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Digital age gives us photos, photos everywhere
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 8/28/2010 12:00 AM

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The online social media sites this week boasted countless photographs of suburban kids on their first days of school. Image after image of the offspring of dear friends and relatives, as well as photos from the casual acquaintances of casual acquaintances. Boys, girls, kindergartners, grade-schoolers, middle-schoolers, high-schoolers and college kids, with backpacks and books, smiles and frowns.

And I don't remember a single photo.

"You saw the pictures and glazed over them," explains veteran photographer Kirk Kreutzig, a longtime teacher of photo classes at North Central College in Naperville. "They are all the same. You are on visual overload."

Everybody's photographs seem to be everywhere. My unwillingness to augment that ubiquity of photographs (OK, that and my overwhelming laziness) is why I never got around to posting any of the half-dozen photographs my wife and I shot this week of our boys heading off to their first days of school. Instead, I'll keep those photos on our camera until Halloween or Thanksgiving when, in order to create space for new memories, I'll dump the school photos into our 1 TB hard-drive storage doohickey with thousands of other photos.

"I would say maybe this is part of the process that photography is going through. It's a transition," Kimberly Leverick, an adjunct professor of photography, photo history and art appreciation at the College of Lake County, says of our switch to the digital age. "It is so accessible and everyone can do it. Being confined to 24 images or even 36 images (on a roll of film), we used to put more thought into them. Now, we have thousands of pictures. It's endless."

Photography used to be the domain of a professional who put judgment into every snap of the camera. Now, most people constantly carry some device that can take a photograph whenever they make a snap judgment. But that certainly doesn't mean we have more memorable photographs now than we did in the last century and a half.

"You're right," Kreutzig says. "To be a successful photograph, it must tell the complete story. The digital era has psychologically provided what I call 'instant gratification.' It's not about quality."

To Kreutzig, who lives in Woodridge, photo quality means more than the number of pixels per inch on a screen. It's about thinking before snapping.

"There is a significant difference between standing in front of the mirror and taking a photo of yourself on your cell phone to post on Facebook, and taking the time to learn how to compose an image that will have a greater impact later," says Leverick, who still teaches students how to take powerful black-and-white photographs on film and develop them in a darkroom. "In traditional photography, we were editing before we took the pictures. Now the editing comes after we take the pictures."

Well, theoretically. I did (with the help of my wonderful sisters-in-law and mother-in-law) slap together a photo book for my wife's recent birthday, but most of those photos were from the film era. While we used to toss photographs (and their negatives) in a box that would beckon whenever I opened the closet door, now most of my photos exist only on computer chips that never draw attention to themselves.

When someone from the era when photography was not an everyday occurrence dies, the survivors often linger over a photo album, or stumble upon "the" wedding photo while wading through a drawer or box of photographs. The photographers and their subjects knew they might only have one chance to capture a moment, so all involved worked to make that happen. My poor survivors will be left with thousands of online photos and videos as well as my difficult-to-access collection of far-too-long videos of babies doing very little and compact video cassettes of toddlers.

Taking photos or movies today is easy, but capturing compelling images takes just as much time and effort as people once spent in darkrooms, Leverick says.

Whether using flash powder, 8 mm film, an instant camera, video or digital technology, the most important element in photography might be the desire and effort required to do it right.

"I've never outgrown the fun and passion of taking great photographs," Kreutzig says. "If my cameras could talk, the stories they could tell you."