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  • Writer's pictureDon Toothaker

There is No App for It

Updated: Apr 29

Conversation is necessary. Engaging with people, talking and sharing ideas, is invaluable to our social structure and essential to every photographer. The information highway we travel on with our phones, tablets, and laptops is fast and helpful, but the road is cold. Technology, despite its ease and many powers, has no pulse; none. But people do. Photographers, armed with an array of technology, still benefit from taking the time to talk to people they meet along the way. Wherever we are, the warmth of human interaction and the influence of conversation is critical. It is also irreplaceable. There is no app for it.

Every photographer, including myself, benefits from modern technology. Aside from our cameras and lenses, the capability at our fingertips is astonishing. On a Monday, someone can order a camera kit, have it delivered to their door the next day, and spend the rest of the week surfing the web for volumes of information on how to use their new camera. By the weekend, they can be out creating photographs and editing with the software they recently downloaded. Apps on their phone allow them to track the weather, determine sunrise times and locations, predict the quality of a sunset, chart precisely where the moon will rise, and so much more. Before leaving home, they have already researched where to be, the best time of day to be there, things to do once there, and where to eat. The day the budding photographer ordered their camera kit, they also booked flights, secured a hotel room, and rented a vehicle. Every exchange of information and money that did or will occur during this week was done on a keyboard or keypad. All of this without speaking to anyone. Not a single human interaction. Yes, this is indeed astonishing, but also quite alarming. The more time we spend hovering over our phones, the less time we spend talking to each other. The less time we spend talking to each other, the more we risk losing. We cannot let this happen. Conversation is, and will always be, a vital resource for every photographer.

Photography is an intensely personal form of self-expression, communication, and art. At its core, photography is a solitary endeavor. Photographers, relying on their private thoughts, concepts, and imagination, are often content to retreat into themselves and work alone. However, even alone, every photograph created originates with a conversation between the photographer and their ideas. At some point, most photographers hope their private, internal conversations help produce imagery that engages others in broader, humanized conversation. We use technology to post images to social media sites, websites, and galleries, but we do so hoping for and needing human connection. There is hope. Today, using technology, I am sharing my ideas, thoughts, and feelings with all of you. I am inviting you into my conversation. We need to talk. I want to talk.

During every excursion, I look forward to the images I may create. I am forever optimistic about what might happen, what I might see, and who I might meet. Once upon a time, I desired to photograph only the solitude of nature. I did so by myself; for myself. Today, I welcome every creative opportunity in every genre of photography. I do so for myself; with others. Time and travel have taught me that people, one way or another, are a significant part of my creative life. I have always been social, but now, more than ever, I am aware of people and their presence. Yes, I can look up an encyclopedia of information instantly on my phone, but that will never be more gratifying than speaking to the guy at the general store who knows where to get the best lunch or coffee in town. Googling anything will never be more rewarding than talking to someone on the street who stops to ask what I am taking a photo of. No app can be more enriching than meeting a fisherman working on the docks or another photographer walking the same trail I am. Every conversation is a path to opportunity. To be the best photographer I can be, I need people and the conversations that flow from them.

A few weekends ago, I held a workshop in Central Maine that, by design, was limited to the confines of a historic meeting house. My itinerary had us spending each day in the old building exploring light, shadow, texture, and shape. The concept was to encourage attendees to become more intimate with a single subject and, inevitably, more intimate with their creative thinking and themselves. I gave each participant a journal for recording personal thoughts regarding our mutual assignment and the weekend. No high-tech note-taking on a phone or iPad; just old-fashioned pen and paper. Firmly believing the creative process of photography stems from the warmth of one's soul, I encouraged the participants to talk openly and share their feelings, thoughts, and ideas for all to hear. I wanted to stimulate conversation. We all got more than expected.

I often state that I am not a portrait photographer. I am not. What I am is a photographer of opportunity. While engrossed in one thing, I will happily switch my creative gears when and if something else occurs. As a photographer, I believe you must be ready when life happens. Using technology will undoubtedly prove effective in securing an abundance of creative moments, but I will always prefer the opportunities that arise from human interaction. My group and I were wonderfully reminded of that lesson a few times while in Central Maine. Our goal was to photograph an old building, but when new opportunities arose from conversations had with others, we took them.

During our brief time in Skowhegan, my group and I met a few exceptional people. Two of them none of us had ever met before. One of them I knew, but no one else did. One of them a few of us have known for a while now. Each one of these people became an intricate part of our weekend. Each one of them became a subject; a portrait. I chose to represent their portraits in color. Most often, I default to monochrome for portraiture, but each of these individuals are colorful beings who added a significant amount of color to our experience.

Portrait Number One: Dave Dostie

Before our scheduled meeting one recent afternoon at the South Solon Meetinghouse in Central Maine, I had never met Dave in person or even spoken to him on the phone. We follow each other on Social Media and respect each other's work. Our “conversations” were limited to likes and comments on our photographs, but I watched Dave and his work closely. Dave has a full-time job outside of photography, but he spends as much time behind his camera as he can for himself and his community. His photojournalistic approach to assignments he shoots for various magazines in and around Maine always holds a personal touch to them. He is never merely an observer, but instead a participant. Subsequently, his images bring you into a scene instead of simply showing it to you. That is special. Dave lives in Augusta Maine and proudly proclaims that. During two huge winter storms in January of this year, businesses, residences, and people suffered due to massive flooding along the Kennebec River. Dave photographed the resulting damage and chaos, but his images were not just photos of flooding or victims to be seen in the news; they were intimate looks at his community. His images displayed excellent photojournalism skills, but his obvious care and compassion as a person made me want to meet this man and talk. Trusting in my instincts, and using technology, I asked Dave to join me and my group for an afternoon at the meetinghouse as a guest. From the moment Dave arrived and began to interact with everyone and myself, I knew I was right. I was more than right.

Portrait Number Two: Elle

While having dinner one night in Skowhegan, our server was this lovely young lady; Elle. At 18 years old, she presented herself as calm, confident, and socially gifted. It took only a few moments of conversation to realize her inner beauty. She is nice, she is smart, and she is ambitious. She has her eyes set on her future clearly and determinedly. Elle appears a wonderful young lady, but in talking, I could sense something “more” about her. She is, and will be, someone who lights up any room, or life, she walks into. Due to her presence, people do and will gravitate to her. While taking our orders for dinner, she asked about our weekend plans. I explained we were having a photography workshop in Solon at the meetinghouse for the next few days. She excitedly explained that her mom had been a photographer in Brooklyn New York before they moved to Skowhegan a few years ago. Elle also proudly told us she had modeled for brand names such as Ralph Lauren as a young girl in Brooklyn. Amid the excited chatter, I casually stated how nice it would have been to have her model for the group this weekend. She smiled and said she was free in the morning. Caught off guard, I invited her to join us but insisted she bring a parent as a chaperone. There was more excited chatter about this unexpected plan, but when we left that night, and even in the morning, I was not sure the moment would happen. Elle and her Mom showed up at 9:30. Elle spent an hour posing for us by the beautiful window light in the old meetinghouse.

Portrait Number Three: Jay Libby

Jay Libby is a Mainer through and through. To me, that means he is hard-working, resourceful, and compassionate. At 68 years old, Jay is still a big, powerful-looking man. Upon meeting him, you immediately sense his towering strength, but it only takes a few moments of conversation to realize his true strength from his gentle, family-oriented nature. This man is full of love and appreciation for his family and life. I met Jay and his family last year while leading another class at the South Solon Meeting House. Upon his entry into the old church, his physical presence was impossible to ignore, but it was the tone of his voice that caught my attention. He was reverent. Despite growing up nearby, Jay was visiting the meetinghouse for the first time. He was vocally in awe of the frescoes and the spiritual mood found in the church. Listening to him talk to his son, wife, and grandkids inspired me to say hello and tell him what I knew about the meetinghouse. From there, we kept in touch and formed a friendship. While my group and I were in Skowhegan this year, he invited us to visit his maple sugaring operation at his property in nearby Cornville. It was a wonderful diversion from what we were doing. We were greeted and treated like family.

Portrait Number Four: Rob Coughlin

I met Rob Coughlin about ten years ago on one of my photo walks in Boston. From the moment we first met, our conversation flowed easily and naturally. It took one moment to realize he was worth knowing as a person and friend. Over the past several years, we have seen each other many times as photographers and friends. In that time, he suffered more than his share of personal challenges. When he lost first his father and then his brother, he accepted the responsibilities of settling their estates and taking care of things for his family. When his beautiful Mom began to show signs of aging and not taking as good care of herself as possible living on her own, he selflessly moved her into his humble one-bedroom apartment in Wiscasset Maine. Rob took the couch for a few years while making his mother as comfortable as he could. While settling his Mom in and looking after her, Rob learned he had cancer; some really bad cancer that required a lot of treatment and surgery. Not once through all of that did I ever him complain or lament “poor me”. He simply soldiered on as a man with a great sense of humility and strength. When I first met him, he earned my respect as a good, solid human being, but through him, I have witnessed what that means. The world needs a whole lot more Rob Coughlin’s. Anyone who knows him would tell you the same thing. I am not only happy he is my friend but extremely proud he is. I ask him to join any of my groups in Maine for a day or so to enjoy his camaraderie. In the meetinghouse, he let me craft a portrait of him in the same window light I photographed Dave and Elle.

The power of conversation is real. Without it, we risk losing so much; too much. Personal communication creates the bonds that tie us together as friends, family, and community. As photographers, conversation and our ability to initiate conversation is a tremendously helpful resource. So many good opportunities arise from talking to each other. No, the guy in the general store probably cannot tell you where the moon will rise or exactly what time the sun sets. The person on the street most likely cannot tell you what the weather will be like later that day or the next. The fisherman, farmer, or market vendor cannot tell you if the Borealis will be visible that night. But they add the much-needed warmth of human connection. They can tell you other things, arguably more important things, than any app could. As we spend more time relying on technology for information and communication, the possibility of losing conversation is real. The possibility of losing the warmth and bonds of human connection already exists. We cannot let that happen as photographers and certainly not as a culture. Call someone and talk. Sit and have coffee with a friend and talk. Say hello to the person who made your coffee, chat with your mechanic, ask questions of your florist, or inquire about your neighbor. At a bare minimum, you might meet someone and take their portrait. Conversations open doors.

Photograph What You Feel

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Apr 14

Lovely stories of beautiful people by a caring, thoughtful photographer. Thanks for sharing the stories!


Marian Cole
Marian Cole
Apr 12

"Forever optimistic" says it all.


Bob Watts
Bob Watts
Apr 12

Thanks for the "No App for you" thoughts and reflections


Apr 12

You are a warm caring human being with a strong moral compass to be emulated. Once again putting a big smile on my face and looking to join you again to capture some more stories. Thank you for sharing your thoughts of real value.

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