The camera and the blue guitar



They said, ‘You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.’

The man replied, ‘Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.’

—Wallace Stevens

Hiking up Mt Inari through a veritable tunnel consisting of thousands of vermillion Torii gates is one of the quintessential experiences of a visit to Kyoto Japan. As a Shinto shrine, Fushimi Inari is a spiritual celebration of Japanese history and natural beauty. It is an extraordinary site that should bring great joy and peace to any visitor.

While making my way up the mountain through the shimmering shrine, too many of the faces I encountered were not joyful but rather disappointed or even mildly angry. It’s easy to imagine an occasional grimace from the steep climb. But, who would guess that such a sublime location would cause so much obvious unease and irritation?

The problem, you see, is the camera—whether traditional or part of a smart phone. Everyone wants to take the perfect photo of a serenely empty lacquered passage or—better yet— a perfectly orange-red framed selfie or smiling family portrait. Every time you get to the top of a pitch or turn through a slight curve or corner, you are met with a dozen scowls reflected on the faces of people whose perfectly composed photos you just utterly destroyed. Time after time, the way is blocked by photographers shooting photo after photo in vain attempts to get tired kids to smile.

As I proceeded along the steep passageways, I found that verses from Wallace Stevens’ The Man with the Blue Guitar became stuck in my head like an earworm. My brain had subconsciously made the connection between the blue guitar and a camera.

Substituting ‘camera’ for ‘blue guitar’ begs the question: how does the presence of a camera change not just our perception of the world but the actual world, itself?

A camera has the power to transform the sublime to the ridiculous or the ridiculous to the sublime.

With the right shot, we can change a bustling crowd into a solitary experience in the photos we use to brag about our travels to friends and colleagues. Our children are never crying, our spouses never irritated, our wrong side never exposed. There are no telephone lines, no peeling paint (unless it’s artistic), and no dead branches.

A good (or lucky) photographer can transform a fleeting shadow or a crack in a sidewalk or an unwelcome wrinkle into a work of art.

With a camera, we can lock in memories of a glowing bride or a child’s first step to help us make it through later moments of conflict or worry.

Years ago, I had a photographer friend who insisted I should never bother him when he was taking a photo. Hiking in the wilderness of the North Cascades, I once tapped him gently on the elbow while he was setting up his tripod. He brusquely shoved my hand away. After finishing his photo shoot, he angrily asked what possibly could have been important enough to bother him. Imagine his expression when I replied that I just thought he would have wanted to see the mountain lion that was walking on the trail below us.

I was totally mortified when a colleague told me he could hear my camera snapping away as I photographed a school play. While my intent was good—to put together a photo book for a school fundraiser—I had unknowingly caused a minor disturbance through the whole first act. Yikes!

I have read that cameras are causing young people to not actually look at the world around them. My own experience is that carrying a camera often causes me to stop and look at things more carefully. My zoom lens has helped me see things I never would have seen with my ‘naked’ eyes, from birds in flight to baby monkeys in a tree to sail boats on the horizon. Sometimes, I’ve missed seeing interesting things until I later found them in a photo.

Carrying a camera can alter how people perceive and act towards you. To a kid on vacation, a camera can change a beloved parent into a slavering troll. Walking down an alleyway in Kurashiki, I was stopped by an old guy loudly scolding ‘no shoot a lot.’ Gees, I was only checking google maps. I’m not sure there was anything in the alley ‘worth’ taking a picture of, anyways. To him, apparently, there was.

There are few things that can bring a smile to a parent’s face or make an instant friend at a tourist attraction like offering to take a photo of a family. I carry hand sanitizer for that express purpose. Although, I once encountered a young couple that thought I wanted to steal their cell phone when I offered to take their picture. Like they couldn’t easily outrun a little old lady.

How many times have I stopped and waited or taken a circuitous path to avoid ruining someone’s photo? How many times have I gone places just because I saw a picture and wanted to take one like it?

I’ve made friends through photographs. When I got to the top of the Inari shrine trek, I saw two young guys clowning around and asked if I could take their photo. Winds up they were from South Africa and more than happy to share an hour of conversation with a solo traveler from the other side of the globe. I got an insider’s view of Capetown from the top of a Japanese peak.

Sometimes, the presence of a camera has brought out a self righteous or holier than thou streak I’d prefer not to acknowledge. Like when the fellow traveler on a tour of Assisi kept asking my husband to take her photo while she struck her best glamor pose in front of one Franciscan site after another. Or, when a group of selfie-stick-wielding tourists rushed the altar in a French cathedral, poking me in the face and threatening to knock over the candlesticks.

A long lens can turn me into a bit of a voyeur, unabashedly snapping candid shots without permission.

I look through the lens of a camera. The camera changes me and it changes the world around me. What should I do now that I’ve realized my camera is actually a blue guitar?

I’m not going to stop using a camera but I am going to try to be more conscious of a camera’s potential impact. I’m going to try to leave the camera at home more often. And, rather than scowling at other people for ‘ruining’ my shot, I’m going to try to take things as they are… however they are… blue green pink purple yellow or undeniably overcrowded vermillion.

If you’re going to play a blue guitar, you might as well learn to embrace the blues.