Melancholy Walk. The Downfall. And other mini blogs as captions.

This is a re-publication of this article. It's still true.

I may be just a little insane but I think I'm witnessing the collapse of civilization every day.  Just a little bit at a time.  Crumb by crumb.  Not in the monolithic, "TSA Groped me and all is lost" sort of way, but in a different and more pernicious way.  Let me explain.  I'm convinced that the cellphone is greatest tool for isolation and evil in recent history.  Most car wrecks are now caused by people talking and texting on cellphones.  But that's too dramatic.  What I'm talking about is is the slow erosion.  I was at the flagship store of Whole Foods today.  Everywhere I looked people were detached from everything around them.  From the beautiful produce, the delightful pastries, the never-before-in-the-history-of-man selections of great wines and cheeses.  The guys were not "checking out" the plethora of beautiful girls flowing like spring water thru the aisles.  The women weren't even noticing the displays of chocolate.  Instead, they did the "thorazine shuffle" with their carts aimlessly navigated with one hand and the rest of their being concentrated either on staring like zombies at the screens of their iPhones or Blackberries, or wandering without a compass while listening to something at the other end of their cell connection, eyes staring off into the middle distance.  It was so sad.  Like a prince of old surrounded by a library full of priceless books and a museum full of art, looking for a comic book to read.  I was so depressed I had to leave the store.  These people wouldn't ever get better.  They are doomed to walk around in this particular circle of hell until their calling plan comes to an end.  Oblivious to the ever changing kaleidoscope of beauty swirling around them.  Don't write and defend cellphones,  I will only excoriate you.
For all of you who are convinced that photography is dead and that bricks and mortar photography stores died out in the 1990's I direct your attention to Precision Camera and Video on North Lamar Blvd. in Austin, Texas.  I shoved wax into my ears like Odysseus and resisted the siren song of the Carl Zeiss 85mm 1.4 for Canon long enough to grab a box of printing paper and bid a hasty retreat.  They had their best "black Friday" ever.  EVER.  This past week.  Selling mostly.........cameras.
 I live in the third smartest city in America, according to Fortune Magazine.  But I still see cars like this one.  The smaller sticker reads, "Obama Lied.  The Economy Died."  Apparently they didn't get the memo that the economy hit the crapper in late 2008 while GWB was still holding on to the reins.  The ballout?  2008.  The Tarp?  2008.  Collapse of the stock market?  2008.  Etc.  In some circles history and facts don't count.  God must have a different agenda.
When I feel overwhelmed I take photographs of clouds.  They comfort me and when they move really fast through the late afternoon skies they remind me of Bergman movies.  Or Highlander movies.  Depending on your age....
I know we are near the end of civilization when battered, graffiti'd fences are adjacent to 30 story luxury condominium towers just a quick walk from the center of town.  
Already commented.  When I walked by much later he was stil there, transfixed. He could have driven to another city and met face to face in the amount of time he spent glued to $2 worth of microwave emitting plastic.

I encountered the Which Wich shop near 6 pm on today's walk thru downtown.  It looked so medieval.  The glow of the interior lights made the barest impact just a foot or two outside the front doors.  Everything looked so gray.  Inside the lone worker leaned against the counter and talked on his cellphone.
But I did have lunch with Belinda.  She and I do have cellphones.  But we both leave them in the car.  Who could possibly call that would be more important than the person right in front of me?  Especially if it's Belinda.  Please.  Put down your phone.    Turn it off and speak without reservation and hesitation and condition to the person who sacrificed their time to sit right in front of you and share their humanity.

All photographs shot with a Sony R1 camera.  Jpegs.  iPhoto processing.  Start the new week with a commitment to really live.

the holidays are upon us.  I humbly submit that a good book about photography will be most welcome by the photographers on your list.  Here are a few suggestions:






  1. Loved your comments about leaving cell phones in the car while with someone!

  2. Nice photos! I particularly like the one of the guy talking on his phone. You have great skill at recognizing these perfect compositions in the world around you and capturing them. This is something I wish I was better at.

    I think the iPod, and before it the Walkman, are even worse than cellphones for isolating people. You see people out jogging or walking the dog and they have these wires dangling down from their ears and you know they are almost completely unaware of their surroundings. These devices also devalue music by making it something you always have with you (in horrendously poor quality -- those tiny earbuds are nasty to listen to!), rather than something you only experience when you are in a suitable place and devoting your attention to it.

    Yes, I think we are witnessing a gradual collapse of civilization, and it's been going on for a long time. An average educated person of a century ago knew much more about the world around him than the highly-specialized professionals of today. Those places where you get advanced degrees were called "universities" because you learned a lot about the universe in general, universal knowledge. These days they're just trade schools, grinding out year after year of people who know a lot about one subject and next to nothing about anything else. A century ago it was normal for university graduates (in any subject) to be familiar with Latin and Greek and to have actually read the ancient classics in their original tongues. This gave them background and perspective on the world that people just don't have today.

  3. Yes, I agree. As much as I like photography, I'm getting the feeling the people are living their lives through the lens of their phone cams these days. Experience, then shoot, I say.

    Have you been to Asia? You really should visit Taiwan. Would be a real eye-opener.

  4. Remember the "Pet Rock" and "Mood Rings" or more recently the supple lower back of a 20'ish model proudly emblazoned with a multi-color tattoo (ink?) that will look somewhat different when she turns 50?

    The current cell-phone craze like all other "fads" (except Rock & Roll of course) will fade and the legions of Borg-like minions with fashion electronics dangling from their ears will return to normal until the next new "thing" comes along.

    Communicating face-to-face hasn't really changed in the past thousand years. Mothers still say "no" to their kids. Family still gets together for conversation over a holiday meal and friends still trade jokes around the water cooler. Most people instinctively need "personal" communication and rarely trust technology to replace a face-to-face meeting, a simple handshake or a warm hug on a cold day.

    Once the glitter of technology fades, we are left with what we've always been; just people who need and love other people. No amount of silicon, polished aluminum or free electrons floating in the air will change that simple fact. And you, my friend, are not alone.

  5. I have been feeling like this for the past six months. Illusion is more important than reality. Also the rise of those who choose virtuous ignorance. Not my line, I lifted it from this guy (introduced via Strobist)
    who wrote about an article he read by Johnathon Raban in The New York Review of Books.
    I am trying not to be fearful of the future....

  6. At least you have your priorities straight. The love of your life deserves your undivided attention.

    Much of society is hypnotized by technology, whether cell phone, computer or DVD etc... Photographers stuck in the gear lust mode are no exception, especially when they don't know what they should shoot or why.

    Your blog assures me that we are not all sleepwalking. Thanks!

  7. It's great to hear someone else feels the same about cellphones!

    I've been working retail for the past few years to help offset the cost of education and it is very eerie to see these people shuffling through the aisles buried in a 2.5" LCD screen.

    In this fast-paced digital world, it'd do a lot of good to slow down, turn off the blackberry and find the magic again.

  8. I see the same thing. People's consciousness is in a different location than their bodies. Everyone is really somewhere other than here, now.

    Great post.

  9. Jeff, above, is wrong. This will be akin to the year that gentlemen stopped wearing hats. We never went back........

  10. Thank you! The photos are great and I like the point you're making.

    Here's my crazy idea: combine the subject matter of this post with the previous and you have a cool photo project / performance art piece. You've always got a camera, maybe it's the E-PL with the 20mm pancake on it. When you see people isolated in cell phone land, push in close and take their picture. Maybe go all Bruce Gilden on them and hold a corded flash off to the side. With the short lens, you'll pull in the beautiful environment that's invisible to them.

    Photo project part: in short order, you'll have an overwhelming visual essay on exactly what you're talking about.

    Performance art part: by taking their photo in public, you're calling attention to what they're doing and reminding them that there's a world around them they're ignoring. Mostly they probably won't even notice you. If they do notice and ask what's up, you can explain your project in 20 words or less.

    Change the world part: put it into book form, promote it, make it famous.

    "Hey," you're thinking, "if this is such a good idea, why don't you (Kurt) shoot this yourself?" Annnnnd the answer is, because I don't have the passion about it.

  11. Kirk, I guess that is why I left Austin some 47 years ago after getting two degrees at UT. It has too many smart people who adopt whatever is popular and forget to look at the beauty that surrounds them (I won't comment on their politics). Cell phones should just be tools, not addictions. That said, your images are superb

  12. Totally happy to hear that other people are "waking up" to this whole situation.

    I remember 5-10 years ago when the internet, "social networking" and cell phones were everywhere and yet not actually taking over our lives just yet.

    Last year I totally burned out on social networking etc. I turned off all my Facebook notifications, and just started twittering random movie quotes, ignoring my main feed and just following a couple close friends.

    This year I finally got a smartphone, and the insanity started all over again. I've just recently turned all my "auto-update" settings down as slow as they can go, and I'm making a great effort to spend as much time each day "UN-connected..."

    Thanks for writing,

  13. i love my high tech phone, it has more handy nick-nacks and doodaas than you can shake a stick at and I really don't want to go back to not having it.
    It ussually lives in my bag however and I vastly prefer talking to people face to face. I think people are glued to there phone for the same reason they don't look each other in the eyes or don't greet their neighbours any more: They're afraid of the world outside of there own comfort zone. It's just that that zone of comfort is now portable!

  14. Your line "Most car wrecks are now caused by people talking and texting on cellphones" remind me of an old saying: "Accidents happen when one is mentally absent and phisically present". Sad but true. And I agree with one of the causes being the slowly but constant erosion of education quality, as Craig noted. There is a growing demand for postgraduate studies, as if the graduate level were worthless. If the emphasis is placed in more and more specialization, were are ever further from gaining a broader outlook of the world and from the renaissance man ideal. Thanks for provoking our thoughts, Kirk. Warm regards.

  15. I have been very cranky about cell phones for years, for exactly the same reasons as you, Kirk.

    One of the most surreal moments of my life was walking on the campus of the University of Vermont when classes let out and seeing 95% of the students walking with cell phone blinders on, straight past each other with nary a glance. They might as well have been carrying large pickle-shaped pods.


  16. Thanks to the efforts of Professor Dewey and his followers over the past hundred years, education that teaches people to actually think and to apply the lessons of history and the insights of literature has pretty much vanished from the public school system.

    However, I think the major cause of our present isolation was the more-or-less simultaneous rise of television and air conditioning. (I was 13 in 1950, so this is something I personally observed in my growing-up years.) Where people in small towns and large cities once sat on their porches (or balconies) or strolled the streets interacting with their neighbors in the evenings, they began to sit indoors in air conditioned comfort with their brains buried in the boob tube.

    As one generation morphed into another and then another, it was an easy transition to the virtual, but not real, relationships of Facebook and cell phones.

    In spite of all this, I am hopeful. The American spirit has been sick, but I believe we will ultimately see that “the reports of (its) demise have been greatly exaggerated.”

  17. Very much with you on the cellphones. They're supposed to be a tool, useful when the need arises, but they've turned into a way of life for so many.

    Where did it all go wrong? Surely we were meant to be masters of our technology, not slaves to it?

  18. This cell phone addiction is something I've pondered for some time. As you did Kirk, I started taking pictures of people with the metal appendages attached to their ears, sporting their blank stares into space. I got over-whelmed taking those photos because the instances were so prevalent, plus I didn't always have my camera. People where I live can't even part with their phones while out for a walk (exercise) or walking/exercising their dogs. Wish I could be as positive and upbeat as the 1950-13 year old is, but I'm older than he, and quite disillusioned. Bully for you and your lovely shot of Belinda, let's try to work at reconnecting. Keep taking more beautiful photographs!

  19. We were late to come to cell phones, and still only have pre-paid phones (between two phones, we pay less than $30/month).

    I was pondering a "Cyber-Monday" deal on a (pre-paid) smartphone for my wife, but your post help ease me back from the edge. Dumb phones for us, for now.

    See, you are making a difference in people's lives!

  20. Paul, every time I think about getting a "smart" phone some socially inept person barges into the Starbucks where I'm getting coffee. He has a "borg" bluetooth mind-controller stuck in his ear and constantly glances down at the screen of his blackberry. He pauses mid conversation to pantomine and "stage whisper" his order to the barrista and then, without missing a beat or caring about the ambiance for the people around him, he launches into a jargon filled, loud conversation that just makes no sense whatsoever. I stop thinking about ever getting a phone with unlimited anything or enough opiate power to cause a person to throw out even the most basic manners.....it's a tragedy.

  21. Ah, the time of the living dead!

  22. Love the post for both the thoughts and the photos. I don't love my cellphone and in fact, rarely turn it on. Evidently I'm not much of a talker, but I've also found that each successive model I get functions worse than the last--as a phone. It's difficult to understand what's being said and in response I inevitably find myself practically shouting the thing, rather like giving directions to a non-English speaking tourist (another communication pecularity).

    Frankly, since they transitioned from analogue to digital all cellphones have basically sucked at being phones. But now they can do everything.

    Have to laugh at your description of zombie Whole Foods. Ours too is usually stocked to the gills with well-toned housewives, along with eight hundred cheese varieties. Too bad the CEO is such a whack-a-mole.

  23. I have them all, iPod,iPad,iPhone. I only leave the house with the iPhone and it's for emergencies only.
    I totally agree with your comments and I'm sad about it. I think we are just old and this is the teeny bopper way. I thinking will only get worse. My pet peeve is the texting and how they are forgetting to spell even the simplest words.

  24. Boy Kirk, you are right on all counts - social, historical, and the fact that Austin is one smart town. Great commentary.

  25. It's amazing, isn't it? My wife is a dental assistant and has actually had patients who interrupt the dentist to answer a text.

    I remember as a kid keeping a dime in my shoe if I had to make a phone call...and then only if was an emergency.

  26. My local tobacconist politely but firmly refuses to ring up anyone who comes to the register with the electronic pacifier glued to his head. She tells him she'll help him when he finishes his call. Of course, the do-gooders are trying to put her out of business...

    For my part, I can't imagine being so rudely self-absorbed as to treat my local baristas like serfs, wholly unworthy of my attention. What happened to exchanging pleasantries, compliments, jokes?

    Thank you for all you do, Kirk. Keep on keeping on!

  27. Hilarious!! ...The thorazine shuffle. Very interesting observations.

  28. Funny you should mention Whole Foods. While I do spend a lot of time on my phone, tonight I had a great time with the kids at Whole Foods on the way home from school/work. Consumerism aside, I really enjoy walking around and looking at stuff. The funky wine bottle labels, the wheels of cheese, the produce - it's just a visual feast. Mint chocolate, handmade soap? Neat to touch, see and smell. Sensory fun. That, and watching the kids' antics, like the older one picking out chestnuts and the younger one tugging at the bag because he wanted to take it to the scale. With the younger one, I never know what surprise item I might find in the cart. But, after an incredibly busy week, it was a nice, if odd, way to wind down. I'm sure there were people all around us with phones jammed to their heads, but I really didn't notice them. I was too busy enjoying my time off the phone.

    I enjoy your blog. I also like your lighting book - it's helped me out a lot. Thanks!

  29. It's this kind of anti-telepresence rant that makes me feel old. Don't you know people used to have fulfilling friendships, and even conduct courtships, via paper letters that took months to travel from one person to the other? Being able to talk to people as freely as we can today is a wonder; email is even better.

    A few people are rude with their cellphones, sure. I have to say it's pretty darned rare in my life. Fewer than half the people in stores. Maybe too many drivers -- though I'm nowhere near convinced it's any more dangerous than talking to a person who's in the car with you. AND having the internet in my pocket makes me smarter, more on-time, generally more prepared, and in touch with my family. And a lot of people find it much easier to get some exercise if that time isn't all wasted; at least they can chat with their kids or something (if their kids lived in the same state maybe they could take a walk together, but they often don't).


    1. " (if their kids lived in the same state maybe they could take a walk together, but they often don't)." ........ and they still have their ears plugged up with little earphones as they walk into lamp posts while texting.

      I'm old enough to remember this, which springs to mind in discussions such as this.....


  30. I've been leaving my phone in my car more and more. It's been hard to detox from it, but yes, there really is a beautiful, amazing world out there that is otherwise missed. I have a different car now, and this one has a 'tether' for the phone so it can access the song library in it. That also means that it's a bit of a pain to get it out of the car, untether it, and so on -- so I tend to leave it there more often than not.

    A second side effect is that I haven't been taking my camera everywhere, either. I'm just there, in the moment.

  31. I'm touting one of my own images here Kirk, but this is an example of cellphone purgatory taken at London's Covent Garden:


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