Thursday, July 22, 2010

Do Family Photos Matter?

I mean, of course, beyond the family. I've written recently of my mixed feelings about digitizing my parents' boxes of family photos (a task I volunteered for). As I sit on the floor here at home and start to go through them, I'm struck not only by waves of nostalgia, psychic strangeness, and plenty of cognitive dissonance, but by the urge to share the photos, to essay them, yet tempered with a concern that no one will care about them. Why should they? Everyone has boxes, drawers, albums, digital folders crammed with family photos spanning decades, humming with the power to move, narrate, and transport. If I'm to write about them, at some point these images—of a generic and wildly personal kitchen full of small siblings, say, or of a yard or a basement common to thousands of families and unique to mine—will have to become personal, not merely private. Wallace Stevens says, "The absolute object slightly turned is a metaphor of that object." That's the necessary move: turn the photo slightly so that the figures in it morph into something universal, recognizable, knowable beyond the private boundaries of floor plans and the limited drama of siblings' shared glances.

Psychologists and visual theorists talk about shape constancy, by which we can recognize an object regardless of the angle at which we approach that object: we know a pen is a pen when we see it from above as well as when we see it head on; a door partially open is the same door that was closed; we recognize a child reaching for a parent, a dog blurring into a boy's arms, a complicated look on a sister's face regardless of what family's photo album we're looking at....


"In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little, human detail can become a Leitmotiv," says Henri Cartier-Bresson. When looking, collectively, at a candid photo not our own we pool in the great subject created of the small thing, the larger story with a cast of millions as acted by a family of four.


The Internet threatens: you are not alone, so you are not unique. This dynamic grows exponentially as day after day more people upload to Flickr, facebook, et al, their personal candid photos, easily accessed within seconds by millions of strangers. Where is the autobiographical writer in this, especially one trafficking in the photo album?
Vivian Gornick has one answer: "What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the larger sense the writer is able to make of what happened." That larger sense in a private photograph is in the ether outside of the frame, the mist where the rest of us stand waiting to connect without realizing it. The connection happens in a shared recognition of body types, body language, or domestic architecture, in the desire to fill in the blanks of our our photos, memories, lives with the others' narrative details. It's in the false mirror of the candid photo: there we are.

"Polaroid Land Camera 1000" courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

1 comment:

A. Leahy said...

You got me thinking about a lot of things with this piece. I used to teach a Writing and Photography course with an art historian, and the way we see photographs fascinates me. Also, I'm thinking about how autistic children often have difficulty interacting with people, in part because they process faces as objects, rather than with the specialized brain part most of us use for face (and facial expression) recognition. Oh, I must go write my own essay now!