I started taking a lot of snapshots when I got a cell phone. I’ve had a number of cameras in my life. Little point and shoots, disposable ones, the kind which required a flash attachment on the top, a more sophisticated model with f-stops and a tripod – on and on. I was too lazy to fool around with all the complicated ones so the phone camera is perfect for me. I love candid, unposed photos and being able to take a snapshot of anything whenever the impulse strikes me. In recent years, I’ve thought a lot about those frozen moments in time, the ones which help create a rich textured look at a life, at the world, so important to a person like me to whom history is so meaningful. When Michael died, one of the hardest things for me to bear was that he would be forever absent from our family pictures. For most of our lives he hated having someone take his picture. Sometimes he was cooperative. Other times not so much. I think he got in trouble in fourth grade for crossing his eyes in his school’s class picture, wrecking it according to his teacher. He definitely intermittently exerted a negative influence over the rest of us in our organization.
Maybe he had something deeper in mind, at least at some subconscious level, regarding his reluctance to be photographed. He was a truly private person who closely guarded his personal thoughts and feelings. Perhaps the instinctive mistrust the indigenous peoples of this country had when photographers showed up with their complicated cameras played a part in his attitude. They felt that a permanent image would steal their souls, encasing them forever in these peculiar reflections. When Edward Curtis traveled west, forgoing his successful career as a portrait photographer of the wealthy and famous, to document the shrinking culture of Native Americans, he was ultimately allowed to make thousands of images and to develop an audio record of rituals and ceremonies before they faded into history. The tribes named him Shadow Catcher. An excellent chronicle of his life is available as he sacrificed family and security to complete his project. I highly recommend it.
I can understand Michael’s feelings in addition to those long-ago suspicions of those who feared a theft of their most intimate selves. But my desire for a historical continuum outweighs that uncomfortable context. Yes, a part of the self is permanently captured in photos. I just don’t think that’s negative, even when I hate certain photos of myself when I’ve been caught in an unappealing pose, or simply when I looked awful. I still want those moments as part of my life’s tapestry. Although I don’t have as many pictures of us from our earliest years as I would like, I do have enough for a thorough record of most of our lives. A slippery sort, I often took snapshots of Michael when he wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing. I have the pleasure of seeing him from infancy to death with everything in between. He would’ve been appalled as he was by my saving our intimate photos. He told me to get rid of them so our kids wouldn’t happen upon them. I never did destroy the evidence of that documentary foray into our private life when we got our hands on a Polaroid camera and could develop photos in the solitude of our bedroom. The kids never saw them. I’m so not sorry. Yet still, they’re not enough when I miss him desperately.
So about these snapshots. I have no memory of being that baby sitting on a lawn, carefully turning the pages of my book. I expect that one of my parents took that photo. Perhaps it was the aunt or uncle who lived in the same town as us when we moved to Iowa for about six years. Maybe my grandparents were visiting and they took the picture. Who knows? In my lifetime, I’ve already passed more than 613,200 hours. Stop and think about that incredibly large number. For many of them I was asleep. Or I was alone. Certainly for a great portion of that time, no cameras were present to catch a moment, to record an image which would wind up as a conversation piece within the family, taking a tangible place in our otherwise fleeting history. There’s such joy in looking at all those photos and saying, “remember when we…” They provide a sense of continuity, closeness and well-being.
My mental gymnastics have taken me down roads like this before. The random images my memory holds are only a fraction of what’s actually socked away in the parts of my brain I can’t consciously access. Why do I remember the wintry day when I was out looking at property for my job and saw an old man and his dog, each in a lawn chair, leaning against their garage, surrounded by snow drifts? And what about the eye contact I made with the baby being pushed in her stroller? We locked eyes for about thirty seconds and I immediately thought I’d be buried in her memory forever, unnoticed, although I continue to remember that mini mine-meld. From that train of thought, I proceeded to all the photos of me, taken over eight decades by people known and unknown, who own pieces of my history that I’ll likely never see. Pictures of Michael too. The idea that I might see something new from an unexpected source drives me crazy with desire. Someone, many someones, have perhaps not pieces of my soul, but views of me that I don’t have, which can shine a light into a corner of my life that’s long gone and forgotten.
Within the past couple of years, a few friends, going through their own stacks of memories, unearthed a few pictures of me, one from the ‘80’s when I was a new mom and one from 1969 on the day that my most significant relationship except for Michael was just beginning. I loved receiving these little nuggets from the past. I have no idea what event I was at in the top photo, some long-forgotten social thing that wasn’t impactful in my life. But to have received the photo of that warm fall day in 1969, sitting on the south portico of the student union, was a moment I remember very well, the beginning of a love that would change me forever, in a time which would bring me great joy, insecurity and utter despair. The capture of that moment was a real gift. A part of me wants to use all my social resources to ask my friends from the long ago past to send me more of these photos which are ultimately less meaningful to them than to me and my family. Or if not less meaningful, to at least share the unseen moments with me. Perhaps that’s a selfish request but I’m thinking about it. So far, I’ve restrained myself. Family and friends have more important things to do besides feeding my snapshot obsession.
Recently I was poking around on Facebook, checking in on some groups I follow. One of them is called Pictures of Chicago which I especially enjoy. because despite the fact that I’ve lived elsewhere for over fifty years, I still consider the Windy City my hometown. Most of the photos are just fine, but on this particular day, one picture really drew me in, so much that I looked at the name of the person responsible for such beauty. I recognized his name and after looking past the changes many years have wrought, I saw the eyes of the friend from the photo above – Tom. I wrote him a private message, inquiring as to whether he was indeed the person with whom Michael and I shared time back in the early ‘70’s. He responded quickly and positively and we began to trade stories of our lives through so many decades. He actually sent me that photo, not knowing that I already had it. In return, I sent him one of he and Michael which he hadn’t seen.
Tom was taking pictures back in those days and apparently kept an archive about which I knew nothing. After both of us descended into our memories about those long ago times, he was motivated enough to dig into his stash, compiling a trove of still photos of political demonstrations taking place in our community some time in 1973. I received his zip drive, opened it and found myself staring at pictures of me and my friends, along with other like-minded people, organizing for a march through the streets of our community. I was stunned. I’d been an active participant in protests for several years, both in my college town as well as Washington, D.C., but I’d never actually seen myself from the outside looking in. I found Michael in the midst of one photo which was no surprise considering he was 6’4” and tended to be boisterous. The bulk of those photos will be part of a different story but here are a few from the group.
What else is out there? A random moment brought back these remarkable images of a critical period of my life. I was in the midst of solidifying a worldview which is still the bedrock of my most essential self. My politics and myself are one entity. I look at life through the prism of my political views. For me, the ‘60’s and 70’s weren’t just about blowing off cultural steam before a return to the mainstream. I’m still out here as I was then, not part of anything approaching “the middle.” I guess you can call that consistency. In addition, Michael and I were just a few years into our friendship and then what became so much more. Part of that early time together revolved around our alternative ideas and actions. How precious to document a few moments from that more public part of us. Where else are we, tucked away in a box, a photo album, a file cabinet? I crave more snapshots, more tangible bits from our lives. My grandchildren are growing up with much of their existence fully documented because of developments in technology and its simple accessibility. I know I have more than many people from my generation because Michael and I shared the value of history. To have more unknown treasures surface? What a gift that would be.