I Miss Pay Phones, Snapshot Photos & A Simple Disconnected Society With Stories to Tell

Remember those tall glass structures that you could climb into to make a phone call, a space all to yourself that shut you off from the world, offered you a bit of silence from the street traffic around you? They were as ubiquitous as the cell phone in your pocket. They were everywhere, and ready wherever you went and needed to reach someone.

If they were home.

Sure, they had to be near the phone that was bolted to the wall in their home to receive your call. That or you’d get the endless ringing and no answer. Or possibly the busy signal–they were on the line, you’d just have to try back later.

How about now? Or now? Nope, still on the phone.

Sounds frustrating, and in some ways it was, but it was also freeing. When you left your house, you were out. You weren’t keeping one ear at the doorway. If you went for a walk, there was no distraction. No interruption. Nothing buzzing or beeping, ringing or dinging.

You were just out. Free to go.

Cell phones for the most part have replaced them. With their ubiquity comes constant interruptions because they come with the contract that anyone can text or call or post anything at anytime with no limits whatsoever. Awake at 3:30am because you can’t sleep? No problem, you can post on Twitter or Facebook. You can email or text.

Communication is a good thing, right?

We all can agree it’s not a bad thing to have such connectivity at our fingertips if and when we need it. But the issue is how we use it when we don’t need it. To fill in the empty spaces, the time we used to take to talk to someone in line, to evaluate ourselves, or daydream. To listen to nothing–just sit with own thoughts, enjoy the silence.

No need for any of that now, the internet is in all of our pockets, always ready with something to say. Boredom be gone. It promises to fill every waking moment.

“Look, my friend went to the bathroom, quick login!”

I miss the ability to get away. Not because I don’t love my family and friends, but because I think we all need some time to ourselves. And no matter how much we think we can have that, we really can’t if there are texts and emails and photos being sent all day long. It’s like we never left.

Disconnected wasn’t such a bad thing.

Before the answering machine, it’s true you had to catch someone at home. There was no other way of letting them know you had called, and you just had to call back.

Once the tape machine came along, at least you could record a message and leave information for the person, what you wanted and a time to call you back. Some people just used them as a way to vent to someone–it was an ear when we weren’t home. Like this message from Ben Folds’ Father.

But we had to take it further. We always do.

The answering machine evolved into voice mail built into the phone system. Then cell phones went one step further and put the machine right in our pockets with our phones.

Are we more connected now that we are 100% attached? Is there not a joy to being without our phone? I’ve heard people say, and I’ve said it myself, “I forgot my phone and it was a treat not to have it on me for once.”

Does 100% connectivity cause us to interrupt the conversations and connections that are happening in front of us? When we are all on our phones while we’re together, how is it possible to be present, really all there for the people we’re with in person?

This brings me to the idea of the snapshot photograph, as I wrote about yesterday. What started out as a keepsake to remember a person or place, something we did, got bigger. They were small 2×3″ or 3×4″, some square 3×3″, nice white bordered prints. Sometimes with fancy scalloped edges. They were little works of art.

But more is more. and so we had to go and supersize them. Like we do everything. Make them bigger. People will think they’re better. Only they weren’t. A 3×3″ you could tuck into your wallet or purse, and it would be just fine, ready to show a friend.

The print size grew to 4×6″, plus border-less, and double prints were offered as a bonus. Double prints are too much, just like shooting a thousand digital frames at breakfast is too much. No one knew what to do with them. They bought them because they were a good deal price-wise. And now that they had them, at that large print size, they were too big to carry and not bend up. Besides the fact they didn’t look like art anymore, with no edge at all.

Too much is too much. Smaller was better.

We are living in a culture where too much is everywhere. Photography has become so commonplace that it isn’t, “Look where I went, what I did and let me tell you the story of it,” it’s “Look, see me here now.” There’s no more to the story. The end of the image–no one ever has to look at it again.

And no one ever will. It’s done.

It’s just a note to say, “See me now.” It’s not a photograph. It will never be collected as unintentional art. It won’t exist in 50 years in a shoebox. It won’t hang on a wall or sit on a bureau or bookshelf and permeate our world, our lives. It will just go away.

Like those double prints we don’t know what to do with, these will be forgotten and lost.

Photographs used to mean something you could hold and see, display and live with. Now it’s a glance in passing. Like the cell phone and the inability we have to get away from it, it’s difficult to escape the digital photograph as a temporary interruption. A quick thing to see. To show. Then gone.

I miss the pay phone. Back then, if I needed to connect to someone, I still could. It worked out.

But now it’s the cell phone that has become the tool that’s caused the demise of both of these things–pay phones and snapshots. And it has a bit of a house arrest bracelet quality about it: It follows us wherever we go, it tracks our every move. It’s the first thing and the last thing we see every day, more so than even our loved ones, our spouses, our families.

No stories to tell, no photos to see–yeah, we already saw ’em.

The connection is too great. I miss disconnected. The ability to get away.

And really be away.

To the point that no one knew where we were. Which is why we’d take a photo–to show them someday once the film was processed, and tell them the story.

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Check out my YouTube Channel of Photography Talks: my 6×6 Portraits Blog (you’re here) and my Daily Photography Podcast. Thanks!

One thought on “I Miss Pay Phones, Snapshot Photos & A Simple Disconnected Society With Stories to Tell

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  1. No one really calls me and I have most notifications turned off, so my mobile phone doesn’t really interfere with my daily life. What bothers me about mobile phones is having to listen to everyone else’s conversations everywhere I go. And, despite the amazing sensitivity of phone microphones, most people feel the need to speak at double normal volume. On top of that, hearing only one side of a conversation makes the experience even more annoying.
    My Instax camera makes nice little prints that people appreciate receiving.


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