It was noon in Munich when I decided to go to Nuremberg. I had been wandering around the city center, near where I was studying German language, vaguely looking for one of the several museums still on my list to visit. It was a Monday, but I had no class—one of those strange holidays the Germans like to give themselves, which I had long since stopped trying to keep track of and merely accepted with gratitude. Because of the holiday, most of the museums in Munich were closed, which is how I ended up on a train to Nuremberg, the closest major German city I could get to in under two hours.
I brought Susan Sontag’s book of essays, On Photography, with me on the train. Sontag’s book is an exploration of photography’s rich history as an artform and as an element of social and political life. The book is largely critical toward photography—both as a means of interacting with the world and as a method of seeing and understanding what is around us. Sontag is especially critical of the role of photography in travel: she writes, “The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel. Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter… this gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on.”
This passage stopped me short. Like any traveler in Europe, my camera roll was backlogged with snapshots of cathedrals, meals, street scenes, bridges, and friends. Photography had been a sort of punctuation throughout my days: although I was by no means a skilled or artistic photographer, it seemed irresponsible—a kind of betrayal to my future self—not to take pictures when the opportunity presented itself. Indeed, there is a kind of melancholy, looking back, to those days where my phone died or stayed in my pocket: days whose light lives on only in my mind, whose images are mostly submerged in the deep waters of a fickle memory.
Sontag, though, would say I was hooked: “It would not be wrong to speak of people having a compulsion to photograph: to turn experience itself into a way of seeing. Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it.”
There’s some real merit to Sontag’s perspective: photography, although ostensibly a tool for aiding sight and memory, can often come to replace both. Who needs to remember clearly when everything has been photographed from the day itself? No need to linger by Dürer’s odd little sketches, the darkly stained wood of the Nuremberg’s Baroque churches, the spare plaques marking Nazi infamies and atrocities, when a picture has been taken, even likely as it was never to be looked at again. How many details exist in the photos from my European trip that I never noticed with my own eyes? How many experiences were broken up by the flash of my camera, the lens and the screen wedging themselves between the world and me?
For Sontag, photography gives the amateur tourist photographer a sense of control— but superficial control. Knowledge— but superficial knowledge. In an unfamiliar, foreign environment the camera offers the illusive feeling of possession and command, in a very real sense empowering the photographer to take something of the place with them as their own.
Throughout my day in Nuremberg, I was hesitant and unsure with my camera. On the one hand, Nuremberg was an entirely new city which I could only see for one day, surely an instance where use of the camera was justified. But Sontag’s essay often held me back: walking over canal bridges and up castle steps, I would find myself framing the world for potential photographs, seeing things with less an eye to genuine beauty and more to what ought to be preserved, shot, and captured, and decide to let the moment pass without taking out my phone.
The images of Nuremberg’s toy-town Germanness, its almost achingly idyllic medieval Altstadt and smooth white towers, in sharp and often creepy contrast to the Nazi rallies, laws, and post-war trials associated with its name, live for the most part in my mind. I don’t know how to feel about this– I find myself now, months on, looking back through my camera roll more often, reacquainting myself with the memories of the summer. Sometimes Nuremberg feels like a mournful blank, reproaching me for having put my camera away and left so few photos behind. But sometimes the memories of Nuremberg strike me as having a certain unmediated starkness, a vividness of detail, in my recollection, strengthened by my renunciation of the lens.
The tension here seemed to be between photography and memory. There are two strangely entwined phenomena, one technological, one mental, sharing as their aim a preservation of the past. Sontag too noted this connection: she calls photography an “elegiac art, a twilight art”. What she means here is that photography elegizes whatever it captures, because the objects in the photograph will soon change or vanish. And so every photo is taken in a position of twilight-ness, of looking back to a light once more bright and vivid, now living only in the cramped confines of the image.
I took the train back to Munich, exhausted and feeling somewhat torn. I had enjoyed the day in Nuremberg but was feeling the sting of being admonished by a favorite writer. I got off the train, ready to collapse in my dorm room, when I saw the sky opening out over the platform. My fellow passengers and I stopped and stood together, looking at a stunning sunset of deep pinks and yellows. Two men near me remarked on how it wasn’t every day you saw something like this, and they took out their phones for a photo.
Wasn’t there something beautiful here? All of us turning toward West Munich, remarking, in English, German, languages I couldn’t understand, on the beauty of that sunset after a long day of travel. And, after remarking on the sky to our neighbors, taking a picture to remember the moment. To love a moment so much that we consecrate it with a photo– isn’t this the highest compliment we can pay to reality, to this rapidly flickering and changing life of ours?
Reflected in those Germans and travelers taking photos together was a longing to linger in this present moment, this moment of home-coming and new beginnings, all lit up by pinks and yellows, to never end; a necessarily doomed longing, yes, but one to which the camera offered slight consolation. The Germans called it Abendrot, evening red, a notion somewhere between twilight and sunset. Standing at the end of a long summer, it was the most beautiful evening sky I had seen in months. And I was glad, too, that it would live on in the memories and photos of those around me.