Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Photographs and memories

The opening of Toy Story 3 involves some "home videos" of a younger Andy playing imaginatively with his action figures and dolls. The whole movie is a meditation on putting away childhood things, and what we choose to save. What Andy and his parents don't deal with is what to do with all that home video footage.

I recently reconnected with the family I stayed with in North Carolina the summer after my junior year of college while interning at the local paper. That summer I took a few rolls of pictures because it was all new and different for me. To them, it was just daily life. So when I sent them scans of the photos, I was surprised at how affected they were to see those bygone everyday moments.

The everyday gets much more documentation these days.

When I was a kid, the movie camera only came out a few times a year, if that. Even the occasions for still photos were fairly selective. Holiday cards, birthdays and vacations, school events, the arrival of a new pet or car.

But after the nest emptied, my mom started taking more and more photographs
as time and then technology allowed. She singlehandedly kept the local photo store in business. My parents took cruises that she filled entire albums with, shooting with almost flip-book frequency. Whereas my brothers and I share an album from childhood that spans three years, the grandkids were documented so much they got a new album every few months. I started to tease my mom that events only existed for her if they had been photographed.

After my parents died, one of the most arduous tasks facing me and my two younger brothers was winnowing down my mother's photography. It took weeks to cull a few shots of my folks from the otherwise wall-to-wall impersonal, postcard views.  We dutifully labelled all the saved photos, and put them in envelopes.....but what are we going to do with them? Make new, reduced albums? Which one of us three would keep them? Would we scan them all, at great cost or effort? Will our kids just be burdened with them down the line? Should we reduce them further?

Too exhausted to decide, for now I have just focused on a few treasures like the shot posted above, that were fresh and surprising for me. I have no memory of seeing it before, and wish I had been able to ask them to recount their memories of that day, which probably had receded into the general blur of childhood and parenthood and 49 years of marriage.

After my mom died, I did get my dad to do an oral history -- he dictated it to his secretary. He was voluble but selective, and of course the whole project was colored by his loss of my mom. What's surprising is how little he volunteered about his or our childhoods -- most of it focuses on overall family history, and his years of college/law school/courtship/work.

Like my mom, I take lots of photos of my kids -- an inordinate amount, probably overcompensating for the part-time custody I have had in the decade since my divorce. So my hard drive is now clogged with thousands of pictures that have never made it to print. By the time I pick a handful to stick into frames, they're outdated. I keep meaning to edit them down.

Will this overwhelming cache someday help them remember things better, or just create more of a blur?  Will it warp their memories by focusing them on the things that were documented, with the rest slipping away?


Maria Grasso said...

Love this picture of your parents. We are indeed an over-documented society and I too wonder if the photographs will warp memories. As you know, I love my camera, but sometimes it's hard to be in the moment when the focus is on getting a great shot.

Biffles said...

So, to me, this is an argument for taking fewer pictures of the emotionally resonant variety. The more photographically documented existence is one in which the meaning is parceled out too thinly, I think!

Of course, your mom's holiday snaps (and the ones I inevitably take of architecture in any city I visit) are another category altogether....

Jonathan Kesselman said...

Beautiful post

jeff said...

so what will happen with the next generation. Will my daughter pull out her flash drive to show her kids what we looked like? Are memories such as those that are generated by your family photographs (and mine) doomed? I bought a little photo printer for precisely this reason, but I never use it.

As my Dad slowly fades away, I cling to the video and voice recordings I made of him, telling jokes and (for the first time) being honest about his upbringing. What will become of those after I'm gone? I can't exactly paste them into a scrap book.