As a photographer I have a wealth of memories of both film and digital forms.
I’m young enough that my own first cameras were digital, yet old enough to remember holding photographs in my hand as a child, usually fresh out of the envelope my nan – family photographer by default as no-one else seemed to own a camera – had just arrived back from SupaSnaps with, along with her free roll of Truprint film for next time.
Because back then we knew nothing else, the only way to see the photos that had been taken of the latest family outing, event or holiday, was to leaf through a stack of shiny 6×4 prints in your hand.
Usually whilst your mother drew a sharp intake of breath if you put your greasy/sticky/chocolatey thumb print on the front, instead of handling them at the edges, like some delicate flower.
In fact, in retrospect, our expected reverential treatment of the prints did perhaps increase the feeling of how special they were.
It certainly built on the wonder of how cameras worked at all, and we were able to steal and immortalise moments in time.
Of the photographs I’ve made with intention as an adult myself, I’d estimate I’ve had prints made of less than 0.1% of them, or less than one in every thousand.
The fact that the amount of digital photos I even keep is perhaps 10% at best, means the total number of prints I’ve ever had made is almost definitely still in double, rather than triple figures.
Whilst I was pondering this, a parallel train of thought was beginning to emerge around music.
Not least of all since I began using Spotify a couple of weeks back.
Again if I think back to my first music consumption that was of my own choice (rather than the limited diet of Cliff Richard and Lionel Richie on my mum’s side, and soft rock power ballads, Queen and Abba on my dad’s side), I purchased and then treated those first cassette tapes as objects of considerable value and reverence too.
I just remembered that my mother did have a copy of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” on vinyl, but I never recall seeing it come out of the cupboard, let alone receive any time on the turnable.
Had Marvin “Got It On” within my young earshot, perhaps my own initial musical directions would have been considerably different.
Back to those early cassette tapes, and how the whole physicality of them was important.
(Incidentally, I believe the first one I ever bought was a compilation of American soft rock classics such as StarShip’s “We Built This City On Rock And Roll”, and “Broken Wings” by Mr. Mister, followed shortly after by Now That’s What I Call Music Vol 10, which had some belters I still enjoy today.)
The way you had to swing open the cassette’s box (each iteration wearing that curved groove made by the hinge a fraction deeper – in fact you could tell which cassettes you took out most often by how easily the box flipped/fell open), remove the tape and put it in the player (for us, one of those massive ’80s midi systems with twin tape decks to copy cassettes for friends, all black with a dash of turquoise and pink lettering that looked as achingly cutting edge as Simon Le Bon’s haircut in 1984 and terrible passé by about 1987) was all part of the anticipation, and the experience.
Then, after those initial seconds of heightened hiss died down and the music began, you’d follow along the tracklisting, and later on, when I’d move beyond mainstream compilations, the printed lyrics inside the cover which typically unravelled, like a secret scroll, to reveal five or six panels of lyrics, band photos, artwork and more.
With CDs, the experience was much the same.
Just with better sound quality, and, with the passing of time, clicky skips and glitches, rather than increased hiss and, if you were really unlucky and had played the cassette hundreds of times, the complete mangling of the fragile magnetic tape in the player’s invasive pins and rollers mechanism.
(Many years later I discovered William Basinski who I still play very frequently, and who has based virtually his whole musical career on recording imperfect, disintegrating magnetic tapes. Perhaps there’s something subliminally nostalgic going on there.)
One of my first CDs was Smashing Pumpkins’ “Siamese Dream”, and the last minute or so of “Spaceboy” had such a clipped rhythm overlaying the music, caused by an unfortunate scratch.
But it became part of the record to me, and years later when I heard an MP3 version, I wonder why this additional sonic decoration was absent, forgetting entirely it was a “fault” on my particular, damaged, CD.
But crucially, with CDs, you still had the inlay card, and now it was bigger than a cassette.
(Yes I know that vinyl had even bigger packaging, but that’s before my time, though I did later buy cheap vinyl versions of Kate Bush and David Bowie records, just so I could frame the front covers as artwork for my wall.)
By the time I was perhaps 25 I had amassed close to 500 CD albums, which I realised over time I considered defined me perhaps more than anything else.
I still believe to a significant extent today that we can learn a great deal about a person by their record (ok, music) collection.
It was important that I loved every album I had, and it meant something to me. I didn’t buy music on a whim, the way one might pick up a Snickers at the supermarket checkout just because they’re on display there and you’re stomach’s rumbling.
I was also very keen to find my own music, and share it with others, rather than absorb someone else’s collection wholesale, and took pride in being the go-to source for new music amongst my close circle of friends.
Again, this was about identity, and finding my own, plus never really wanting to be mainstream in music or anything else (after NOW! 10, I only ever bought one other NOW! compilation, volume 18, which introduced to me The Beautiful South, Talk Talk and The LAs, plus reminded me of guilty pleasures Roxette, Wilson Phillips and Phil Collins, though most of the rest of it was utter rubbish).
At some point, I expect a year or so into owning a PowerBook with iTunes and an iPod, I started to wonder if I needed all those CDs.
I loved the music, but the almost magical possibility of having thousands of songs right there in your hand/pocket was luring me in.
Now, previously (and still!) I thought that vinyl records, cassette tapes and CDs were all feats of utter sorcery. How can beautiful, fully formed music be extracted from these small, plastic, physical objects?
The iPod/AAC (or sometimes MP3) partnership was equally, if not more awe inspiring to me.
And so the next step was to upload all of the music from my 500+ CDs to my PowerBook and save as AAC or MP3 files, which I then backed up on an external HD, and my iPod (Classic).
A few years later, my iPod stopped working, and this enforced blank slate made me rethink, and start again.
Having thousands of tracks on my iPod may have been a technical marvel compared with the 12-20 one could squeeze on a cassette tape 30 years previously, but it was overwhelming, and it somehow detached me from the music.
When I had physical CDs, arranged in shelves in alphabetical order, I could find any album in a few seconds, and be listening a further few seconds later, whilst thumbing through the inlay book.
With the iPod, yes I could swipe through or search, but somehow it was more difficult, because the tracks were more distant, more anonymous.
I was ignoring dozens of albums I used to hold dear, simply because I couldn’t visually scan my CDs and say “ah, Smashing Pumpkins’ amazing “Siamese Dream”, I haven’t heard this in a while” and be listening to it within moments, complete with those “Spaceboy” glitches.
Switching back to photography once more, when I look at photographs on my MacBook as a mass of file names, however neatly organised they may be, they make virtually no emotional impact, they’re near invisible.
Even viewing thumbnail previews is little better (this is a major reason I can’t get on with Instagram, the teeny tiny images!) but at least if you’re looking for something in particular you have a chance of recognising it from a small version of the image, compared with a file called DSC00345.jpg.
Online I’ve relied heavily on Flickr to organise, tag and search through my photos.
Flickr albums too have been hugely helpful to gather together sets of photos made by the same camera or lens or film or place or theme, and if it weren’t for Flickr I know I would be far more detached from my photographs too, and probably never look at most of them again once they were uploaded.
With music in the last couple of years I’ve just uploaded a few albums at a time to Google Play Music and used that with my phone to play music.
I’ve also relied on YouTube to find old classics or explore new artists – or new albums by artists I already know.
But with Google Play Music I always have one eye on my storage allowance – which I’m nowhere near, but it still seems to make an impact – and I don’t want to go back to the iPod days where I have thousands of tracks gradually dissolving into anonymity on a single device/platform.
So a couple of weeks back I decided to (finally!) try Spotify.
I didn’t expect it to have many of the more obscure artists and records I enjoy, but so far its depth of catalogue has been impressive. Plus at least the artists receive something back from Spotify, unlike some other online listening options.
Where Spotify seems to be working really well for me is that, although in theory I have access to more songs that I could ever own, I’m not overwhelmed by it in the way I was when they were on the iPod in my pocket.
Maybe put another way, it’s easier to ignore all the tracks I’m not listening to, because I don’t have anything invested in them, monetary or otherwise.
I’m able to see Spotify much like my local library, a service and system that has been working for hundreds of years in some form.
In my lifetime in England, the library model has barely changed.
You join a library (or network of libraries, here they are typically managed by the County Council), which gives you access to borrow any of their books, whenever you wish, as long as there’s a copy available.
This means you don’t have to buy your own copy of every book you want to read, you can either try it out via the library first, and, if you still want your own copy, you can buy one.
Or just move on to another book in the library, perhaps revisiting the original book some time in the future.
With Spotify, there are artists I visit frequently, sometimes daily, the same artists that have been a part of my musical landscape for years.
But I also have access to occasional guilty pleasures, or new music by artists I already know, or in similar fields.
The arrangement makes plenty of sense to me, and I don’t crave a physical CD version of every track I hear.
Another aspect that I think makes sense with Spotify is it appeases my general desire to live lightly, to use only what I need and not to accumulate the unnecessary.
I don’t have tracks on CDs on my shelf or on an iPod gathering dust (physically or whatever the digital equivalent is).
It’s more efficient, more transient. I use what I need, when I need it, nothing more.
Back with photos, I feel I have a similar attitude in that I don’t feel desperate to own and collect physical prints.
Having my best photographs in Flickr (and backed up on HDs) is enough, I don’t need or want to print every one.
If the worst happened and my Flickr somehow disappeared (or the entire service did) and my two back up HDs both gave up or were otherwise lost simultaneously, I wouldn’t be distraught.
I’d just go out at the next opportunity and make some more photographs.
The format of both photographs and music has changed greatly in my lifetime. But at the core, I feel very little has changed.
The feelings we get from a beautiful photograph are much the same whether viewed on a decent screen, or as a print.
Similarly, appreciating a favourite piece of music is little different whether it’s on cassette or via Spotify.
There is one crucial caveat – the medium we experience the photograph or music through must be of good enough quality for our personal needs.
For example, for me, viewing a photo via Flick on my iPad is actually a lovely experience, enhanced by the tactile act of swiping to see more information, or to move to the next one.
I don’t need to view photos on a 50″ High Definition screen, but on the flipside, browsing Instagram on a phone is way too tiny, and, for me, pointless.
With music, syncing my phone to the Spotify app on our TV, which is hooked up to my old Denon stereo and Mission speakers is great, and even via my Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speakers is good enough.
I don’t need super high end, high fidelity audio gear. But music played just on the phone’s own internal speakers is wholly inadequate, for example.
So to answer the initial question I set out with – if you can’t hold a photograph in your hand, does it still exist?
For me, the answer is of course yes.
But with the kind of prerequisite quality as described above.
Music is the same.
I don’t miss my 500 CDs anymore, and far more other factors define the person I am today – not least of all my roles as husband and father at home, photographer, blogger online, and team manager at work.
How about you? How do you feel about the evolving formats of photography (and indeed music), and how do you prefer to view and listen to each today?
Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).
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