We cottage photographers are self-involved, just like the rest of humanity. Where does the madness end?
In the depths of winter, I often go scuba diving in warmer parts of the world. I’m no expert, but I have been at it long enough to remember when underwater cameras were exotic rarities. Back then, those cameras and their watertight housings were super-expensive pieces of gear that only professionals or dedicated amateurs possessed. They were also big and bulky, with lots of fiddly buttons, so underwater photographers tended to be highly skilled divers, able to swim and navigate single-handedly while controlling buoyancy and positioning so as not to ruin photos, knock chunks off a reef, or kick me in the face.
Nowadays, even first-time divers who struggle with the basics bring a cheap waterproof camera or a GoPro. Mostly, they flail around madly and take as many pictures as possible. The newbs focus on selfies, fleeing turtles, and shots of their buddy who is enthusiastically wagging double hang-tens as he crushes a giant sponge. Such is the price of progress.
Back in cottage country, the situation is no different. In the olden days when I helped cull entries to the Cottage Life Photo Contest, cameras used “film,” and photography was awful. After sorting through thousands of pictures, many of them actually out of focus, it occurred to me that cottage photographers are obsessed with three image types: the sunset picture. The chipmunk picture. The dog on dock picture. And while today’s digital cameras can guarantee that our photos are in focus, they can’t change one immutable fact: the sunset- chipmunk-dog cottage triptych is still painfully boring.
But I was always okay with cottage pictures, because, despite the sunset and the dog and the chipmunk, there were usually a few that were funny or that captured a moment. Now, thanks to technology, the volume of photography out there is up, but the subject matter in our “albums” is just one person. Here’s me on a stand-up paddleboard. Here’s me cooking a hamburger. Here’s me in the outhouse with a beer. What a kooky nut I am! And, last but not least, here’s me doing yoga in front of a sunset.
The selfie doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon, so I have to ask: what’s the future of photography? Anyone, at any time, now has the ability to crack off a few hundred shots with their phone. And we do. But when you combine the cottager’s penchant for poorly chosen subjects and bad light with the ability to take as many pictures as possible, does it sound the death knell for the entire art form? Will photography become so prolifically commonplace, so diluted and degraded, that good pictures will simply be steamrollered by a juggernaut of selfies (and pet worship, and food shots)? While I’m generally a pessimist, there are a couple of things that offer hope. The first is that the instances of selfie-related injuries and even deaths are on the uptick worldwide, mostly involving falling, electrocution, or fatal interaction with transportation apparatus. It might seem callous, but this trend could thin the herd, a Darwinian solution to the proliferation of bad photos.
The other faint hope is the rising popularity of drones, which are appealing to certain cottagers because they can combine the nerdiness of radio-controlled flight with the artistry of aerial photography. In capable hands, they produce beautiful and dramatic sequences worthy of a feature lm. In the hands of your neighbour, they take overhead shots of broken stuff hidden behind your shed. Drones are not easy to operate, and, right now, they are relatively expensive. But it is my hope that when prices drop enough that you get one free with every Happy Meal, cottagers will embrace the upgrade. It surely follows that as wayward drones inevitably spiral down and pancake into the water, smack into flagpoles, or get torn apart by horny ravens, the swollen mass of bad photography will shrink.
I think Cottage Life could do a lot to reduce the volume of bad cottage photography by replacing its annual photo contest with a Pictorial Arts Contest, open to two-dimensional images drawn by human hand, whether in ink, charcoal, paint, or crayon. This might help cottagers slow down and look at the world of beauty around us. I imagine it could produce entries such as Aunt Meg’s Sun Hat, still life, acrylic on board. Or Wakesetting at Dawn, left-handed charcoal study. Someone might even take the time for Web Life: Spider, Fly, and Dewdrop, watercolour on rough-press paper.
Certainly, it’s a trail-blazing idea, but the cynic in me sees trouble ahead. Sure, still lifes and colour studies would show up, but I fear these entries would be overwhelmed by self-portraits, rendered in ink and oil and crayons and probably even human blood. I know that self- portraiture has been a standard form in fine art for centuries. But given our current societal norms, I think my fledgling Pictorial Arts Contest, just like John Carpenter’s The Thing, could introduce us to something new and hideous and terrifying. Like the Self-Portrait Selfie.
Mark my words, you will be terrified. I see Leonardo da Vinci’s Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk recreated as Portrait of Dan the Man in Red Sweatpants and Frida Kahlo’s Self Portrait with Braid as Me and this Yummy Braid of Organic Garlic. Most agree that The Desperate Man by Gustave Courbet is an arresting work. But I fear the art-loving cottagers will appreciate Desperate Man Being Licked by Cats even more. Pretty sad. That’s why I plan to win this thing once I learn to paint. How hard can it be? Inspired by Salvador Dalí and Hieronymus Bosch, mine will be a dark self-portrait selfie. Dominating the dock, I take a pretty convincing Cow Face Pose, while a beagle wearing a lifejacket and a bandana sits in my lap holding a crystal bowl of radishes in his tiny grabbers, which are actually crayfish claws. (My face, by the way, isa melted clock.) It is dark, even though the sunset beyond our tilted horizon is bright. Smoke and ash and something else backdrops my perfect Gomukhasana pose. It is thousands of drones and horny ravens, and they are fighting over the future of photography. In my heart, I am really cheering for the ravens.