the pathos of snapshots

(Washington, DC) On the New York Times’ “The Stone” blog, Rutgers philosopher Ernie Lepore recently posted a photograph from a philosophy conference in 1984. It was a meeting on the work of Donald Davidson, and many famous philosophers attended. I was in high school at the time and nowhere nearby, but not long afterwards, I was working on my BA and then my PhD in philosophy, so I remember the general scene. Here is a detail (the whole photo can be explored in large scale on the Times site):

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I find that snapshots in general–and not just pictures of geeky philosophers from my youth–are often sad. The smiling, posed subjects present themselves to be remembered and somehow assessed. Because they are regular humans, they don’t measure up to their own hopes. Oil paintings from the 1700s and glossy photos from the old LIFE magazineĀ  idealized their subjects so that we can still view them with respect–as people whose presence outlived their time. But in regular snapshots, the first thing we realize is that time has passed since the shutter clicked, and everyone in the image must look older now (if they’re still kicking at all). They present themselves in ways that they considered normal or natural, but we observe the faintly risible fashions of their day. That is true of their clothes and haircuts. The merciless camera suggests that it may also be true of their ideas.

Today, amateur photographs are so ubiquitous and so widely shared (Flickr is offering you a free terabyte of space just for your own snapshots) that I wonder whether our reactions will change. Or will the pathos of old photographs simply mount as their numbers swell?

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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