I watched a teenager, probably the same age as some of the students I teach, raise their camera up, thumb tapping the screen, and pan it around the cascading lights swirling around on the building in front of us.
“There’s another one,” I thought.
The teenager wasn’t alone. Everywhere I looked, people were regarding this moment through their cameras.
They weren’t taking pictures of nothing. That day, downtown Cincinnati had turned into an art show. Blink, as it is called, is an event in which artists take iconic buildings in Cincinnati and create art installations of them. The buildings become canvases–or screens more specifically–art doffed on them by heavy-duty projectors.
Artists might make the Roebling Bridge shades of purple or turn Cincinnati Music Hall into a 2D video game screen.
The buildings may be stagnant, but the lights are not. They move, tell stories, and make interesting patterns, bringing these facades to a different state of being, something akin to fireworks and Christmas lights. All buttressed and juxtaposed by the blank night sky above, the topmost edge of the canvas.
At the bottom of the canvas, at street level, I stood at the back of the crowd, mulling over the building as projector screen and the glow of smartphone screens lining the bottom of the canvas.
I was only noticing all the smartphones because I had been fascinated by the backlash social media and the smartphone were going through at the time.
When I purchased my first smartphone, I remember constantly checking it, as if just looking at it made something happen. That newness factor, like any new thing, dwindled. Only to be replaced years later as apps became more complex, noteworthy, and necessary.
Like a lot of people, I was on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I was “feed conscience,” so to speak. I had a daily habit that involved scrolling and scrolling, posting and posting. And as I walked through downtown Cincinnati, I was mindful of this. In fact, I had just deactivated my Facebook account.
“Whoa,” said my wife. “Check out the ‘Starry Night’ vibe of this one!”
We stopped and looked at a church I had never really noticed before, painted with the colors of Van Gogh’s most famous painting. It seemed like I was the only one that wasn’t pointing a smartphone at the building. I made it a point not to pull out my phone, as if anyone would notice.
Were art galleries like this now? Smartphone lenses focused on the art, eyes focused solely on the screen?
We walked past Washington Park and heard disco music. A disco ball was hanging on a small crane. We joke-danced around it to the thumping beats of the BeeGees. There is a video of me jumping in front of my wife’s smartphone video, doing that dance where you pretend you are switching your knees.
I thought, “This is the experience.” As if this moment would even start some sort of rebellion within myself.
We walked east and saw a building that looked like any other Cincinnati building, Wild West-looking architecture, beautiful cornice at the top. The artist who was projecting their work made it look like there was a cartoon assembly line at work. And as we walked up, I watched both the lights of the crowd’s phones and the lights of the artwork on the building.
My staunch unspoken imperative broke. I pulled out my phone and snapped some shots. I knew I would post them on Instagram later.
We walked on and saw neon wolves attached to bike-like contraptions. I remember trying to take a picture, reaching for it, but they were too quick, too far away for the piddly telephoto lens of a smartphone camera to get a worthy picture.
Before that night, I had read somewhere that even just having your smartphone out on a table can create distraction. So I had recently made a pact to keep my smartphone in my pocket whilst sitting.
There was one place, however, that I didn’t really mind having my phone out, constantly taking photos. That was when we went off-grid: hiking, camping, and climbing.
For some reason, I felt that because I wasn’t near immediate internet access–I couldn’t edit and post photos onto Instagram on the trail–I was saved from the social media monsters that were out there.
But every time I got home, I updated my Instagram feed.
Was I living through my camera? Was I not seeing the world for what it was?
A couple years ago, I bought an actual dedicated camera. It was a difficult purchase. It seemed redundant and too expensive. But I had done my research and knew that I could get way better shots with a mirrorless camera than with my smartphone.
My first outing with the new camera was a hike in the Smoky Mountains with my wife’s family. I was picture-happy, cognizant of opportunities for photos, not unlike the feeling I had when I first bought a smartphone–that new things were just beyond. As we walked up the trail, I remember stopping a bunch, getting left behind, hurrying to catch up. I was sweating by the time I caught up with the family for the third time.
It was autumn, so there weren’t many colors on the trees, but I found colors in the lichen, mosses, and fungi. I noticed the way the sun played on the rock-outcroppings, the darkness of pine tree shadows. The way deciduous trees, bereft of their leaves, look like the bones of a forest.
I was watching my world more closely.
It had taken this one simple tool, this serious tool, to make me live through the camera but see more than I had before. I was taking landscapes of rocky gorges and close-ups of icicle formations.
Now, when I take my camera anywhere, everyone knows that I will be stopping and catching up. When I’m far behind, I now seldom hear, “Where is TJ?” They know where I am:
I am focusing on a tiny flower, a moss-covered fallen tree, a scurrying millipede. I’m noticing things my companions have not.
But they will see it later when I show my pictures. I still post them to Twitter and Instagram.
Now, I can turn this “honed-in” mode on whenever I want to. There is always a camera close at hand, in my pocket.
True, it has almost infinite uses. It can lock my car, manage my finances, check the weather, and resolve an argument with a search bar.
But if you know how to look at it, a smartphone can be a camera and only a camera, if you focus hard enough.