Quasi-Math and Quasi-Art

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I’m a creative person who’s good with numbers – I’ve stated that before. Having those two skill sets helps keep me balanced on a day-to-day basis and in deeper ideas. It’s a wider understanding, and I like to think I’m well-rounded because of it. But even balance can lead to strange hobbies, combining two things that don’t usually have much to do with each other.

I’ve been taking photos of my own for around half my life at this point. I was the person always carrying around a camera in high school (film camera, of course; we’re talking about the 90s here) and taking hilarious pictures of everyone. When I got a job at a photo lab things sort of got exponential. I haven’t worked in a photo lab for nearly five years now, but I haven’t quite “slowed down”.

I don’t always carry around a camera anymore. People got sick of that. I carry them to events, but people still seem to get sick of that. I still feel the need to take photos of everything for reasons that have spiraled out of control, and it will be hard to ever stop the habit.

As a teenager, I put my photos on my wall wherever there was space. When I decided to start taking them off the wall they weren’t in any particular order; the task of putting them in albums chronologically would be too complicated and still likely ridden with errors. My solution was to put them in no order – what in casual conversation we call “random”, but in proper definition is merely disorganized. After that decision I felt obligated to continue the disorganized path as more pictures were taken and developed and printed.

I couldn’t just put new photos in a new album by this plan. I had to go back and swap photos around, so the first album to be filled not only had some from high school, but some from parties during the university years, or photos taken (appropriately) at work. My goal was to make it so that if I opened an album to any one page, there would be no repeat in the people or the places in any of the 2 or 4 or however many photos one could see at that time.

New “rules” were formed over time to raise the level of challenge in making this happen. They couldn’t be taken too close together in time. No two photos on the same page could lack a person in them, and no two photos on the same page could be of animals. “Outdoors” became one location, later modified to be separate only city by city. Before printing a new batch I would look through my albums for things that need “fixing”, and otherwise just blindly turn to a page and put a photo where it fit the rules. When giant batches of photos were printed, like 4000+ from a six week European excursion, it became such a headache that I just put one photo on each page of each album to get it over with.

But then I started thinking about how non-random it seemed to have chunks of the same events in the same album. There could be four different things on one page, but if I flipped the page and saw three of the four photos were taken in the same places as the previous one, the element of surprise was lost. I developed a plan, a set of standards by which I was to judge the quality of disorganization album by album. The number of “unique spots” (i.e. separate pages) was the maximum any one category of photos (time/place/person taken) in the old plans. To put myself up to a challenge I divided that number by 6 to create the target I call the “magic number”, or simply “M”.

To keep track of this I had to put together a spreadsheet with album numbers and categories to cross and form cells where a particular count could go. I coloured them according to how they compared to the album’s “M”. I shaded rows to indicate whether the album was for photos oriented horizontally, vertically, or both. I calculated totals in both directions by a variety of measures. Now I look at that and figure out how I want to move them around. It’s a long planning process and a such a headache that I only do this in large batches twice a year. And, much like the original decision to fill albums in no particular order, this can’t be simply abandoned as a plan unless I want the collection to get sloppy. But it’s a challenge, and a mixture of both mathematics and art sprinkled with signs of OCD. It changes the way I think about photography, and keeps me printing pictures when they’re almost always taken digitally. The collection is going to expand to 25,000 prints by the end of this year. Even taken over half my life, that’s still around 1800 per year. 150 per month. Five photos per day.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of doing this every time is that I have to go back and look over these photos at least twice a year. The memories are kept sharp. I know when and where most photos were taken, and looking through them frequently also preserves the third dimension of memories by preserving the “why”. Admittedly that why is sometimes for the purpose of numbers. Over time, though, even those photos may mature into a greater substance. Maybe creating my own challenge of quantity and variety is a rich memory of itself.

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