Curators and Curating on the Beach

(This is a One Man’s Beach column for Oregon Coast Today that I wrote a while back, but never ran because the column was dropped after my arrest. I dearly miss writing this column, which ran for eight years and let me explore so many interesting ideas.)

There they were again, on the beach, another young couple, tourists (I can always tell), doing something that always arrests my attention.

He posed her on a driftlog while she faced the ocean. Her back was to him. He took several photographs of her at strange angles with his smartphone.

They switched roles and he took up a new contorted position on the driftlog. She whipped out her phone and took pictures of him. They stepped back from one another, got the phones cooking, caught the signal, and doubtless sent the fresh images to the hashtagged, netherworld of social media. Now everyone they knew or didn’t know could see their…what?

I didn’t have a word to define this curious form of photography until a good friend described it to me as “curating,” as in this couple were curators of their own lives—with obvious intent—to create a specific experience for anyone who might view these images and imagine the lives of the people who produced them.

It wasn’t like the couple was capturing images to document a vacation or first date to the beach. They were not taking pictures for scrapbook because they didn’t own one. One suspects that neither one of them had ever used the self timer app on their phones. Had they done so, they might have captured both of them unevenly in the frame, perhaps even smiling. Vacations and first dates are supposed to be fun!

They also could have asked a stranger for assistance to get the happy picture, but strangers don’t know how to curate. They just say “cheese.”

This curating is such an odd phenomenon to witness at the beach, and I see it more and more these days with young couples. I have never seen someone doing it alone, who is over the apparent age of 30, or with a dog. They typically curate each other, but sometimes they will be together, and curate only themselves.

I’ve seen curating at the beaches where couples employed rented bicycles, kites, apparel, shoes, drink containers and weird flotsam and jetsam to accessorize the experience for the online Museum of Myself. Sometimes they roll in the ocean or a dead crab as a prop. I have never seen them curate with a driftwood fort, which for some unknown perverse reason, I desperately want to see. I have never seen them look directly at the camera or touch one another, let alone kiss. There is no hint of romance in any of it and I do smell the nuance art of highly discerning consumption.

They always look good at looking good. That takes considerable effort on many levels, believe me, because I’ve watched it countless times and often marvel at the precise deliberations that take place, finding the right placement for this or that object (never a can or Rainier), waiting for the light to change.

I think about my times on the beach when I was on social media. Was I curating my life with Sonny the husky there? I took a million photographs of her rambling Oregon’s publicly-owned beaches and sent many to social media. She became famous. I was rarely in these shots because getting the self timer right with a dog on the beach is a tricky thing. Every once in a while, however, I struck gold. I cherish these images (like the one here) because she is gone and they are beautiful reminders of our life together. I printed many of them out and taped or glued them into my journals.

It certainly didn’t feel like I was curating anything with Sonny when I documented our visits. I just loved being with her at the ocean’s edge, wandering our way into incredible stories and indescribable magic, and I wanted to share my spontaneous, unrehearsed joy.

The curating I have observed at the beach seems utterly joyless.

I pass no significant judgment here. At least these couples were on the beach. Perhaps this is a different generation’s way of uniquely defining themselves though a highly articulated sense of mood and aesthetic. Perhaps it actually slows them down and allows for much-needed concentration. I don’t know. I was merely thinking aloud here. Being on the beach always does that to me. That’s really why I go. And I miss conveying those thought to my readers in the column.

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