At a certain level, the act of taking a photograph does impair one’s ability to be in the moment and enjoy a first impression (a complaint that has been echoed by travel purists ever since the availability of inexpensive cameras gave rise to amateur photography in the late 19th century). But the pictures my father and I shot in New Orleans suggest that the act of photographing an unfamiliar place is a kind of mnemonic device aimed squarely at the present. In a way, those mediocre shots of the muddy Mississippi weren’t meant to be viewed later: They were their own, self-contained ritual; they were a futile attempt to slow down time.
At one point, while traveling on a sailboat charter with some friends from California, I disembarked on the volcanic island of Santorini and photographed the cliff-top village of Oia, famous for its sunset vistas. My best picture of the evening — a golden-hour shot of a blue-domed church overlooking the island’s caldera — thrilled me at first, but the more I looked at it, the more it felt artificial. Digging into my daypack, I discovered the problem: Both of my Greek Islands guidebooks (a Rough Guide and a Lonely Planet) featured the exact same church, photographed from a similar angle, bathed in the same late-day light.
Reckoning that a confessional gesture might redeem my own predictability, I turned away from the church and photographed the village terrace behind me: It was populated by dozens of digital-camera-clutching tourists, angling for the same shot I’d just taken. This ironic new Oia photograph was, in a sense, a self-portrait.
It’s not the photo but the photographer and the point of view.