Friday, April 9, 2010

Old photos

My parents owned a Kodak brownie camera. They took terrible pictures by today's standards, my parents that is, not the cameras. The camera shot black and white. I have some of those photos because my mother saved every one, unless she was in it. When my Aunt Mattie died and I moved into her house, I found boxes of old photos, some going back to the daguerreotype. The boxes were full of old faces and people in fancy clothes, fat babies in bonnets and hard shoes and a few mysteries. There was a photo clearly set in the Pacific, but the people were unknown. There was one of an elegant man in a white wicker porch chair, signed "Thanks Winnie. It was wonderful.'
Winnie? My uncle's sister was named Winnie. Had she had a secret life? A lover? What was wonderful? I'll never know and if I had some ambition, I'd write a novel about it and solve the mystery my own way. I keep those pictures. I've lugged them to Florida, to Georgia, and now I've brought them back to Syracuse where they started out. Some day soon I will scan the ones I want and keep the photos. The rest I'll give to the historical society. I want to keep the physical photos because they are things Mattie owned and touched, a connection. Most of my photos now exist as pixels.
I like digital. I like being able to shoot lots of pictures and only keep the best one. Part of me enjoys discarding bad pictures. But I worry that some thing is lost here. Don't the bad pictures tell stories too? The shooter couldn't focus, was an amateur. The baby moved. The grandmother in her best black dress couldn't even smile, pictures were too serious. All those get thrown away or if the photographer can't do that, they are stored but never printed. Printing is expensive. My parents often shot one roll of film over a year or more. The printed pictures made an odd album--Christmas and summer all in one go.
I take lots of pictures. I use my phone sometimes--imagining my old rotary phone stuck in the broom closet, trying to explain to my dad who died in 1960 that I can now take pictures with a telephone. Mostly I shoot with a Canon SLR. I got tired of trying to hold up one of those little cameras and guess what I was seeing. My pictures with the Canon probably aren't any better than those with the other digitals. I am not what I would call a photographer, and I am too lazy to learn.
Every once and awhile I get a good shot. That pleases me, though I honestly don't know what I did to accomplish "good shot." It doesn't matter though. When I die the kids will clean off my hard drive and discard the pictures. They may save a few, not many. The good ones I will have all ready given them. No one keeps pictures. I have realized that.They get thrown away with the dead person's clothes. And I think now that we have them digitally the discarding will be easier.
So many pictures. Everyone takes them. Cameras are on the table at weddings. Kids have them. What for?
Why do we take pictures? To remember? To compete in some unspoken art show--my photos are better than yours?
Photos are like miracles: they mean for the person who took them or who owns them, for the duration of that life. Ephemeral, they live for a lifetime. I'm not talking Matthew Brady here or art photos. I am talking about the ones we compulsively take to hold onto the passage of our lives, hoping, not that they will take our souls as some tribal peoples believed, but that they will save our lives.

Time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence, a time of confidences
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories, they're all that's left you
Bookends, Simon and Garfunckle

Photos. I can no longer imagine what I will do with them.I give some away hoping friends like them. What happens to them after that matters not. Gifts no longer belong to the giver. But I wonder, now that everyone has a camera, what pictures mean. They meant a lot to my parents and grandparents. They were a kind of magic, valued for their rarity and their cost. Now? Do they matter or are they as impermanent as the newspaper? Worse really, since looking at photos on line lacks the tactile reality of looking at albums, pasted and labelled by hand. Touching creates reality. Looking at pixels adds a layer to the experience, forces us back a step, undoes the experience. The photos on Picassa could be anyone's. In some way they are anyone's to look at, losing the magic of intimacy and meaning.

This ends nowhere, really. I think I need to print pictures and make albums and not think of them as anything beyond a moment of history, going wherever it is going to go.

1 comment:

  1. I've often wondered about this -- the way that photos no longer have a physical existence, are no longer accumulating in closets and attics for people to find later. When my wife's uncle died we spent some time sorting through old family records -- all of her grandfather's stuff from the Pacific, including a bunch of photos. But after about 2003, there's nothing like that for my life. It's like the physical traces of my life just cease to exist at the moment that I bought a digital camera.

    It's weird how easy it is to share digital photos but how hard it is to keep them. You have to either keep transferring them to new hard drives every few years or be diligent about printing them out or have confidence that a website like Flickr or Picasa will keep going for another fifty years.