My parents married around the middle of the last century, after the Second World War, when their generation felt lucky and rich and fecund, and they found they could afford two luxuries, among others: kids and cameras.
Eastman Kodak had made hand-held cameras widely affordable, and my father was the sort of enthusiastic young man who would later be called an early adopter, doting on such novel domestic technologies as stereo, television, and cameras. The result, once my brother and I were born, was a thorough documentation, in hundreds of white-bordered, physical prints, of our family life from our infancies to adulthood and beyond, dutifully compiled by my mother in strict chronological order in a set of twenty thick, numbered albums that I inherited when first my father and then my mother passed on to that great subdivision in the sky.
The physical act of preserving these photos was nothing short of grueling. After the chronology was established (aided by the little date stamps that Kodak thoughtfully included on the back), you had to glue them onto the thick black album pages with little corner holders whose backs required licking to make them adhesive but which, with time, inevitably failed to hold, like the lives they bracketed. My mother would spend weeks of her life at this, supplementing her work with marginal annotations and explanatory appendices.
Not that we appreciated any of this at the time. My brother and I hated being photographed. We considered our father’s relentless obsession with family photography a bit unhinged and, like all things parental, hopelessly square. But he also had a temper that made resistance to his photographic efforts a dicey proposition. There are countless shots in which I’d clearly been dragged, literally kicking and screaming, into the frame and forced to stand next to my mother and brother, tears streaming down my blotchy face, while my father stubbornly recorded that we all had, in fact, gotten dressed up to go to church. I couldn’t wait to tear the damn scratchy suit off of my body, but he had to get the shot, even if I looked like a victim of recent torture. My brother, of course, younger and more benign, simply submitted, saving himself a lot of trouble.
These photos mostly show us and our relatives and our parents’ friends in starkly static poses, usually dressed up for some determinedly festive occasion and standing or sitting, with unfathomable frequency, in front of one fireplace or another. The idea of the candid had not yet penetrated my dad’s aesthetic consciousness.
But once or twice among the earlier albums are startling shots of a group of attractive young people, including my mother and father, strewn around a mid-century modern living room in various states of giddy drunkenness. It took me years to figure out what was going on in these photos, uncharacteristically chaotic as they were, and when I finally did, my heart warmed at the thought of my reserved, careful, hard-working parents having a roaring good time among friends I never knew.
Vacation travel is the single overriding subject of our family photos. There we are in Acapulco, Nassau, Puerto Vallarta, Daytona Beach, Orlando, Stone Harbor, in ridiculous matching sunwear, all of us, lined up like soldiers from a psychedelic army, burned to a crisp. Vacations and church seemed to be the prime triggers for my father’s need to take pictures (I don’t recall my mother ever touching the camera), I suppose because they both required us to dress funny.
Family photos are, at bottom, little time machines. You look and you’re instantly transported into the past, where you can study the fold of your mother’s dress and remember its texture, hear the tinkle of her jewelry, see your father staring off to one side (so as not to reflect the flash in his glasses, of course), stoic as a monk, nattily dressed, younger than you are now, both of them human as can be, in a way that doesn’t survive in mere memory. For you see them as they were, not as you think they were, or as they later became.
In those days you took a picture and you waited. You had no idea (at least until the advent of Polaroids) whether anyone’s expression was right, or whether the flash had obliterated the shot with a random reflection. You took the exposed film to the drugstore and turned it over and waited a week or two for the prints to come back. And none of this was cheap.
I inherited at least a fragment of my father’s photography gene. By the time I graduated from college, I was entranced by the mechanical and optical complexities of 35 MM cameras (f-stops and all that), and owned a series of them well into middle age, resulting in several “carousels” and unedited bags of loose color slides that even my orderly mother couldn’t have sorted into coherence. These sit, perpetually unviewed, in a box in a closet (I couldn’t tell you which box or even which closet), doomed to oblivion by their prissy size and ungainly viewing technology, whole decades of my photographed life effectively lost, while Mom’s older prints, easy to view as opening a book, soldier on in our midst like garrulous uncles, their stories retold at the slightest provocation.
The smartphone and the internet have of course changed the act of picture-taking almost beyond recognition. We carry cameras in our pockets everywhere, take photos of everything, view the results instantly, and send them across the planet with a flick of the finger, all for free (but for the data charges).
My grandsons, far from resenting the insults of being photographed that my brother and I suffered, regard it as an intrinsic part of daily existence, like eating or going to the bathroom. I venture to say that more photos have been taken of them in the first few years of their lives than were taken of me and my brother in our entire childhoods. They are the minutely recorded stars of their own ongoing docudramas, and have learned to twist their little faces into precocious expressions of self-conscious irony when, as will occur every few minutes, some adult points a phone in their direction. Where my brother and I had to travel from Pittsburgh to Orlando to see our grandmother, my grandsons patiently endure their grandparents’ regular FaceTime sessions, and when they’ve had enough, reach instinctively toward the screen to turn us off.
With this ubiquity and constancy of smartphone photography comes not only the risk of still more narcissism in a culture already saturated with it, but the possibility that none of it will survive as my mother’s analog albums have, that our grandchildren will one day want to see what we and they looked like before we were old and will find nothing there, no moldering old albums, no yellowed prints, just a cloud of bytes and bits owned by someone else, ephemeral and transient and vulnerable as the lives we so constantly record.
My mother’s photo albums will survive any EMP attack, will probably survive all the lives they so tenderly subtend. I’m grateful for them now, grateful for all of my father’s hectoring need to capture images of us, when, every so often, I pull them out of the closet and go over them with my brother or my wife and laugh in mortal wonder all over again at how innocent and lucky and photographed we all were.