Photography: a time capsule everyone can contribute to

On this fine Sunday morning, I discovered a website that I’ve immediately fallen in love with. It’s called Vintage Everyday, and its tagline reads “bring back nostalgia and memories”. And it does, oh if it does, although technically it’s not even nostalgia: most of us simply don’t remember those times because we just never lived in them. Still, it’s an unbelievable collection that will keep you browsing for hours.

It contains photos of times past: people dressed in the style of their time, billboards with traditional advertising, cities shaped in ways now alien. It’s mesmerizing, and in a different way from sites collecting pictures of actors and actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood, such as the appropriately named Old HollywoodVintage Everyday is different because it collects images of everyday people and everyday places, not famous movie stars, and in a sense it shows the human side of history. A similar feeling can be had by browsing one’s own family photo albums, but in that case the familiarity of the faces prevents from observing the surrounding elements: when a photo depicts someone you know, you notice them and don’t pay much attention to what’s around them, or even to the details about themselves. Oftentimes people have pointed out things about my own photos of models that I had completely missed, despite having taken and worked on the image for a while.

A few pages into Vintage Everyday, I had an epiphany that I want to share with you. I noticed that at the time these photos were taken, they probably weren’t that special. Certainly in the 1940s having a camera was not an ordinary thing as it is now, as they were harder and more expensive to operate: I have this romantic idea of a photographer being seen if not as a full-fledged artist, at least as someone with a special ability, to speak: you couldn’t just pick up a camera and start shooting. A posed portrait, as many of our own family albums clearly show, was a big deal. However, I’m quite confident that all these pictures at the time were just that, pictures. “Oh look, there’s a photo of a lady walking down a New York street.” “Ah, these kids are playing with a make-believe car.” These images, at the time, must have been relatively uninteresting except to the parties involved.

Fast forward a few decades, and they become treasure troves. History gets in the way and gives these photos a whole new meaning. That lady isn’t just walking in New York City, she is walking confidently in New York City; and the workers in the background, blurred in distance to the point that maybe nobody had noticed them before, are stealing a glance at her while unloading crates of fruit from a truck. Is it the first time they see a woman being that confident? It may very well be: times were a-changing. And those kids playing are blissfully enjoying their own fantasy world, oblivious to the fact that their fathers are fighting a war on the other side of the Atlantic; perhaps that’s why their mothers look at them from the kitchen window, undecided between hope and concern.

At the center — or rather at the side — of everything, always the same thing: a camera and a photographer. That’s how everyday history is documented, with rolls of film by unnamed photographers preserving reality for posterity. Every single photo that was ever taken and that will ever be taken is by its very own definition unique, because at any given moment in time and at any given place in space there is room for only one camera. Every time a shutter fires, life as it is right there and right then is immortalized. Time stops as the image becomes a frail and irreplaceable time capsule.

Even a photo that looks plain or boring at first sight may acquire significance over time. Just look around you: how many things have changed in the last ten years? How many benches have been added or removed, how many shops have changed names, how many buildings have been repainted? And how many times have you seen photos from other countries and felt that even seemingly familiar landscapes were not that familiar after all?

The ubiquity of cameras today means that we can effectively document the changes brought by history, virtually without any effort. That doesn’t mean that it’s become a useless process; on the contrary, it means that we are all empowered and we all should use this ability more often and with more dedication, once we grasp how far-reaching this may be.

Perhaps it’s finally time to stop taking useless selfies and turn the lens towards the world, so that the generations to come will be able to feel the same nostalgia for a time we never lived in as we do when we look at photos from a century ago.

(Image on top: Front Street, Marquette, Michigan, ca. 1909 — From Vintage Everyday)

Languages: the strange case of Pirahã and Aymara

In my last post, I wrote about the connections between language and thought, ie. linguistic relativity / determinism.

In today’s highly globalized world, languages get mixed and evolve at a much faster pace than ever before. English, for instance, is no longer only divided into British, American and Australian English; we could say that there is a variety of English for any other natural language: Spanglish, Chinglish and so on. When French was the de-facto lingua franca of diplomacy (and, by extension, of Western Europe), it was not substantially modified by other local languages. When English replaced it, after World War I and especially after World War II, it started changing immediately.

English, especially its American variety, was not only originally used for international diplomacy; rather, as the United States rose a superpower in many fields (technology, business, etc.), one could argue that its language became widespread from the bottom-up. The average Joe in most other Western countries was exposed to American words: they wore blue jeans, they put coins into juke-boxes, they went to a bar. As English words became naturalized over time, this ultimately led to the creation of what could be easily considered a series of creoles that are for the most part mutually intelligible.

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