What Doesn't Last Is More Important Than You Think
Many years ago, before the advent of smartphones and the Internet, people used to lug around Polaroid cameras and camcorders to record events. The earliest camcorders were bulky and had to be rested on your shoulder to use.
My father wore his Polaroid camera on a strap around his neck. Whatever the special occasion, Dad would interrupt the festivities to gather everyone together for a picture.
The novelty of the Polaroid was that it spit out a photograph immediately after you took one. A few seconds later, the image would develop before your very eyes. We’d stop whatever we were doing, just to wait for the picture to come into focus.
It was common to see parents at their kids’ sporting events, running around like news reporters with their clunky camcorders, trying to capture all the action. Sadly, they often missed exciting moments because they were fiddling with their equipment.
I remember reading an insightful article back then in Newsweek magazine. It was all about a woman who documented every bit of her children’s lives with a camcorder until she attended a performance at her daughter’s school and forgot her video camera.
The woman had joyful tears in her eyes as her daughter sang a solo in the performance. Initially, she could have kicked herself for failing to remember her video recorder, until a friend suggested that not filming was what allowed her “to have the unadulterated joy of this experience.” She was “freed from the demand to document what was happening,” and able to simply live it.
In the article, the author wrote:
“Quantum physics posits that the essential nature of a phenomenon is changed by the act of measuring it, and I know this idea has applications here. Our cameras come between us and what we document. How many moments have I missed — or altered — in an effort to capture them for all time? While I’m sorry I can’t share my daughter’s recent solo with relatives and we don’t have a hard copy for the future, the moment wouldn’t have been the same for me had I been fumbling with the electronics.”
Little did the author know how prescient her concerns about “fumbling with the electronics” were. Nowadays, we’re all fumbling with our smartphones, and consumed by social media.
How many special moments in our lives have been diluted by intrusive technology? Why do we feel an urgent need to document everything, instead of just experiencing it in full? What’s worse, how often do we really revisit the thousands of photos and videos stored on our smartphones?
The untethering of ego
Have you heard of the British land artist Andy Goldsworthy? He produces site-specific environmental art, using branches, stones, leaves, and natural objects found in nature.
What’s unique about Goldsworthy’s artwork is its impermanence. Unlike a stone sculpture or framed oil painting, Goldsworthy’s creations are more ephemeral. There to be enjoyed briefly before they disassemble back into the earth. Watch a short video on Goldsworthy here.
Goldsworthy notes that hikers and outdoor people come across his artwork, maybe even more so than the artwork in an artist’s studio. He has built permanent sculptures and uses photography to memorialize some of his work, but none the less, there is elegant transience to his creations.
I discovered Andy Goldsworthy via the author Peter Heller’s new novel “The River,” which tells the story of two rugged, university buddies, Jack and Wynn, who decide to canoe the Maskwa River in northern Canada. Both men share a love of mountains, books, and fishing.
In a scene in the novel, Wynn is wading in the river water, creating “Thingamajigs.” The scene continues:
“Wynn was crazy about Goldsworthy, the environmental sculptor, and was in awe of the ethic of ephemeral art, from Buddhist sandpainting to the sapling moons of Jay Mead. The untethering of ego: the purity of creating something that wouldn’t even be around to sign in a matter of hours or days. What that said about ownership and the impermanence of all things. He was less impressed with the extravagant shrouding of Christo, which he thought were grandiose and domineering.”
Peter Heller’s character Wynn is clearly a deep thinker, who is moved by the “purity of creating something that wouldn’t even be around to sign in a matter of hours or days.”
In today’s egocentric culture, where everyone is posting on social media and clamoring for attention, it’s fascinating to encounter an artist like Goldsworthy, or a novelist like Peter Heller, who seem to appreciate the simple joy of direct experience.
In Heller’s novel, Jack and Wynn aren’t taking selfies of their canoe adventure or looking for wi-fi to upload the day’s action to their social media channels. They’re enjoying nature’s beauty, one another’s company, and the western paperbacks they read at the campfire. There’s no technology to get in the way of their experience.
I just want to stay in it
In the underrated movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, actor Ben Stiller plays Walter Mitty, a photography department employee at Life magazine. He goes on a quest to find one of the magazine’s celebrated photographers, Sean O’Connell (played by Sean Penn), to tell him where a missing cover photo is.
Walter finds Sean in the Himilayas, waiting to photograph a rare snow leopard. As the two are talking, the snow leopard appears, but Sean doesn’t take the photograph. Walter asks him if he’s going to take the shot.
Sean O’Connell: Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.
Walter Mitty: Stay in it?
Sean O’Connell: Yeah. Right there. Right here.
Watch the scene here.
How many times have we all reached for our smartphones at special moments? How often do we invite the “distraction of the camera” instead of just “staying in” the moment?
Magical moments in our lives
There’s nothing wrong with capturing that graduation snapshot, or group photo with friends as you hike in Italy. But maybe we don’t need to reach for the camera (or our smartphones) as often as we think.
What doesn’t last is more important than you think. The most intimate moments, often with the ones we love, can be some of the most magical moments in our lives. Or those quiet times in nature, when a deer unexpectedly walks by. Such moments are often ephemeral and short-lived but stay in our minds forever.
To reach for the camera or smartphone is to interrupt the magic, and possibly blur your memory of it forever.
Andy Goldsworthy sees the beauty in his transient artwork. It is meant to be experienced briefly, and then it fades away.
The author Peter Heller, who is an avid outdoorsman, clearly understands the importance of ephemeral things. The main characters in his novel “The River” are young men who find deeper meaning in the fleeting beauty of nature rather than the endless distraction of social media and self-documentation.
Even the famous photographer Sean O’Connell, in the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, knows when to set aside his camera and “just stay in” the moment.
What doesn’t last is more important than you think. When such moments arise, think twice before you reach for the camera or smartphone. Choosing to “just stay in” the moment might be sweeter, and better memorialize the experience in your memory than any intrusive, digital device.
Before you go
I'm John P. Weiss. I paint landscapes, draw cartoons and write about life. Thanks for reading.