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When my own albums fail me, I go down the rabbit hole of Google image search.James Wood, in “How Fiction Works,” writes that photographs can deaden prose.
Photography has changed not only the way that I make notes but also the way that I write.
Like an endless series of prompts, the photographs are a record of half-formed ideas to which I hope to return.
Even when I’m writing longhand, it’s rare that I do not have my photo gallery open, or have a few photographs in front of me.
If I am trying to describe a place, I find pictures that I took of that place; if I am sketching a human subject, I look for images of her.
When I need the title of a novel someone recommended, I just scroll back to the day we were at the bookstore together.
Looking through my photo stream, there is a caption about Thomas Jefferson smuggling seeds from Italy, which I want to research; a picture of a tree I want to identify, which I need to send to my father; the nutritional label from a seasoning that I want to re-create; and a man with a jungle of electrical cords in the coffee shop, whose picture I took because I wanted to write something about how our wireless lives are actually full of wires.Last year, I wrote something about a leech salesman whom I’d met in Istanbul.Weeks later, a friend who had been with me in Turkey wrote to say how impressed she was by the particulars that I had been able to recount.“Did you make detailed notes that day, or do you simply remember all this? In fact, I had written the essay after studying photographs that I had taken of the man and his leeches.When she praised a specific bit of description, I had to admit that it hadn’t come about spontaneously—it was only after looking carefully at the photographs and trying out various metaphors that I settled on the idea that the leeches were gathered around the middle of the bottle like a belt.That is why I have found myself so willing to put down my notebooks and rely fully on my photo stream.My photographs are a more useful first draft than my attempted prose was, a richer archive than the pages of my binders.I can’t remember exactly when I stopped carrying a notebook.Sometime in the past year, I gave up writing hurried descriptions of people on the subway, copying the names of artists from museum walls and the titles of books in stores, and scribbling down bits of phrases overheard at restaurants and cafés.Photographs that may deaden the prose of a fiction writer might enliven the work of an essayist; the same photographs that enable the precision of the journalist might inspire the whimsy of a poet.Digital photography, endless and inexpensive, has made us all into archivists.