Navigating and using Twitter

Now that you have your account set up and have tweeted a few messages it’s time to learn about the available features and tools you can use to navigate Twitter and make your messages more visible.

I recommend opening your Twitter account in another browser window so you can try out the tools below as you are reading about them.

Basic tour:

twitter tour

Screenshot of Twitter profile page.

Once you have logged into your Twitter account you will see a header bar along the top of the screen; this bar contains a number of tools that will be visible from anywhere within the Twitter site.

Navigation Bar Buttons:

Click home to view your news feed. This is a constantly updating list of tweets from anyone you follow. Depending on how active the users are, the time of day, and many other factors, this feed can move very fast. Scroll up and down the page to read content.

home screen

You can also see trending topics on the side of the screen. These hashtags are current and and can be used to jump in on relevant and timely discussions. Click on a # symbol to view a sorted list of tweets using that hashtag.

Moments will open a view of stories that users have created from multiple selected tweets. Browse specific moments by clicking on any image in the center of the screen to expand that story.

You can create your own moments by clicking the button Create new Moment at the top of the screen and following the prompts to select a series of related tweets to share as a composed story.

If people have mentioned you in their tweet or liked/retweeted one of your tweets you will be able to tell by looking at the Notifications button; a number will appear next to the button if there are any new alerts.

This can be a great way to find other users who are interested in a topic you are writing about. You can click on an individual user’s picture icon to open their profile page and read some of their tweets, follow them, and interact.


This list shows any recent notifications.

Occasionally users will send a direct message. These messages are not publicly viewable tweets. You can view and respond to any messages by clicking the envelope icon.

Twitter bird:
Clicking the bird in the center of the header bar will refresh the page.

Search box:
Search for users by typing names, either using the Twitter handle (@username) or free text (Smithsonian American Art Museum). Search for topics, with or without using a hashtag (#) symbol to get a list of related options. Note that searching a topic will yield suggestions of both tweets and relevant users, as seen in the image below:


Science search, with people highlighted.

In this search for the word Science, Twitter suggests a selection of users who often tweet on this topic. You can see these users by clicking People near the top of the page. You can follow anyone of interest by clicking the Follow button near their name. To see tweets related to science, click Latest to see a chronological listing or Top to see a list of the most popular tweets on this topic. There are also options for viewing only related photos or videos.

Photo icon:
Click your profile picture to open up a dropdown menu. You can choose View profile to return to your page. You can also view your lists, moments, the help center, and log out of Twitter from this menu.

Click this button to begin composing a new tweet.

Tweeting: Tips and tools

Every tweet has three buttons underneath that allow you to interact with content.


Like button

Like button: Click the heart to show support for a tweet.



Retweet button

Retweet button:
Click the square arrows icon to share the content to your own profile. Once you click the button you can choose to add your own commentary above the original tweet (as seen in the image above), or to repost the tweet without adding any additional commentary.



Reply button

Reply button: This button will begin a tweet by inserting the username of the tweet author. Replying will begin a thread where tweets and responses appear nested so that other Twitter users can easily follow a conversation.


Expanded view showing original tweet at top, followed by a chronological list of replies from other Twitter users. Clicking on any tweet will reveal this view, along with replies, if any.

Note: If you are clicking reply, place a period before the @ symbol (as seen above where the message begins .@lawrence). If you omit the period the tweet will not show up in the news feeds of your followers unless they follow both you and the author of the original tweet, thus reducing visibility. Regardless, your reply will be visible to anyone who takes the time to click on a tweet to expand it.

Curate your content:

Your news feed (visible when you click the Home button) will be a chronological compilation of all the latest tweets from anyone you follow; this can at times be a lengthy, disjointed, and fast-moving list. However, you can use a few different tools to help you organize and curate the content.

Search box:

Use the search box at the top of the screen to search for any topics, hashtags, or people simply by typing into the box. In the example above the hashtag is on #climate, so the results will be slightly different than a search for #ClimateChange as a term without spaces. Just remember, when it comes to hashtags, spaces matter!

Whenever you see a hashtag you can click on it to bring up a list of all the tweets that have used it, regardless of who wrote them. Twitter will automatically show the view of what it considers top tweets and users related to the hashtag, but you can switch to a chronological view by clicking the Latest button located under the hashtag name.


You can find hashtags in the Trends box at the side of the screen and in tweets written by other users. Use relevant ones in your own tweets to have them appear in the context of bigger discussions happening around particular events and issues. If you attend any conventions, marches, or large social events see if there is an official hashtag for the event and use it in your tweets.

Create Lists:
You can manage your content around selected users or themes by creating lists, which can be a useful tool to filter the content you are viewing at a given time. You can create lists of users who often tweet about science or politics, users who are all librarians or all museum accounts, users who belong to your book club, or any other criteria that helps you to manage your Twitter content.

From your profile page, click the Lists button underneath your header image. At the side of the screen, select Create new list and type a name and description in the box that appears. From here you can search for users to add or select add from your followers to choose users.

To view or edit an existing list you just click on the list name in the center of the screen. Clicking the list name will show a chronologically organized page of tweets from only those users you have added to that list. If you curate your lists carefully they can become a powerful tool for reading, retweeting, and connecting with people around current political issues.

Multipart tweets:
Have a little more to say than 140 characters will allow? You can handle this by replying to your own tweet to expand on your original thoughts. Just hit reply to your tweet, erase the twitter username that automatically appears in the box, and type your text.


Just remember that Twitter is supposed to be a microblog so don’t overuse the reply feature to make too many long-form posts.

Let’s get going!
Now that you have a few tools at your disposal you are ready to get tweeting. Start out slow and build your following. Regardless of the scope of interaction (measured by the number of likes, mentions, or retweets that you get) the goal of political outreach on social media is to make your messages visible, especially to your representatives and vested groups, so keep that in mind. Remember, your messages are adding to the power of the collective voice, even if it sometimes feels like speaking into a void.

Some of the these WikiHow articles might also help as you learn to use Twitter:
How to get more followers:

How to delete a retweet:

How to use Twitter:


Setting up your Twitter account

Follow the steps below to get your Twitter account up and running. I have included screenshots with boxes, arrows, and additional text to help highlight the areas of action detailed in each step.

Set up your account:

  1. Go to Twitter. Open your web browser and type into the address bar (or click the Twitter link in this sentence); this will open the landing page.
  2. Sign up. Once at the Twitter website, click the Sign up button located near the top of the screen.
    Twitter landing page

    Twitter landing page at

    3. Enter basic information. Fill in the form boxes with your name, email address, and a password (choose one at least 6 characters long that you can easily remember). Click the Sign up button.


    Account setup screen.

    4. Pick a username. Type your username into the box. The name has to be under 15 characters in length. Try to pick something catchy and easy to remember, if possible. Twitter will alert you if username is already in use, and as you type alternative suggestions will appear below the box. When finished, click Next.


    Username selection screen.

    5. Congratulations, your account is set up. Click Let’s go! to start tailoring your preferences and profile.


    6. Select interests (optional). The next few screens will help to tailor your Twitter account to your interests. Click on a few of the suggested categories and/or use the box to start typing in your own. One you have selected a few, click Continue.

    Twitter will always try to suggest users, news stories, and tweets that it thinks align with your interests. This is information it uses to get started with this process. Select as many or as few as you like (I prefer fewer so I can select and curate for myself later on).


    7. Follow people in your email contact list (optional). If you use selected email services such as Gmail or Outlook you have the option to search contacts to see if anyone you know is on Twitter. If you want to let Twitter do a search, check the box under your email provider and then click Import contacts.

    If you prefer not to search your email contacts, simply skip this entire step by clicking No thanks.

    If you allow the import, Twitter will not automatically follow anyone in your contacts list who has a Twitter account, but it will suggest them as users to follow.


    8. Make the timeline yours. On this screen you will see a list of people and organizations that Twitter thinks might be of interest based on your contacts and/or the interests you selected earlier. Check Select all to follow everyone, or scroll down the list and uncheck the boxes next to any (or all) that you would prefer not to follow. Then, click the Follow button near the top of the screen.


    9. Your new profile is ready! Now you are ready to spruce it up with an (optional) picture and information. You can fill in as much or little as you like, which we will go through in step 11.


    10. Take a minute to exit Twitter and check your email. Twitter will have sent you an email welcoming you to the service and asking you to click a link to confirm your account. Click that link from within your email and it will open your Twitter profile and confirm the account in one step. (You can also save this step for later, if you wish).

    11. Go back to Twitter. If you have left Twitter to check your email, go back to Twitter. Sign in to your account if prompted using your username and password.

    12. Take a look at your profile. Your new profile page will look fairly blank. You will notice your username appears on the side of your screen in small letters below your name and a box with a camera icon.

    The middle portion of the screen will display some sample tweets to help you get started—these are just samples, but you can tweet one (optional) by clicking Tweet next to the desired wording.

    The side of the screen will display suggestions on more user to follow, and below that some trending hashtags that many people are using right now. The empty egg next to the suggested tweets is how your picture will currently appear to other Twitter users.


    13. Add a profile picture. This is optional, but many users will assume the account is a fake (automated bot or troll account) if it has no picture or information. You want to impact people—especially your congressional representatives—so it’s worth taking the time to add a personal element. You can go back any time and change photos and information on your profile.

    Click the camera icon on the side of the screen and select Upload photo from the dropdown menu.

    A dialog box will open so that you can find and select an image to place. (It’s easiest to put an image that you want to use someplace easy to locate on your computer, such as on the desktop or in your computer documents folder.) Find your image from your computer in the dialog box and click on it to highlight.

    Note: Your image has to be a jpeg file, so look for images that say .jpg after the name. You can see in my screenshot below that the image I picked is called “mesmall.jpg.”

    highlighted an image, press Open at the bottom of the dialog box. Your image will now appear on your profile.



    Detail view. After you select your photo you will be able to zoom and crop to make it fit the frame better. This allows you to focus closer on your face, if desired.

    14. Edit the rest of your profile. Now that you have a profile picture, click the Edit profile button on the side of the screen.


    15. The editable view will appear. Use the same procedure as outlined above to add a header image, if desired. Type a bio (optional) into the field at the side of the screen. This can be fun or informational—just keep it short because Twitter limits you to 160 characters in this section. Add your location, a personal website, and your birthday, if desired. Change the color of your header bar using the Theme color selector (optional).

    Once you are done making updates, click Save changes.



    Detail view. Once you select a header image you can use the slider bar to zoom and drag your image around the frame, if desired.

    Start Tweeting:

    Now that you have everything set up, send a few tweets out into the world.

    1. Write your first tweet. If you have not composed any tweets yet your profile page will display a message that reads “Send your first Tweet.” Click in the white box under “Or write your own” and begin to type your message.

    You can use up to 140 characters, including all punctuation and spaces. A red number below the box is a remaining character count. Every time you type a tweet Twitter will display this number to help you keep track (and display a – number to let you know how far past your limit you have gone).

    Once you are finished, click Tweet.


    Your tweet is now public! All of your tweets will appear in the center of your profile page. They will also show up in news feeds of anyone who follows you, as well as in the lists of any hashtags you have used in the tweet.

    If you have tweeted at a particular user by typing the @ followed by their username (ex. @RepJohnKatko or @IndivisibleOsw) they will get a notification that someone has mentioned them in a tweet.


    2. Your profile page will begin to look more like this as it fills up with content you are sharing. To send out additional tweets, look at the top of your screen and locate the Tweet button. Clicking this from any page within Twitter will open a box to compose a new tweet.


    Now that you are up and running with Twitter, use the following links to check out my other posts on how to make the most of your account:

    Basic tour:
    A tour of basic Twitter features and advice on navigating, searching, and interacting.

    Users and hashtags to follow for political discourse:
    This list is a small selection of users and topics related to current political issues. It includes policymakers, activist groups, and topical hashtags related to the environment and science, healthcare, and so forth.

    Engaging and amplifying your message:
    Post about how and why to leverage Twitter to amplify grassroots messages.

Suggested Hashtags and Twitter users to follow in the current political Climate

The pace of political and civic discourse can be hard to follow in the current political climate and disengaging for even a day can result in feeling woefully out of touch. The following list of Twitter users and hashtags is not meant to be exhaustive, but rather to provide a starting place for engaging on social media in order to promote dialog around a number of different political and social justice issues.

Grassroots and civil rights organizations:
We the People of Oswego Indivisible-
Grassroots organization working toward promoting a better society and community through encouraging socially responsible government actions: @IndivisibleOsw

Indivisible NY 24th
Project of CNY Solidarity and set up to resist harmful political agendas: @IndivisibleNY24

Indivisible Syracuse-Committed to keeping our elected representatives accountable in this new political era: @indivisiblesyr

Indivisible Guide-Former congressional staffers reveal best practices for making Congress listen: @IndivisibleTeam

CNY Solidarity Coalition-Grassroots organization working to support Central New York through resisting damaging political policies and agendas: @CNYSolidarity

American Civil Liberties Union @ACLU

New York Civil Liberties Union



Environment and science:
Al Gore-Frequently tweets about climate science, clean energy, and other environmental issues

Climate Reality-Group founded by Al Gore to work toward stopping climate change

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-Content and links from the general EPA branch

U.S. EPA Research-Tweets, links, and information from the EPA Research Department

Greenpeace-Environmental activist organization
@Greenpeace activist organization

Bill McKibben-Author of The End Of Nature and founder of @billmckibben

March For Science-Official account of the grassroots initiative surrounding the upcoming march on Washington, D.C.: @ScienceMarchDC

NY Academy of Sciences @NYASciences


News and reporters:
Oswego County News Now
The New York Times @nytimes
Washington Post @washingtonpost
The Hill @thehill
Andrea Mitchell @mitchellreports
CNN Politics @CNNPolitics
Rachel Maddow @maddow
Politico @politico
AM Joy @amjoyshow
Joy Ann Reid @JoyAnnReid
Jake Tapper @jaketapper
Carl Zimmer @carlzimmer
Chuck Todd @chucktodd
Meet the Press @MeetThePress
David Corn @DavidCornDC

Politicians, political staff, agencies:
Donald Trump @realDonaldTrump
Reince Priebus @Reince
Kellyanne Conway @KellyannePolls
Mike Pence @mike_pence
Paul Ryan @SpeakerRyan
Mitch McConnell @SenateMajLdr
Scott Pruitt @EPAScottPruitt

Congressman John Katko @RepJohnKatko
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand @SenGillibrand
Senator Chuck Schumer @SenSchumer
Congresswoman Claudia Tenney @RepTenney and @claudiatenney
Governor Andrew Cuomo @NYGovCuomo

State of New York @NYGov

Resistance, marches, and democracy:
Women’s March-
Official account for the Women’s March, they are continuing to support a community of grassroots resistance through ongoing engagement and action: @womensmarch

March For Science-
Official account of the grassroots initiative surrounding the upcoming march on Washington, D.C.: @ScienceMarchDC


Healthcare, Affordable Care Act, and American Health Care Act:

Budget cuts/cultural organizations:




Engage in a Public Way and Amplify the Message

Social Media allows ordinary people and grassroots organizations to make an impact in the public sphere, which helps to extend traditional means of communication and make our background activities visible. When highly visible, this activity has tremendous power to energize others and to make politicians aware that people are thinking, talking, meeting, organizing, and acting around issues.

See the bottom of this post for a quick list of ways to get started using your Twitter account for political discourse.

Don’t have a Twitter account yet? Click here to view a step-by-step setup tutorial.


Calling and writing to elected officials is an essential way to begin communications, but that shouldn’t be where it ends. There is power in articulating via a Tweet that you have used these traditional channels because it reminds others to do the same. Tweeting also collects public visual evidence that multiple constituents care about the same issues—and more importantly, makes it harder for politicians to say they have not heard from people about a particular topic.

If you can’t get through to your representatives, you can also Tweet about that point and still make your voice heard. Tweet directly at your representative and they (or someone from their office) will undoubtedly see it. A bonus is that the tweet will also be visible to anyone else following that individual.


Tip for replying:
When replying or Tweeting directly to a user make sure to use a period before their handle if it appears as the first word in the body text so that it is visible to everyone:
.@RepJohnKatko or .@IndivisbleOsw or .@nytimes

If you begin the text with a username but no period in front Twitter will treat it as a reply and only people who follow both you and the person you are tweeting will have the Tweet appear in their news feed.


Contribute to a larger discussion by using hashtags whenever possible. You can help to organize the information people and organizations are sharing and also amplify the discussion around topics and events that you care about. Look at trending topics on the side of your Twitter news feed for ideas, but also keep in mind standards such as #ClimateChange #ScienceMatters #Resist #ACA #AHCA #NoBanNoWall #RefugeesWelcome #Tumpcare, #LoveTrumpsHate, and so forth.

If you attend an event or protest march, make sure to check whether there is an official hashtag, such as #WomensMarch.

Using a common hashtag will help groups and users collect related tweets and this heightens the power of the message. It also helps you to follow a specific topic because you can click on a term such as #ScienceMarch in a tweet—or search for a hashtag at the top of the screen—and see a listing of all the latest Twitter conversations and news that have used that tag. This can be especially useful for fast-paced topics or tracking events as they unfold.


#ScienceMarch is already building content around the upcoming March for Science and it will continue to unite voices during and after the official event(s).

Groups can also leverage Twitter hashtags to create a compact record of curated tweets surrounding an issue or event. This can create manageable, sharable highlights culled from a massive amount of information, such as the examples below that have used an app called Storify to tell a cohesive narrative about the Day of Facts hashtag that had museums, libraries, and other institutions countering the idea of alternative facts:


Day of Facts Storify

or a resource guide related to the Women’s March:


There are many ways to create an impact at the local and national level through positive reinforcement of messages and through vocal dissent. Make a visible impact by supporting causes and groups that align with your views and retweeting and commenting on their content. Make sure to add your own voice and tweet at them about experiences that they can use to bolster their own messages. Include them, when appropriate, if you express dissent to a politician. This adds to a sense of a collective voice and helps to amplify the message.

Example of impact:
We the People Oswego Indivisible have tweeted images of people visiting Representative John Katko’s local office and being allowed in only three at a time. The text recounts being told that a larger number of individuals being present at the office constitutes a protest, rather than a meeting. It’s a good message to share widely because it underscores the then still-growing narrative that John Katko was refusing office access to his constituents.


Other people and groups were also tweeting about access issues:

Because of pressure on a number of fronts, the representative eventually held a Facebook town hall meeting. This event was not especially popular, and he has now finally promised to be more publicly available to his constituents. Twitter is a part of the impact, and certainly provides a public record of that promise—this is the power that social media holds as an archive of dialog and stated promises (just look how often the news media consults Trump’s Twitter feed for evidence of his changing stance on issues!).

Syracuse katkprotestkatkosidewalktalkmoreavailable

Federal and State agencies are often on Twitter, so don’t forget to follow and tweet at them about policies and regulations. This is another place to share your thoughts directly with policymakers and often get to the source, rather than just speaking to a representative when it’s time to vote.


Social media also has the power to help reshape the dialog around issues or terms. This can include reclaiming the use of a word or phrase, turning an initiative or hashtag into a counter narrative, or correcting misleading news or information.

We the People Oswego Indivisible
posted this corrective tweet in reply to a news article in the Palladium-Times suggesting that an organized group of protestors was disappointed that John Katko was not present at his Oswego office. Sharing the photo also added to the public documentation of groups protesting outside his other offices, thus giving power to the collective voice of his constituents.


Reclaiming the term nasty woman (and the subsequent use of #NastyWomen and #NastyWoman) has led to many tweets about empowerment for women everywhere. Many grassroots campaigns have also pulled on this unifying message, which has effectively turned a derogatory comment into a rallying cry for powerful women.


Screenshot of recent Twitter search result for #nastywomen.

Creating a counter-narrative around the term alternative facts happened almost immediately on Twitter, and it is still ongoing.


Similarly, the general dialog about the #BoycottBudwiser [sic] hashtag was quickly and rather brilliantly turned around, becoming a conversation largely about tolerance toward immigrants (and yes, a lot of hate-shaming too) as opposed to the initial reaction against a corporation showcasing an immigrant story in an advertisement.


In 2011 the Library of Congress began archiving all of the public Tweets as a significant social record. While they are having trouble dealing with the volume of information and thus are not yet making it publicly accessible (read: searchable), it is still an important future resource. Researchers will find analysis essential to understanding differing political views, the makeup of user bases, the most important issues, the incidence of trolling, the changing patterns of engagement, and countless other topics that this data can reveal.

In the meantime, researchers are already using Twitter data for less robust, but still important, analytics and contributing to the public discourse (and dissent) of this period in history is important.

You can also do some of your own fast analytics to get a quick snapshot of what a Twitter user or group is most frequently talking about. This can be a good way to get an initial grasp on a public figure’s focus.


Try it:
Go to the website above and type any Twitter user name (@RepJohnKatko, @nytimes, @ACLU, etc.) into the white box at the bottom of the screen. The site will generate an  interactive chart showing the most frequently used terms and the corresponding tweets, color coded for easy reference. You can also click bubbles to reveal and sort the individual tweets that use a particular term.

Get started now!

Click here to view a separate post about some suggested users to follow and hashtags to employ to leverage the power of Twitter as an information source.

Use your Twitter feed to network with groups and individuals you support, and also some with whom you may disagree. Start with a few users, such as:

Indivisible OswegoNY @IndivisibleOsw
State of New York @NYGov
Nat’l Endow f/t Arts @NEAarts
Climate Reality @ClimateReality
ACLU National @ACLU

Follow news outlets and reporters:
Oswego County News Now @OswegoCoNewsNow
The New York Times @nytimes
Andrea Mitchell @mitchellreports
CNN Politics @CNNPolitics
Rachel Maddow @maddow

Follow your local and national politicians, then see if you can follow their campaign managers and staff members. This will give you insights into the people around them.

Just a few examples:
Donald Trump @realDonaldTrump
Reince Priebus @Reince
Kellyanne Conway @KellyannePolls
Mike Pence @mike_pence
Paul Ryan @SpeakerRyan
Leader McConnell @SenateMajLdr
Administrator Pruitt @EPAScottPruitt

John Katko @RepJohnKatko
Kirsten Gillibrand @SenGillibrand
Chuck Schumer @SenSchumer

Then take a look at who they follow. This will tell you what groups and people are having some influence over their ideas and beliefs. Just remember, they will also likely follow some people who have dissenting views, so look at their followers within the context of the things they tweet and say.

Do some searches on hashtags and topics:


See what different people are saying. Click on users to open their profiles and follow more people you find interesting. Retweet and start conversations about any important or relevant content.

Make sure your own profile has some kind of an image and ideally a few words about yourself or your interests. A profile with a generic egg image is often viewed by others as either a lazy or disinterested user or, more maliciously, a likely troll or bot account. Your content will have more impact if it seems genuine right from the crafting of your profile.

Start tweeting at your representatives:

Type a tweet to @RepJohnKatko to express your thoughts on a topic of interest, especially one that is making news today. Try saying something about climate change, education, healthcare, or immigration; ask him to vote no on a particular bill; tweet pictures of a protest, etc.

Tell him (and everyone else) that you called his office today to talk about the #ACA, or that you wrote a letter to him about immigration. Post a picture if you sent a letter so that everyone else can read it too!
postcard to katkotweet

Tweet about topics that you care about:

Find a few relevant hashtags and start writing tweets that use them.

Get in the habit of sharing calls to action from your favorite organizations—things like the dates of protests, Wikipedia edit-a-thons, grassroots letter campaigns, and so forth.


Screenshot of a great call to action for the initiative to increase the visibility of women artists by adding and expanding entries in Wikipedia. Social media can be a great place to learn about, begin, share, or join these kinds of efforts.

Take pictures when you go to events, meetings, and marches. Post these and use relevant hashtags and tweet to group names (ex. @IndivisibleOsw) so they can have a record of activity. The more visibility a cause or event gets, the more impact it has. Look at how coverage of the Women’s March ballooned. It began as an idea mentioned on social media and became a worldwide network of related marches. Other protests have sprung up and spread in similar ways and keeping that momentum is essential!


Remember that both local and national issues are important. Use a variety of hashtags and message content types. Tweet at local groups and at national reporters and politicians. It’s surprising how often a national news reporter will respond or share an exchange, which can amplify your message.

Finally, remember that small actions count. Don’t get overwhelmed, just start adding your voice to the record.

It’s been more than awhile…

I have been away from this blog for some time, engaged in work and life but always thinking about art and writing. I work with a photographic collection in a library and that has occupied more than a little of my time. I also write for several institutional blogs and at another personal blog 23 Things- A Journey and Reflection, and design, create, read, look–my time is awfully divided some days.

But I’m always looking, thinking, filing away ideas. Then a person wrote recently to ask a very astute question about one of my posts, and I had the desire to revisit my writings here. So I’m back and ready to fill my need to write and reflect on art and design and, hopefully, to engage.

Here’s to new beginnings and to my mission that I articulated when I began this blog of writing it all down–or some of it anyway!
2.1 The search is on

Photography: Another throwback

I saw an article on Mashable Tech today that contained an infographic put together by the Adobe design team that is responsible for digital photography software production. It seems to me that every few months I see such a graphic or a story about the last Kodachrome chemicals; all inevitably pose the “provocative” question about whether people remember or miss getting film developed. Provocative, of course, because the questioners know it to be a cheap and easy way to elicit the predictable pro and anti, bleeding heart responses, with a few accusations on each side that people don’t recognize quality or (the only possible comeback) people that don’t love digital are OLD.

Despite the predictability of these responses, however, it got me thinking about why people are so vehement in their position and of course it got me a little nostalgic for film. For starters, let me refute the idea that all people that have a soft spot for film are old–I received my BFA in photography in 2000 and my MFA in 2004. I learned to shoot and process film and when I taught basic photography we used traditional darkroom techniques. This is still done in many places and it is not because those institutions are behind the times. It is done this way because the processes still have value and learning them tends to lead to a better mastery of the camera–this is unarguably a prerequisite to becoming a professional.

I should mention that I shoot and process my work digitally. It is difficult to argue against the accessibility of software as opposed to chemistry. However, I do remember the magic of watching an image develop on paper or the anticipation of waiting for the film to come off the reel. This was part of the collective experience of traditional processing and to deny this would be inhuman. But to dwell on this mysticism is also to trivialize the value of chemical processing. It taught me patience and made me learn how to control my camera. I learned to shoot a lot, but also to pay attention to what I was shooting and to how I was composing. Digital often robs people of this ability because the idea that everything can be fixed in post processing takes over. Shoots get sloppy and there is no need to pay attention to the single frame. Memory is cheap, so just shoot, shoot, shoot and hope for the best. Also, as our level of patience has diminished our expectation that electronics will handle all the details has increased. Thus, using the manual functions of a camera, still necessary to fully control your imagery, is becoming unthinkable to many. This is, perhaps, what some of those sputtering respondents mean when they proclaim digital will always be inferior to film.

There is, I believe, another reason that digital photography has inspired a backlash unlike the digitization of other materials. Interestingly, photography has a dynamic history that is still young, at least compared to that of ceramics, sculpture, or painting; and yet, while truly archaic processes are still prized in those fields, basic photography has a rap for being old and outdated. It carries a sense of backwardness and those clinging are not valuing history, they are simply anti-technologists. This is unfair, but perhaps fitting in such a rapidly changing medium. However, while improvements in chemistry have replaced early methods–daguerreotypes, anyone, how about nitrate films–and have been embraced along the way, digital processes are different. Digital photography does not build on tradition; it is not the next advancement of process but instead a radical departure. It is perhaps the abject rejection of film and chemistry that stings for so many people. It is, like so much in our culture, easy to perceive this as a rejection of history, tradition, and wisdom–it is youth gone wild.

So as not to end with poetics, which seem to exacerbate the existing perception problems, let me stand in a gray area. Digital photography is the obvious path. It is cleaner, more environmentally responsible, and more accessible (I won’t touch the subset of photographers that think it is this very accessibility that deflates the sails of a “complex” field; I will save that for another day). It is a powerful tool that has come into its own. But there is still a need for film. It imbues us with a sense of patience and sharpens our skills; this is crucial in the learning stages. There is a Zen-like quality that needs to be realized in order to combat the instantaneousness of digital photo. Not to diminish instant photography, but in the learning stages a full mastery of the medium and tools is just not encouraged by this approach. So bring on both–it will keep future photographers grounded in excellent technique and will prevent us from slipping into the perpetual cult of the amateur.          


Today seems like a good day for a little nostalgia. New year, looking forward, looking back–you get the idea. I received a BFA in photography in 2000 and an MFA in photography in 2004. That means that I honed my craft in the wake of transitions to digital photography. Those transitions were swift and sometimes difficult for many who had been invested in film photography for the better part of their lives. I shot many roles of film, developed many prints, and spent hours bent over chemical baths. And this process was wonderful. There is indeed something magical about watching an image appear on paper or unrolling that film from the reel. I have spent more time on digital processes, but I can still admit with the most ardent film supporters that something intangible is gone from the process.

In my entire life I have only shot one roll of Kodachrome. It was difficult to have processed because it needed to be mailed to a lab. I am more of an instant turnaround time fan. And yet, the colors truly were superior. I can see why it earned legendary status in the photo world and even in popular culture. It was jarring a few years ago to hear the inevitable announcement that Kodak would no longer produce the film. It was simply sad to hear last week that the last role was processed. The last of the chemicals are gone. It made me think of holding unprocessed rolls. Of people discovering rolls years later and revealing the contents, sometimes after the photographer had died. It made think of the excitement and mystery of stumbling upon something and the anticipation of waiting for the reveal. And it made me sad to think that those undeveloped Kodachrome rolls out there in the world will be lost. We have lost a little slice of something monumental here and it warrants reflection.

Check out the Mashable Magazine article here: