I have always suspected the missing links between the scattered parts of my being lay within the life of my maternal grandfather.
My paternal grandparents are open books – my grandmother with her inexorable tongue and my grandfather with eyes that can’t betray a single emotion. My maternal grandmother is a storyteller on speed – something always reminds her of something else and various tangents can be made within a single sentence. My paternal grandfather, however, was a little less clear in his communication. My uncle used to joke that all it took to keep my grandfather happy was his daily newspaper and a bowl of mixed nuts. For years, I believed this to be the case – but as I got older, I suspected something much more existed within his alleged simplicity.
After he passed away in the fall of 2005, my aunt emailed our family scanned photos she found of him. The photos dated back to the forties and consisted mostly of posed portraits. I was excited to find that I looked quite a bit like my young grandfather since I grew up looking not quite like either parent.
It was, however, in a photo where his face was less visible that I found myself identifying with him most: in the middle of Piazza San Marco, stood my grandfather in an ascot and a three-piece suit – tall and full of quiet confidence. Though we all knew that my grandfather suffered from a hushed case of wanderlust, we never knew he ever had the means to treat it. My family marveled over this photograph trying to figure out how a man from Northern China found himself in Italy in whatever year this photo was taken. The collective memories of my mom, aunts and uncles struggled to put together the story behind the picture. I did what anyone my age would: I put it up on Facebook. Shortly after it was uploaded, I realized I had sunk this picture into that dark realm of Facebook photography. I considered taking it down, feeling guilty to have ever subjected it to the awful culture of the often embarrassing, unauthorized photos taken at some point of inebriation from every possible angle the camera allowed. It was so very out of place with its natural, fading sepia tone sitting rather isolated in a sea of the snap-happy, multi-colored animatic mess of that party last Friday.
With the advent of digital photography and the ability to capture a moment (or every moment) with our various electronics, we’ve somehow lost the ceremony that once existed in taking a picture. We don’t have to go as far back as my grandfather in Venice – we can just think back about a decade when a roll of film meant the ability to take about twenty-four or so photos at a time. We weren’t able to see what these photos looked like immediately and we weren’t able to delete the ones where everyone blinked. Whatever it developed into was what it was – if the whole roll was underexposed, there was no way to readjust the settings and snap some more. These photographs captured specific moments and those were the moments you were stuck with!
Under these circumstances, we were forced to be choosy of the moments we wanted to capture and cherish the ones that came out. If the whole group blinked and the person at the end of the table had drunkenly fallen out of the shot, that was the moment that we would see once the film was developed and the photo printed. This would be the story shared – everyone would have to explain that the bar was so dark that the flash blinded the group and the pure shock of it sent the drunkest one flying out of his chair. Today, this same picture would be followed by ten to fifteen more photos of about the same shot, trying several times to get as many people to keep their eyes open at once and maybe even a couple pictures snapped of that poor guy trying to regain his footing. A story is told in these sequential snapshots but certainly not the same one as the single photograph. The excess dilutes the original emotion behind that specific moment.
The purity of my grandfather’s photograph is awe-inspiring. It is beautifully composed, perfectly exposed – a pigeon is caught in flight, the people behind him are dressed immaculately. The intricate details of the Basilica are etched into the background. His peaceful countenance boasts a look of achievement as if he is drawing a mental check on his list of places he must visit. I felt as if this moment was captured just to show me he shared the same inexplicable, tranquil satisfaction I found in travel. Time wasn’t wasted with countless attempts to get this photo just right yet it was just right. There was no need for Photoshop and it meant that much more in its solitary state.
We engage in flipbook photography these days and it often results in telling more than we’d like to. The Onion did a hilarious piece on the matter headlined, “Police Slog Through 40,000 Insipid Party Pics to Find Cause of Dorm Fire.” They were spot on in encapsulating the culture of consumer photography today and also managed to strike some fear in me. What story are my photos going to tell my grandchildren? That grandma spent a lot of time drinking from red tumblers? Over and over again? I suspect they’d get bored after sifting through (or clicking through) the first couple thousand.
Where technology may have decreased the value of a single moment in life, it has increased the abilities of artists to enhance the story they want to tell in a photograph. The use of Photoshop in photography has gone beyond the airbrushing of imperfection and has become a genre of its own; Joe Sbarro’s photography is an incredible demonstration of this. Sbarro takes a picture of the familiar and manipulates it into something confusing and haunting as demonstrated in his internationally shown “Bodies” collection. The stories told here are elusive yet evocative.
While I do appreciate the ability of taking twenty photos at once and digitally zapping blemishes, I miss the days where a picture was actually worth a thousand words instead of a thousand photos meaning not too much. I’m curious what the next step for photography is and what it might mean for the culture of it. With the popularity of 3D movies in the theatres today, I predict we’ll be seeing the onset of cameras with capabilities in 3D photography. No, seriously.