Miskatonic University Press

Ruskin on cameras

quotes art

In the “Who’s Reading What” column of The Globe and Mail on Saturday 26 June 2009, Alain de Botton says he is reading The Elements of Drawing by John Ruskin.

The most common response to seeing something beautiful in the world is to take a picture of it or grab the video camera. But this wasn’t always the way, and 19th-century art critic John Ruskin, who lived at just the time that people started using cameras, has some fascinating criticisms to make of the camera in a book which every traveller should read, The Elements of Drawing. In his view, taking pictures often prevents people from seeing. Rather than allowing them to see the world more clearly and remember it, it actually distracts them from patient observation.

Ruskin suggested that, when we go travelling, we keep the camera at home and instead resort to two things: drawing and writing. Even if we can’t draw at all, Ruskin asked us to have a go, and his book tells us just how we should start to do so.

Drawing something, however badly, always helps you to notice it properly, as does trying to write it down in words. This is a book guaranteed to fix your memories far better than any camera.

I have a two-year-old Canon A430 Powershot digital camera. It’s about average as non-SLR digital cameras go, I think, which means it’s a technological marvel. But it’s not good at capturing anything of large scale. Taking a picture of a glowing orange sunset over a lake or the shades of dark and light green now covering Toronto’s ravines is a disappointment.

Part of this is the camera, and different lenses would help. Part of it is me, and more talent would help. But part of it is that the camera just isn’t the best way of capturing the scene. A drawing can be far truer.

A relative of mine, a good artist, doesn’t take a camera when he travels. He takes sketchbooks, pens and pencils, and a small watercolour kit. He has a shelf of books filled with drawings and paintings from all over the world, and they’re far better than any photo album. A building here, an old woman there, a cafe, a hill, a bus, sometimes drawn in haste and sometimes worked on slowly over an afternoon. There’s a story behind each one.

I borrowed The Elements of Drawing from the library today. I haven’t found where Ruskin says travellers should not take a camera with them but instead write and draw, but I expect to after a closer reading. If I find the exact quote, I’ll update this; if not, and in the future you see read this and happen to know where Ruskin says this, please let me know.