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  • Katie Hughes

What's in an Image?

As I wrote in my last post, I lost my phone this weekend. I'm a philosopher by training so I tend to meditate on the events that happen to me and what they mean or how they can influence my work and life going forward.

What was more painful that the loss of the phone (and the price tag of the new one) was the loss of two years worth of text messages, contacts, and photographs. This post isn't a lament of the loss of these things and my lack of foresight to save things to the cloud (lesson learned), this is a meditation on the meaning of images.

When I lost the last two years of photos on my phone, it made me consider a few things -

1. What events did I lose pictures from? How important were these events to me?

2. What kinds of emotions did each image illicit from me?

3. If I was relying on the photographs to act as surrogate memories for me, did I lose out on making actual memories during the event in order to take pictures?

4. I don't even remember most of the photos I took, is it sad that they don't matter?

In a psychology class I took in college, we learned that recall and recognition are two different processes in the brain. In one study, people were asked to name as many names as they could of classmates they had 50 years prior (or something like that...I don't remember). When asked separately to recognize whether names presented to them in a list were of students in their class, however, their accuracy rate was much higher. What does this say about the mind? About memory?

As I was fishing back through the photos I did have, I was taken back to my junior year of college. So much has changed since then. I finished my senior year and Master's degree at the same time, I painted dozens of paintings, I traveled to Utah with my friends, Seattle with a partner, Canada with my family. I've celebrated two birthdays, I've had a handful of relationships, I met amazing people. I learned more about how to fix the engine of a 1980s Volkswagon and how to tend to tattoos than I ever thought I would have to. I fell in love, moved to a new city, fell in love again, moved to another new city, and took in all the whimsy that accompanies those changes. I've also lost loved ones and learned to cope with illness in those two years.

It's surreal to think about losing images. In one sense, I've lost nothing (other than the art I have produced which is in a sense very real and difficult for me as I am beginning my journey as a painter and graphic designer). All the memories are still there - somewhere. My friends are alive, my house didn't burn down, I am lucky. But in one sense I did lose something. I lost the ability to flip back to an image and have it immediately fill me with a variety of emotions. I would be lying if I said that photos of my former partners don't stir cocktails of emotions in me. I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel at least partly nostalgic for college parties and rainy days on campus with my best friends.

In some ways those feelings are all the stronger because I realize I am so close to those memories and events and yet I can never go back to them. I remember talking with my friends after we all went our separate ways after graduation and I asked them if anything felt different. We all agreed that in the whirlwind week of events, everything rushed together and felt ultimately anticlimactic. Where does the magic go when the candles are blown out?

Things have been sinking in since then. I moved home, then back near campus and lived with two of my best friends from school. I got a job in the city. I changed, I learned, I grew. As waves of anxiety (about the future, about the present, about being a millennial in an uncertain and expensive and confusing modernity) arose, I clung back to my art. I tried to draw every day when I could. I took photos of every papaya and rose, every cool outfit I saw in SF, everything that could become inspiration for a new work of art, all the while grappling with extreme swings of existential confusion and stress. Photography is a form of recording, but it is also a form of escape.

I spend a lot of time looking through my photos. I save tattoos I see on instagram, illustrations from favorite books, every comic I've ever written. When I feel absolutely lost and bled dry of all inspiration (which happens to me a lot), I return to my phone to help me see life anew. I love color. Bright pops of banana yellow and neon cyan, vibrant magentas and deep ultraviolet catastrophes have been my favorite this last year. They keep coming up in my work and I think my neurons are dyed in those hues. My phone is my sketchbook.

What is a photograph? Traditionally, a photograph was the shadow of an impression a person or object left behind when light that bounced off them struck photographic film. We've come a long way since then, though working in the campus darkroom was one of the best experiences I've had and I highly recommend it to everyone. The purpose of photography was purely documentary. Why hire an expensive painter when you could have a 100% realistic, identical copy of you and your family made by the latest technology.

Because photography replaced the need for realistic painters, art had to find its way and embrace new forms and styles. Impressionist, abstract, and modern art all have come to be at least in part because art has been released from its role as mere mirror. This isn't to say that hyper-realistic paintings are uninteresting - far from it. Rather, the history of art and photography intertwine to produce a complicated and dynamic picture.

But let me just pause to take a picture of my avocado toast for my instagram story.


My grandfather was so incredibly proud of me when I told him I had taken up film photography in college. In Hungary when he was young, he had fashioned his own darkroom in his grandmother's pantry. We still have his original photos. Shooting film makes you slow down. Way down. It makes you think about every detail about every shot. For context, a typical roll of 35 mm film will give you roughly 36 pictures. To develop a roll of film yourself, you need to lock yourself in a room without light, pop the canister out of the camera, wrench the film out of the canister with a can opener, blindly wind the film around a wheel hoping it doesn't snag, and then locking the wheel inside another larger canister and hoping you didn't leave the lid outside the room. It then takes an hour to develop the film and maybe an extra hour to dry it, if you're lucky. And printing can take anywhere from five minutes to an hour to get the shot to turn out the way you want it.

We are spoiled. Technology in so many ways had made aspects of life so much faster and easier. I have taken dozens of photos of the same piece of art from different angles just so I can get it to look just right. There is no more serendipity. After losing my photos, I've been grappling with whether to avoid taking photos as much as possible so that I might better enjoy the moments I have while I am having them (I never did go back and watch those videos I took at the Kesha concert), or whether to document more and to make sure they're saved correctly.

The week before I turned 23, I plopped down on the guest bed in my house and pulled down an old photo album with my brother and parents. We don't do that very often. I can't describe the warmth I felt being surrounded by family and looking back at pictures from the past - my brother and his legos, myself wrapped in peak 90s attire at the zoo, my dad holding one of our scottie dogs. Photographs have power. They have the ability to take us back to far off places that we do not travel to enough in our minds, an experience is valuable insomuch as it shapes how we act going forward. I'm not sure what the right balance of living in the present, thinking about the future, and delving into the past is. Often, things are happening too quickly for us to even feel them while they are happening - like my friends and I felt during our graduation week.

I do know one thing for certain. The work I do is the physical embodiment of emotions. Whether it's a whimsical painting, a meaningful poem, or a reflective essay, everything I produce is somehow an extension of the things I have felt or want others to feel. After all the analytical philosophy essays and physics problem sets I spent my time on in college, it's refreshing to produce work that is about life as it is lived. That, to me, is what my camera roll was. If someone were to come across it, I'm sure it would just seem like anyone else's - too many pictures of cups of coffee, the occasional meme, pictures of dogs and friends. But to me, those photos were my entire life. And that is not an exaggeration. For those of us who spend most of our time on the phone, our camera roll is very much a recording of our lives. This doesn't mean that there are pictures of my physical self on my phone every day. However, the pictures we look at, the images we save and send to friends, and the conversations we have over our phones are in a very real sense the amalgamation of our selves. The average person spends roughly 2 hours a day on social media. That doesn't count reading the news or talking to friends. And younger people are spending more time in cyberspace (I don't blame them, the real world's pretty scary right now.)

Regardless of the ethical/social implications of the increase in phone usage, its undeniable that each one of us caries an extra brain's worth of images and memories around with us wherever we go, and we rarely stop to think about it. What would you miss if you lost the last two years of photos? What do you want the next two years to look like?

I will say, the hardest and most surreal part of this whole reflective process is the fact that my life has changed so drastically within the last six months. I started a new job, met my partner two weeks later, and moved to a new city two weeks after that - all about six months ago. When I restored my phone from it's last back-up (from two years ago), everything important was still gone.

Every image, every text message, even my boyfriend's phone number was gone. How can you erase every trace of a relationship in a heartbeat? At least six of my best friends in San Francisco I've met through him, and all of their numbers, our inside jokes and conversations had vanished. Our trips to the beach, our late night dinners and conversations - they'd all happened and were fresh in my mind, but if you looked at my phone now, it's as if the last two years had never happened.

The point of all this isn't to be melancholic. I have been thinking about how many hours there are in every day, and how few of those I feel present in. How many days have I spent tired in class or at work, then gone home eaten dinner watched tv done laundry or not done laundry eaten a snack and fallen asleep? We only have so many years alive. I've just lost roughly ~10% of mine from the digital milieu in a day.

Like everything else in my life, I take events as either thought experiments, or challenges, or signs, and this one is kind of like all three. I have no idea what will happen to me in the next two years. I'd love to start an MFA program, adopt a cat, and go to the gym more. But who knows. I hope my camera roll is filled with more photos of my friends making weird faces, of us at parties wearing strange costumes and laughing too hard. I want to go home and meet the new puppy my parents adopted, I want to spend more time with my grandma, and less stressing about spreadsheets for work.

If you could bring me my camera roll from two years in the future, and all I saw were pictures of me happy with my friends and family, partner, and dog, and a lot of doodles along the way, I'd be really pleased. And the take away from all of this is that we are the ones in charge of making those memories, of cultivating those friendships and painting those paintings. More than anything, I've learned that the memories I miss the most are the small beautiful ones - the picnic in the hidden park we had for our one month anniversary, the day we went to the beach for an impromptu photoshoot, the day my friend was in town and we got ice cream in Japantown.

Good art makes you think but really good art makes you feel. As I become more conscious of my time and place on this earth, and my role as an artist and writer, I've come to see that all my work is really intended to make people happy - whether they're laughing at the skeletons I paint, or enjoying the warm imagery of my poems. Life is the most dreary and unbearable when it feels like nothing but a series of chores that need to be accomplished with no end in sight. I never took pictures in college of me studying or doing my laundry. I guess what I'm trying to learn from this experience is that there really is a lot of good in life if you look for it, seek it out, and create it yourself. If I've learned anything going forward, its to appreciate every moment for what it is, to pay attention - really pay attention with all my awareness and wakefulness, and to be appreciative of all the good events and people. I hope my instagram posts will be a little more reflective going forward (except for the occasional avocado toast, of course).

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