Picture perfect?

by Kristin on September 6, 2010

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

This weekend I finally found enough downtime to go through our vacation photos, almost a month after we returned home. I’m almost embarrassed to say we took just over 1,000 photos in two weeks. There are photos of the girls writing in their vacations journals at the campsite, and of memorable meals. There are photos of idyllic picnic scenes, cable car rides, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on bike, Redwood tree-hugging, rock climbing and tide pool exploring.

They are all, in essence, photos of beauty and happiness—the things that are finest in life. As I looked through the them all, trying to edit and decide which ones to subject my friends and family to via Facebook, the flood of vacation nostalgia was powerful. All of the emotions—even the sounds and smells and heart swells—washed over me.

And then I recognized, not for the first time, the love-hate relationship I have with photographs.

My love-hate with picture-perfect memories

I love photos for obvious reasons. I love the natural world, and never cease to be amazed by the variety of beauty to be enjoyed in the United States. I love seeing the expressions of my kids—wonder, joy, silliness—captured on “film,” and I love how reliving their vacation memories takes me back to my own childhood travel experiences.

The “hate” part (although it’s too strong a word, of course) comes from my fear that our photographs are little more than over-romanticized misrepresentations of our lives and the world.

First, we almost never take photos that represent the most difficult moments in our lives—the arguments with our spouse and crying kids. Then, after we take the photos and sit down to organize them, put them in albums, post them on Facebook, we find our favorites—the very best photographs in a collection that already captures the very best part of our lives.

By the time the photos are up on Facebook, you have to wonder what you’re really representing. Where’s the the over-crowded, uncomfortable car, and carsick kids? What about an artful shot of the messy hotel room, or the kid who’s had more than enough “together time” with her siblings? Where’s the 2 am trek to the campground bathroom, the burnt cornbread experiment, the weary parents trying to summon up the enthusiasm to shepherd everyone through another day of unknowns?

Acknowledge the bad, celebrate the good

So is it possible to capture the right balance in photographs? I don’t know, but maybe that’s not the goal when it comes to picture-taking.

I think it’s important to acknowledge the less-than-perfect moments, and talk about them—even laugh about them. And I do think we should try to photograph a broader experience of life than we’re inclined to.

But the more I think about what our photographs represent, the more I think this very subjective, slanted view of life is OK. Our collections of photos represent all that’s good, all that’s possible—the best in each of us, and the best of our interactions. The photos are a celebration of those things, just like a wedding anniversary is a celebration of all that’s good in a marriage, not a time to catalog all that’s bad.

Ultimately, I think we need those celebrations and romanticized representations in order to have hope in the future, and faith in each other. We need to be reminded why we do all of this—why we have kids, why we go camping, why we wake up each morning and keep working on a long and difficult project or a less-than-perfect marriage. We do it not because every moment is beautiful and worth celebrating, but because many moments are. To forget that truth is to forget why we get up each day and keep pressing on.

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  • http://mywheelsareturning.com/ Gary L Howe

    On my list for new photography client possibilities:

    1) Funerals
    2) Separations/Divorces
    3) ________

    FYI, I do have the pleasure of shooting weddings for clients that let me “do my thing”, the good, the bad and the ugly. That said, there is an unspoken agreement not to set out to embarrass anyone. Like you said, the best times of lives are there for us in the future to hold on to when it is toughest.

    Having humor while looking at the rough spots, when not over done, is also a good reminder.

  • Robin

    “…the flood of vacation nostalgia was powerful. All of the emotions—even the sounds and smells and heart swells—washed over me.” I love this! What a powerful statement and one that could be said of most treasured pictures: births, birthday celebrations, weddings, first day of school, etc.

  • Carrie

    Do you do scrapbooking? I do it digitally and at least once a month one of the communities issues a challenge to “scrap real life” and they encourage people to take pictures of the crying children and the mundane bits of day to day life, like the kids eating breakfast before school. So I do have several of those kinds of pictures (usually not of vacation, since I take thousands of pictures of fun stuff) but they are mostly just for me. I don’t put those on facebook or anything like that because no one cares about them, but occasionally, they are kind of fun to look at :)

  • Kirstin

    I’ve always resisted taking photos. It’s not so much that the results aren’t representative of real life as that the effort that goes into recording those moments always seems to detract from the moment itself, requiring one to be always oriented to that future time when one will want to remember the moment.

    It has also seemed to me that photos tended to filter people’s memories. They seem to remember the things for which there is photographic evidence, and discount the things that happened away from the lens.

    Then again, these past few years I’ve been feeling somewhat overwhelmed by images. The photo album pages that were scrupulously divided during my parents’ divorce ended up as my inheritance, along with the utter futility of trying to reunite them into the narrative of the original albums. In the years after my parents’ deaths, my aunts and uncles (cleaning out their own attics and basements, assembling their own scrapbooks) have inundated me with photos in which I or my immediate family appears (some of the duplicates). And with both my parents gone, so is whatever zeal I once had to record and share my daughters’ every moment.

    I kind of envy my husband’s family. They don’t have the same urges to record and archive the present moment that my extended family does. There are a few photos of my husband’s childhood–they live in a shoe box, along with sepia-tinted images of my mother-in-law’s long-lost family, that occasionally surfaces in the flotsam of the house. That’s about as much of the past as I can handle at any one time. And because the pictures are relatively few, we study them closely.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Gary, don’t forget post-accident and -surgery shots! I’m sure there’s a big clientele for that. Yeah, I don’t have any photos marking my divorce, unless you count the family shots that suddenly have one fewer person in them. I’m wondering if maybe we’re all too good at remembering difficult/sad times, and we need a bit of help overpowering them with good. There is that good balance, though. For instance, nearly all of our photos from last summer’s week at Lake Michigan include Q with a full cast on her arm, up to the pit. She broke both bones our second day of vacation, and it’s impossible to think of that time without thinking of her injury.

    Robin, yes, there are certain photos that really seem to capture what an event or place felt like. Others, of course, can feel very stiff and forced, but I am fortunate that both my husband and my brother are skilled at capturing full-feeling moments.

    Carrie, I don’t do scrapbooking, but I love the idea of that real-life photo challenge! It’s tricky, because you don’t want to share those photos with everyone, as you said—your crying kids won’t appreciate being exposed—but at the same time, I wish we could! Wouldn’t it feel good to see evidence that we’re not alone in our less-than-perfect lives? I like to think we would all become more compassionate and supportive if we could expose the more “real” parts of our lives to others.

    Kirstin, hmmm…this is an interesting perspective. I can completely see/understand why you feel this way, even if I can’t relate. I don’t know if this makes sense, but it seems like we’re both trying to avoid the less happy childhood memories. I’m avoiding them by looking at happy vacation photos from my childhood and letting them over-power the “other” times. You’re avoiding them by *not* looking at your childhood photos, because the photos themselves represent difficulty. But maybe I am not hearing you right—if so, I’m sorry! Regarding the first part of your comment, I can definitely relate. I am not really a fan of taking photos, for the exact reason you share—it has the potential of separating me from living the moment. I’m really glad that Jason is a good photographer and enjoys it. I think some people would even say taking photos helps them be *more* in the moment than they would otherwise be.

  • http://salvagedfaith.blogspot.com Katie Z.

    I think since we have had a digital camera we get a lot more of those “ugly” shots. The weird things we come across, people as they have just woken up, the unfortunate mouthful of food. We do a lot less filtering when we share pictures – especially among friends – although it is less that way among family. I’ve made it a boundary to just never share pictues with my church members on facebook, however, because it’s all there, and I just don’t need pics of me in my pajamas running around.

    That being said, we don’t whip the camera out when my neice starts throwing a tantrum (although, I never laughed so hard in my life – she is such a drama queen). Tears are rarely caught on film. And I never would have thought about taking a camera to a funeral – although I have been a part of family pictures at a funeral which felt a little funny… mostly because we just aren’t used to it. One of the images I wish I had was of the casket at my grandpa’s funeral. He was a farmer and we brought in sheaves of corn and pumpkins and winter squash from the garden. The flowers were orange and red and golden. It was such a beautiful celebration of his life, and an image that I will only have in my head.

  • http://salvagedfaith.blogspot.com Katie Z.

    oh – I meant to add, after I read the comment about broken bones – I have pictures of all of my injuries and surgery scars. My favorite is when my dad had me pose for pictures after I was kicked in the head playing soccer in high school. I put on a dress and there I am with this huge black eye that is working it’s way down my cheek. It was such a strange thing to do, yet it says everything about who I was at the time.

  • http://mywheelsareturning.com/ Gary L Howe

    Ran across this site, thought I’d share. A reminder perhaps that the images that we take may have impact further down the line that we can’t even imagine.
    http://istillshootfilm.org/post/1026467737/my-grandparents-color-slides-from-the-1950s-part-1

  • http://toddsweet.com Todd S.

    Conversation reminds me of the scene from Mad Men where Don is pitching Kodak on his concept for the slide projector – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suRDUFpsHus.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Katie Z., that’s such a great point about digital cameras. VERY true. Back when we had to buy film and pay to get it developed, I never took what I thought might be a throw-away shot (although many were, of course—eyes closed, bad lighting, etc.). Also, funerals are especially tricky. At my grandma’s memorial service in May, the gathering ended up being a family reunion, in the town in Iowa where all of the family roots dig deep (since the end of the Civil War). We were really celebrating my wonderful grandmother, who lived to be 93, so it felt OK to take lots of pictures—even of various living family members in the cemetery where my grandmother and other relatives are buried. Sort of odd, I know, but also so meaningful.

    Gary, so great. Thanks for that reminder.

    Todd S., I’m a big Mad Men fan but I hadn’t made the mental link between that great scene and the ideas I’m mulling over. Thanks for making the connection!

  • Kirstin

    Hmmm. I find I can’t seem to leave this post alone, but my thoughts about it aren’t particularly coherent. I guess I’m feeling overwhelmed by the way that photographs are THINGS–that have to be preserved, stored, labeled, looked at–if they are to be of any use. They can be really arbitrary Things, too, depending on who happens to be holding a camera and committed to using it and who, really, is being expected to look at the pictures. Still, they give us the illusion of being more than that, of being a way of capturing time, creatiing a coherent narrative of our lives, placing ourselves within an ongoing legacy of people who will remember and be remembered in turn–PRECISELY the illusion that Don Draper is selling in that wonderful clip.

    That element of illusion (the one that causes us to find the box of old photos in a second-hand shop so much more poignant than the tea cups and candleholders) may be what makes the project of documenting the present so vexing. How to retain the authentic reality of these days without seeing, already, the softening sepia tones of age and nostalgia discoloring the edges?

    While I appreciate Gary’s reminder about posterity, the deaths of recent years have inundated me with photos and a unspoken expectation that should be the one doing the remembering and being poignantly impacted and preserving the narrative (even if I choose not to sentimentalize it). As my resentment grows, so does my desire NOT to leave that kind of burden to anyone else. I realize my feelings (throw the pictures into the grave with the dead!) may be kind of extreme (and seriously, my childhood wasn’t THAT bad), So I’ll go on taking the occasional photo. And I won’t pack it all in cardboard boxes and pray for a basement flood. But still.

    What I DO like about photos, particularly in the digital age, is how they can add a new dimension of immediacy and connection in the here and now. I love seeing see my friends’ vacations, gardens, house renovations, kids on facebook. I love watching newborns develop into babies in real time, and I love having this kind of visual connection to people I would have only been linked with by words in the old days.

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