11 million mark.
Instagram, with its photo-driven content, is just one of many platforms that feed our craving for visual stimulation. It’s so easy, so satisfying to swipe through those photos, and wonderful that we can easily record the significant and beautiful moments of our lives.
Still, we know the risk of acting like the man in Wendell Berry’s poem “The Vacation.” He “showed/his vacation to his camera ... preserving his vacation even as he was having it/so that after he had had it he would still/have it.”
Our cameras serve us best when they lead to deeper, more meaningful connections with reality — nature, relationships, communities — not just the next post. Take for example an early pioneer of photography, Anna Atkins. She used the new technology to explore and record botanical specimens. She thought photography was the most accurate way of recording, seeing and studying the natural world. Atkins collected algae and other plants along the English shores and used them to make cyanotypes. She placed each specimen on chemically treated paper and exposed it to sunlight. After rinsing the paper with water, a detailed and delicate negative of the specimen appeared. Atkins published her three-volume book, Photographs of British Algae from 1843-1853; it is the first published book to illustrate with photography. Self-taught photographer and botanist, Atkins was a remarkable woman for the nineteenth century and a role model for any of us today.
If you want to follow her example, here are a couple of ideas. First, try some cyanotype! Kits are easy to come by and thrilling to use. My kids enjoyed taking “sun photos” of our lace-leaf maple leaves last year. Next, whether cyanotype, film, or digital, let’s be more mindful about how we’re using and consuming photographs.
And for the record, there’s nothing “instant” about Beyoncé’s Instagram post. In fact, it’s a very carefully composed photograph taken by artist, Awol Erizku. Maybe that’s why it was so successful.