Joy in sharing a life in pictures
My family put together a half century of family photos into a photographic autobiography for my 57th birthday party. This may be the last year I am able to participate actively, and who knows how many more birthdays I will be able to enjoy? But I do know that these photos are important. They show me together with family and friends, at past homes and on the road, being serious or goofing around. The visual biography tells my story and conveys a powerful and enduring message of a life well-lived and well-loved. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a collection of seven hundred slides shown at four seconds each in under an hour is worth as much as a 10 volume book.
Going through photos has always given me joy. It seems like a miracle that an image can be captured from reality and transferred to paper or a screen. What a beautiful power. We freeze a moment of time and then we relive it alone, or with others. Looking at photos, we share past memories, and create new moments and fresh insights.
But photos, like memories, can be overwhelming. We are surrounded by photos, buried in photos, and it is hard to find a path through the thousands of images each of us deals with over the years. It can become quite disconcerting to work with boxes of prints and albums and negatives and slides, and gigabytes of digital picture files. My younger children seemed intimidated by the project. Who are these people? Where is that place? When did this happen? What is going on?
But there is a way through. A selective memory contributes to happiness, and likewise, I submit, being selective with photos is the key to enjoying them.
Photos themselves are inherently selective. The photographer chooses the moment, the subject, the angle, and the frame of the image. This act distills reality to an essence. But that essence may be off.
Question: How do you take a good photograph?
Answer: Take 100 bad ones.
Getting rid of the bad ones is the first step.
The best and simplest system to organize photos for selection is chronology. Ordering images by time gives a narrative context to the seeming chaos of life. This happened, then that happened. Name all digital folders and photos and albums with the year first, then month and whatever description you want (for example, 1999-12 millennium party).
The other way to select photos is by subject. When the subject is a person, the act of photography itself is a highly social act. As Susan Sontag put it in her 1979 book On Photography, ”To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” The desire to slow time’s relentless melt explains the insatiable modern urge to take endless snapshots and selfies and to post them in an effort to achieve not just celebrity, but immortality.
I’ve always loved photos. For me, as a little boy, photos were fun, and an occasion for family togetherness and action. My dad was a good amateur photographer and took countless Kodachrome slides that infused our early years with vibrant colors. Our 1962-1963 sabbatical trip to Europe was chronicled like a presidency.
Later, I caught the Rochester imaging bug. I got a Super 8 movie camera for my 13th birthday and began filming our 1970 summer trip to northern Europe, without much of an idea how everything would look. You had to load the film, shoot it unload it, package it up, mail it off to Kodak, wait for it to come back developed, then load it onto a projector and show it. The whole thing was magical. I was famous for capturing a candid shot of a Dutch boy picking his nose. In 1971, the Mashpee mob I hung out with all summer filmed a silent movie, called Keep the Faith, about WWI soldiers and nurses. It was the height of campiness. Off-screen, the drama included my camera falling out of a boat into Santuit Pond. The camera was ruined but the film came out ok, with a stylish graininess we attributed to the green algae in the water. Other films remain boxed, waiting for transfer to modern digital technology to release their time capsule images.
In high school, my dad gave me his Kodak SLR. I took a photography class junior year (1972) and learned how to spool negatives into film cans, focus, measure light levels, bracket shots with different exposures, develop the negatives in the dark, print contact sheets, and make test strips and final prints under red light. The vinegar smell of acetic acid fixer was addictive, and the magical alchemy of silver turning from white to black never ceased to amaze me. I enjoyed the assignment of assembling, mounting, and presenting a portfolio of different types of photos. It was fun taking portraits of my friends, and being a subject for their shots. Taking photos gave purpose to my wanderings around my neighborhood, and out into Monroe County. My favorite photo was of a broken down shack on the Erie Canal. It showed clouds through a hole in the roof, and reeds and waves through a hole in the wall, and it won a county-wide photography award. I guess I was developing a good eye.
In college I dabbled with photos, and found myself the president of the Princeton Photography Club. As the only member, I had a key to a darkroom with all the necessary chemicals and equipment for black and white work, and no competition, but no camaraderie, either. I took Bunnel’s course on photography as art, and learned by looking and listening what makes a good photo good, and what makes a great one great. It’s a combination of framing, timing, subject, lighting, and technique (focus, exposure, film and paper, etc.).
I forget what happened to the Kodak SLR, maybe it broke, but when I got to Zurich, Switzerland for grad school in 1978, I found a beautiful used Olympus SLR kit, very light, with a wide-angle and normal 50mm lens. The guy selling it gave me a great deal. It became a constant companion, and I saw much of Europe through its lens. I mainly shot color slides, because they were cheap, and I could shoot a lot and only print a few. Meanwhile, I used the university laboratory to develop and print scientific images like microscope photos of fruit fly muscles, and also an occasional personal roll of black and white film, like in 1980 when I met Prince Charles over tea during his visit to the ETH.
Looking at my Swiss photos now, some are nice, but many are mediocre tourist shots of scenes I came across in my travels. Most are not technically sharp in the way we are accustomed to in the age of automated digital cameras. But there are some beauties. And the ones that hold the most significance are the ones of friends and people I met. My daughter Natasha has a fine eye for architecture and landscape, and takes zillions of well-composed attractive photos that she posts on Facebook. She has a skill I never fully developed. But as I age, I am drawn more to faces. I also like little things, like flowers and bugs, which I shoot with what I call macro-mania.
I was a gleeful photographer during my bachelor years, judging by the number of rolls I shot and the happy subjects. I see how co-workers became friends as we did things together outside of work: parties, sporting events, hanging out. I see how one girlfriend became my wife, and all the others became ex-girlfriends (whose images are not nearly as awkward to see now as way back then).
When Jill and I were married, the traditional festivities included generating an album of photos showing all the family and wedding party organized in our classic subgroupings of bride, groom, parents, bridesmaids, groomsmen, flower girls, ring bearer, etc. In hindsight, wedding albums set the stage for parental obsession with snapping a picture of the new baby’s every act and outfit.
We were no exception, and we filled baby albums, while also running video at every occasion. What could be more worthy of preserving for posterity than our three perfect babies? Consistent with the relentless logic of birth order, Natasha was chronicled most, Max less, and Julia least because of the constant need for us to play a 2-on-3 zone defense. Sorry, Julia, for the fewer photos and incomplete albums during your early years. I was lax as a photographer for a few years until we entered the digital age about 2004.
For the past decade, I’ve been shooting digital photos. The really bad photos are deleted in the camera, and it is easy to copy and send them around. They are secured on SD cards, and most are on my computer and backup drive (although I lost some phone pictures along the way). The cameras were fragile and didn’t last long, but I like my waterproof shockproof Panasonic Lumix. It is fantastic to be able to jump in the Pacific at the Galapagos and take photos and videos of sea lions cavorting with us.
For our older daughter’s high school graduation in 2009, then our son’s, we collected photos from infancy through teenage years and posted them on boards and ran slide shows. And now it is my turn.
Many of the photos with me in them were taken with my camera on a timer, or by my companion or an anonymous passerby, and many were sent by family and friends. I appear in about 1 in 20 pictures, which ends up being a manageable number.
Assembling a life in pictures requires a lot of work: Finding, ordering, and selecting prints, and then scanning them to digital; sorting and copying and relabeling and dating digital photos; and arranging them for a slide show or web-presentation. As time-consuming as that may be, it is much simpler and easier than trying to go through old journals, correspondence, folders, and other written records to convey the quality of life I have enjoyed with my fun and loving community of family and friends.
I hope that looking at my photobiography will bring strength and smiles to family, friends, and others. Despite my current troubles, there should be nothing but joy in the big picture.