This is my first camera. It’s a Minolta X-570. I got it in 1982, for my sixteenth birthday. Photography was an expensive habit in 1982. First you had to buy film, commercially available in 12, 24, or 36 exposure rolls. Unless you were truly serious and had access to a darkroom, your film had to be professionally printed. Further, even the most amateur photographer soon longed for more than a fixed 50mm lens: a telephoto, definitely, maybe a wide-angle, possibly one of those new-fangled extended telephoto numbers. Then, of course, there was the necessary minutiae: camera bags, uv filters, polarizers, straps, a flash for low light situations.
All of this cost money.
Much of what visually compelled me at 16 continues to drive my photography at 49: older architecture, particularly doors, arresting color combinations, misty light, flowers. Food did not draw me until much later, when I began cooking. During my teens I was a talented portraitist, a skill that has withered. Make of this what you will.
In my late twenties I put the camera down, swallowed by work, caregiving, and my own capsizing health.
In 2011, on the eve of a European trip, I ordered a Nikon D90 off the internet. It’s the camera I use today.
In 2014 my health forced a medical retirement. To divert myself, I began this blog. But it wasn’t the recipes or wry humor that got the attention. It was the photography.
This was fine with me. By 2014 I’d been freelance writing for years–book reviews, essays, the occasional fiction piece. Writing was not about income or fame. I wrote for sheer pleasure, to remain intellectually engaged, to escape a body intent on falling apart.
Photographing food proved even more entertaining than writing. There’s no intermediary, no struggle to locate the perfect word. Our otherwise ramshackle house is a wonderful ad-hoc photography studio. Clear southeastern light illuminates our tiny living room until midday; when that fades, our bedroom offers slanting sun until twilight. On rainy days I move to my study, where a single east-facing window supplies a harsh, beautiful light.
In July 2016, after years of struggling with John’s archaic hand-me-down cell phones, I got an iPhone6.
I didn’t morph into the asshole who texts at the wheel. I don’t conduct loud arguments while shopping. I’m too busy messing with the camera.
Here at last was the camera of my dreams: endlessly portable, kind to my aching wrists, discreet enough not to arouse suspicion. Why, a middle-aged woman could pretend to be looking at her grocery list and actually be getting a great shot! And the editing possibilities! The graininess of “structure!” And those filters! Clarendon’s cheery bright blue! Jefe’s instant aged patina!
Then I opened an Instagram account.
In short order I became Skinner’s rat, constantly pressing the phone’s little round button, eagerly seeking jolts of approval–“likes”–from complete strangers.
Had somebody, anybody, commented on my latest photo upload? (What was my latest photo upload, anyway?) Who? Where?
I went from being somebody whose phone regularly died from lack of charging to being somebody whose was phone glued to her side. Checking, checking, checking. Scrolling through Instagram posts, liking, commenting, chattering away. Looking up and noticing an hour had slipped by. Meanwhile, the groceries needed unpacking.The mail lay unopened. The laundry needed folding.
I began to fret. Why didn’t I have more followers? How many followers did I have? Who were they? Where was so-and-so? Why had he/she/they dropped me? Why had so-and-so followed me, only to drop me weeks later? Had I somehow offended him/her? Why did other people have thousands of followers when I had so very few?
These are the sorts of questions that have preoccupied me in recent months. It’s difficult admitting to such petty thinking–the above paragraphs aren’t flattering–but I’m not alone in this. Social media lacks instruction manuals. And it’s crazy making.
Judging self-worth by followers is the fast track to insanity. Believing somebody’s brunch upload represents their entire existence-obviously easier and more fun-filled than mine–is outright lunacy. Yes, those eggs nestled in their bechamel-spinach-swirl with pork belly (there’s always pork belly somewhere) look delicious. And that oh-so-carefully arranged blue dishtowel (there is always a blue dishtowel, twisted just so) is ever so pretty. But the view from here doesn’t allow us to peek beneath the towel. Heaven only knows what’s happening under there.
This isn’t an anti-Instagram screed. I like Instagram–the site and those populating it aren’t at fault for my reaction to it. I am. Much good has come of my joining: I’ve met some great people, seen some extraordinarily beautiful images, received timely cooking advice. I’ve also learned that when the day is long and times are tough, I crave a little escape. And a little praise. Neither are inherently terrible, provided I don’t allow these desires to overtake reality. Like unloading the groceries.
I’ve begun keeping the phone face down, checking my need to check it. Concentrating on writing, photographing, cooking. Followers will come and go. Some will decide to stay. I can only be myself. That’s okay. I’m not going off Instagram. I enjoy it, and the many nice people I’ve met there, far too much to give it up.
Every now and again the phone lights up, and I feel a tiny rush.
“So and so liked your post.”