On a technical level, Larkin’s notion of photography has become dated. In the poem, he explains how photos create a fixed and accurate portrayal of reality, that photos “will not censor blemishes.” Now however, anyone can can easily alter their home photos to remove blemishes or even insert people who weren’t there. This isn’t necessarily a new practice. Stalin would notoriously alter photos to remove individuals who had fallen out of official favor . But whereas once photographic manipulation was once rare, today anyone can doctor their photos on their computer or smart phone. Photos are no longer “Faithful and disappointing!” Did your uncle miss your wedding? Photoshop him in. Was it a cloudy day? Never mind. Let’s make it sunny.
Yet while the poem is dated technically, the emotions described in the poem, the estrangement of experience and photography’s ability to show us an unreachable past…..well, those emotions are actually accelerated in the current moment. Now, when crushing on a past or present lover, we can easily go online and see photos that stretch long into their past without them knowing. Is there any doubt that this poem’s speaker is the kind of man who would spend hours on social media looking at photos of old lovers and forgotten romances? I picture Larkin mindlessly clicking on Facebook photos at 2 AM while his “swivel eye hungers from pose to pose.” Moreover, now you can see photos of something while it’s happening. Take “Broadcast,” a poem where Larkin crushes on a woman who is attending the same symphony he is listening to on the radio. In the poem, he tries to imagine the auditorium and the clothing the woman wears. Today, however, we can picture the woman Instagramming herself with her boyfriend under the symphony hall marquee, with Larkin obsessively checking her social media feeds updates. This poem is about the ability of a photo to foster desire, almost obsession, and I think anyone being honest with themselves would say the modern age has made that no longer an anomaly but the norm.