How long would you gaze at a photo in 1970 versus today? Has our attention for a single photo been diluted by the sheer volume of photos that cross our paths? Fastcompany recently pointed out that out of 50 tech startups valued at over a billion dollars in the last decade, 9 had photography at their core. Instagram, Snapchat etc. — these are platforms for sharing, not studying. Every month about 60 billion photos are taken globally. How many will exist in 40 years? How many survive the next phone upgrade? With digital there is almost no cost to pressing the shutter, but is there any weight to a single photo? And were things different in an analog world? From the perspective of this photographer, things were very different. But enough with the deep thoughts — let’s take a selfie!
In 1970, every frame had a cost — film, developing, printing — and photography was more of a niche hobby. In that year only about 830 million photos were taken every month. What are the odds, then, that one of those photos from 1970 would show Bill Gates and Paul Allen in their mid-teens, working with a teletype machine at Lakeside School? And further, that the negative, perfectly preserved, would be found in a file cabinet in my mother’s attic?
For those who knew my father, Bruce Burgess, those odds would actually seem relatively high. My father taught at Lakeside School from 1964 to 1972. He also managed the yearbook, which gave him access to film and a darkroom (which was for a time housed in our basement, across the street from the school). No fan of flash, he mastered the various esoteric techniques for pushing black and white film to the limit. The photo that appears below was shot with Kodak Tri-X black and white film, pushed two or three stops and developed in a chemical bath designed to round off the grain structure. He and my mother were meticulous about tagging and storing negatives. When he was killed in a plane crash in 1972 (cameras in hand), he left behind thousands of negatives.
In 2007 we started a project, in partnership with Lakeside, to digitize the Bruce Burgess photo archive. Bruce’s photos started to appear in the alumni magazine and other publications. This particular photo, showing Bill and Paul in the basement of Bliss Hall, caught the attention of the Living Computer Museum. They commissioned a very high quality scan of the negative, which will be printed as a wall-sized mural at the Museum in Seattle starting January 2015.
In the photo Bill and Paul are sitting at a table. Paul has a hand on the keyboard of one of the two teletype machines on the table. Bill is looking over at someone sitting behind him — of that person we see only a pair of knees and lower legs; it appears that he was sitting on a table in the back of the room. A jacket has been flung onto the table in the careless fashion familiar to parents of teens everywhere. On a chair is a thick sheaf of paper. Printouts are tacked to the corkboard walls. As a photographer I think as much about what to exclude from the frame as what to include, but when I look at someone else’s photo I see only what they included. In this case my father carefully included the computer poster, both boys, and a part of the person who is talking to them — perhaps encouraging them? — from the back of the room. A lot has changed in the 40 years since my father took this photo, but if you were to add color and update the electronics in the room, it could be a casual, messy, high school scene from today.
What gives a photo meaning? We like to look at photos of our own babies, but our polite friends only pretend to be interested. Photos can be beautiful, or moving. Then can invoke a memory that is dear to us, or (as with the generic photos that come pre-installed in frames at the drugstore), a general idea of a dear memory. I don’t believe that the world contains a fixed amount of meaning that is sliced into tinier and tinier portions by the growing body of photos. Photography is not a zero sum game. I believe that a photo carries weight when the photographer, whose perspective we adopt, cares about the subject that he is shooting. We have to read our own experience into a photo, but we can also see something bigger, outside of ourselves, and that “something” comes from the photographer’s perspective.
Seeing a photo of someone loved and now lost can be painful. Seeing the world through the eyes of a photographer who has been lost, even more so. Building the Bruce Burgess photo archive has been a labor of love. My mother worked with the negatives when they were first created, printed many of them, made quick notes on the negative sleeves, and carefully filed them away. Almost 40 years later she went through the digitized files and painstakingly tagged each one with a date, a location, the names of the people in the frame. My father was always the photographer, seldom the subject. Every photo that my mother tagged was a moment relived through his eyes. As she neared the end of the photos, she was reliving his final days.
In the 44 years since this photo was taken, our photography dialog has changed from “look at this because it is important” to “look at me”. Cameras and phones come with selfie modes. By sharing photos on Facebook or Instagram immediately after we take them, we use them to communicate what words can’t — and that communication is largely about ourselves. I don’t think a Bill Gates selfie would have the same impact as the photo my father took. I don’t think a selfie taken by my father, with Bill beside him, would have the same meaning.
The photo has historical significance, as would a photo of a young Orville Wright, building an airplane model, or Stephen Hawking with a toy telescope. It captures a moment that my father thought was important, partly because of the people it portrays, but mostly because of the place — Lakeside School. I roamed those hallways as a very young child, and graduated from Lakeside in 1985. My daughter is there now. What I see, and what I think my father saw in this casual, messy high school scene, is the authentic interest of a child, nurtured by amazing teachers, at a great institution. Lakeside didn’t create Bill Gates — he created himself — but Lakeside helped to make him possible.
Many of the 60 billion photos taken this month will be deleted when the photographer upgrades his or her phone. A few will receive a passing glance on social media. The ones that catch your eye, most likely, will have been taken by a photographer who cares about the subject, and who has something more to say than “look at me.”