Time for Pictures!

Our family just celebrated a wedding. The bride and groom wanted a simple gathering, so we did not hire a professional photographer. Instead, many of us took photos and videos with our phones.  We are in the process of sharing the best ones with each other and posting several on social media.  Undoubtedly, some will become treasured reminders of the love and joy we felt as we celebrated. 

In my lifetime, we’ve gone from Brownies to Polaroids to Instamatics to cell phones to Smartphones. The taking, editing, and storing of photographs and movies have never been easier.  I recently checked how many I have stored on my computer: 2,940 photos and 422 videos.  I have reviewed them more than once, wanting to delete as many as possible. But it’s not easy.  For one thing, digital files do not take up physical space – quite a contrast to the boxes and boxes of old albums, prints, and negatives many of our parents left behind.  And the photos are often of a family member or friend; as I gaze at them, I cherish the moment the picture was taken and what it means — a moment in my life I’m not yet ready to release.

All this has led me to reflect on the evolution of photography in our personal lives.

As you may know, the first practical process for creating “photographs” was developed in the late 1820s by the French painter and physicist, Louis Daguerre: 

The daguerreotype was best suited for still objects, but people nonetheless lined up to have their portraits taken. This was not for the faint of heart: subjects had to sit in blazing sunlight for up to half an hour, trying not to blink, with their heads clamped in place to keep them still. It’s not surprising that most of the early daguerreotype portraits feature grim, slightly desperate faces.”[i]

(The last comment is comforting.  When someone is taking my photograph and asks me to smile, I can summon a natural smile quickly, but alas, after five or ten seconds, it melts into just such a grimace.)

Here are two of the earliest existing daguerreotypes:[ii]

Even with such serious “I’ve-been-holding-this-pose-for-thirty-minutes” expressions, don’t you still feel like you can sense something about each one’s character?

An original daguerreotype is a small picture, generally smaller than the palm of one’s hand, and exists on a surface of highly polished silver. The image, though infinitely detailed and subtle, is elusive. The picture should be looked at with its case not fully opened, preferably in private and by lamplight, as one would approach a secret.[iii] 

Perhaps looking at an image “as one would approach a secret” increases the experience of awe. Maybe we should always hold them in such reverence to remind us that, in many ways, we will always be an elusive mystery to ourselves and each other.

An early professional daguerreotype photographer remarked on people’s reaction to their portraits: “People were afraid at first to look for any length of time at the pictures he produced. They were embarrassed by the clarity of these figures and believed that the little, tiny faces of the people in the pictures could see out at them, so amazing did the unaccustomed detail and the unaccustomed truth to nature of the first daguerreotypes appear to everyone.”[iv]

My mother has been gone for almost thirty years, but when one of my sisters recently discovered an old Super 8 home movie of her dancing on a beach, I felt like I was reexperiencing her spirit.  And when I see certain photos or videos of our children when they were young, I am often surprised as I’m reminded that their unique personalities have not changed as they’ve become adults.  It feels like the “people in the pictures” can “see out” at me – it’s uncanny, and it’s a wonder.

For every photo or video we keep, there are many we delete. We want to remember ourselves and our loved ones in our “best” moments, not when we may look awkward, unhappy, or off-guard.  “Smile!” is what we say when taking a picture.  But we are all a collection of moods and moments — noble and charming ones, and ones we’d rather forget.  If we truly love someone, it’s not just for the best moments, but the not-so-great ones as well.  That’s what love in the truest spiritual sense means.

[i]  https://www.garrisonkeillor.com/radio/twa-the-writers-almanac-for-august-19-2022/

[ii] https://www.vintag.es/2016/01/the-very-first-photographs-of-world-21.html

[iii] Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski, pg. 14

[iv] https://www.garrisonkeillor.com/radio/twa-the-writers-almanac-for-august-19-2022/

Top Image: “Earliest Known Photos of People Smiling,”  https://petapixel.com/2015/04/15/the-earliest-known-photos-of-people-smiling/

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