Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Say Cheese!

Number One Camera - Nina Gordon (mp3)

I got a scanner for Christmas. Best Buy ran out of the complete series collections of The Wire, so my wife got me the second thing down on the list. It took several days before the Christmas air cleared and offered me the opportunity, but I finally got a chance to spend the evening scanning some pictures from my past.

Photo albums are journals that people incorrectly assume others care to see. (NOTE: Worse could be said about blogs, I grant you.) I can't recall a single time when I was visiting a friend's home and they said, "Hey! Wanna sit down with me and read some of my journals?" Yet, for some reason, we all find ourselves at some moment begging our friends and acquaintances and relatives to endure the journey down photographic memory lane with us, looking at pictures they're not in nor had any role in taking.

It's not human nature to want to look at collections of pictures that involve us in no way. Sure, we all have those experiences, those pictures, so beyond the realm of everyday life that people are curious, maybe even truly interested.

When I went to Kenya, for instance. Folks at least acted interested in seeing those pictures. Most of 'em probably had genuine curiosity. But hell, I had to go half-way around the world to get those pictures. I had to squat over a big hole in a tiny shack in order to take a dump. I worked for those pictures, dammit! Look at 'em! Look!!!

Generally, however, pictures are a personal thing, a private thing. They may be worth 1,000 words to us, but they're hardly worth a haiku to everyone else.

If you've spent any time on Facebook, you'd be inclined to disagree. But you can look through 45 thumbnail pictures on Facebook in the time it takes you to turn a page in a traditional photo album. Everything's faster in Computerland. We don't mind being polite or curious for a few minutes. Just don't sit us on your couch with some lemonade and a big fat 200-page album of Kodaks. (See: Fletch, Sally Ann Cavenaugh.) Further, when are we notified that a friend posted pictures? When we're tagged in them. Because everyone wants to see pictures someone else took when we're in them.

The power of personal pictures is not necessarily in the sharing of them, but rather in their ability to conjure the feelings, the events, the in-the-now moment of months, years, decades ago. In fact, I love my high school photos for much the same reason I love Naked Eyes' "Always Something There to Remind Me." Not because either is particularly artistic, and not because I loooooved high school or Naked Eyes, but both manage to put transport me to a particular moment in my life, complete with the awkward feelings and even the very thoughts you were thinking when you took the picture, or when you posed for the picture.

[For the record, "Always Something There to Remind Me" takes me instantly back to my elementary school playground one afternoon in the sixth grade when I played said song to a girl named Lindie. We'd been "going together" for, like, a whole month or something, and I recorded this song on the radio that night and made her sit there and listen to this damn song the next day. As if playing it might reunite us or, hell, I don't even know if I had a purpose other than to make sure she knew she shouldn'ta gone and done dat. We hadn't even gone past the hand-holding stage. And yes, it's possible to be simultaneously embarrassed by an act yet also be so in the moment that you also feel it was totally justified and appropriate.]

High school and college was like a great '70s or '80s TV miniseries. You knew you had to be there for every episode, and you couldn't miss it, because it wasn't coming around again, and it might never come out on VHS. If you missed it, you missed it, probably forever. Unlike a regular series, you couldn't hope to catch up next season or after a few episodes.

Adult life more often feels like it's a long-running series, like M*A*S*H or Law + Order, and if you miss one episode, you'll catch up with it tomorrow and will miss nary a plot point. Or, you can always record it on your DVR. While having children helps minimize this problem -- every moment with my own children has the potential to feel transcendent, even more amazing at times than my own childhood -- those little rugrats come with their own complicated production costs.

And I know we're all s'posed to embrace that crap about how every day could be our last and we've gotta savor every single moment. Great. Terrific theory. But we're also running a marathon. If you run your marathon like it might end any minute, you'll never finish the damn race. And if you take pictures like tomorrow's your last day, you might end up immortalizing the wrong things... (See: Facebook, Vanessa Hudgens, etc.)

Happy New Year. And as the great and all-wise Pee Wee Herman would say: Take a picture -- it'll last longer.

"Number One Camera" is from Nina's first solo album, Tonight and the Rest of My Life, available on iTunes or's mp3 site.


Bob said...

Other people's pictures also make you realize what you've missed. I'm sorry, for example, that I missed "Twister For Guys" Night. Thanks, pal, for letting me know where I stand. Is that you admiring that posterior?

John said...

It was a spare Christmas, gift-wise, for me but one of the great things I got was Annie Liebowitz's new book, "At Work", in which she writes about some of her most famous photo shoots (Lennon on the day he was shot, the Queen, Belushi and Ackeroyd, etc). She has this great line about making people smile, basically saying that she never asks that of her subjects and that it's something that people do because they want to remember their children happy. The first time she saw her child fake a smile it broke her heart.