Art: Two Billion Clicks

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The great Sphinx lay in fleeting twilight. In the background loomed the Pyramid of Cheops, majestic monument to human striving for eternity. Over the entire scene hovered the breath of the silent desert, the hush of ages. Then a voice spoke.

"For God's sakes, Betsy, stop wiggling," said the voice. "Hold on a minute while I take another light reading . . . Now, smile."


"Fine. Now just one more, and this time smile as if you mean it."

Before the natural wonders of the world and facing its innumerable small mysteries, before Niagara Falls, Mount Rushmore and the Eiffel Tower, in Siamese temples, French cathedrals and New England general stores, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and at the top of the Empire State Building, the U.S. amateur photographer pursues his hobby. His camera's combined clicks (he is taking nearly 2 billion pictures this year) would drown the loudest thunder, and the combined light from his flashbulbs (he is using 500 million) would make a major planet pale. The sun to him is chiefly a source of light that often calls for a yellow filter, and the moon merely an object which it is hard to photograph without a tripod: he approaches the highest peaks through a telephoto lens, scans new horizons through his range finder—and if he ever came across the Blue Bird, he would whip out his color chart.

He spent $300 million this year on cameras and gadgets, in order to snap Haitian market women, Manhattan shoeshine boys, Indian fakirs, and (above all) Junior, aged three. Innumerable times he went through the sweet agony of fetching his prints from the corner drugstore or the mailbox,* and if his work did not come out well, he blamed the unknown vandals in the darkroom, the makers of the camera, the film, the subject, and sometimes even himself. He spoiled about 10% of his film, enough to make individual shots of the entire population of the North American continent, and took enough bad pictures to give ulcers to every museum director in the U.S.

Nevertheless, he was practicing an important art, the most typical art of the 20th century, and perhaps the only national folk art yet produced by the U.S.

Fever of Reality. Oliver Wendell Holmes, in 1859, called the camera "the mirror with a memory." Americans, more than any other people, have become used to seeing the world and themselves in that mirror—staring closely at birth and death, the torment of war and the pleasures of peace, the acts of history and nature, the faces of leaders and of nameless masses. Americans are wrapped in photographs ; in newspapers, magazines, movies, billboards, the camera shows them the microbe as big as a face, a face as big as a city block, an entire city as plainly as their own street, their own street as fresh and exciting as a foreign shore. They are caught up (as one photographer put it) in a "fever of reality." Just when and how this fever produces true art has been debated almost since the first daguerreotype appeared more than a century ago.

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