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Picture perfect

February 24, 2014

Since I got a smartphone, I’ve taken thousands of pictures. Over the same seven years or so I’ve also spent a lot of time on photo shoots, and I’ve learned a enough about lighting and composition to get a great family holiday photo in a single take. I’ve picked up enough about editing and filters to make backyard snapshots look like something that might go in a magazine. I’m not claiming expertise, just practice and a basic understanding of what it takes to take a good picture.

What’s freed me up to gain some level of skill and confidence is the room to fail. I’m no longer limited to the 24 shots on a roll of 35 millimeter film or the wait time to get them developed before knowing what I’ve got. Gratification, like iteration, is instant.

It isn’t fair to say I got the holiday shot in a single take. There were actually several, with my son and sister as stand-ins on the spiral staircase. I adjusted curtains, scooted the Christmas tree, raised and lowered my iPhone tripod and set the timer at just enough time for me to get back to my spot but not too long that my family couldn’t hold their smiles.

When we were kids, my dad never said, ” Say cheese.” He said, “Say bartsfarkle,” which made us laugh instead of smile. He also seemed to never break out the camera except on Christmas morning, when I was barely awake and none of us had brushed our hair. It’s funny to look through photo albums and see the same pictures over and over again: us surrounded by wrapping paper, curled up in a big green chair or holding a gift up to the camera from the living room floor.

My dad took decent pictures, but whether they were birthday parties or Easter morning, there’s the quality of occasion to all of them. Dressed up or still in our pjs, on vacation or at a piano recital, there was something about the moments that were photographed then that was apart from the rest of our lives, frozen even as they were happening.

We rarely print pictures these days, but there are some photo albums from my post-college era that have captured my daughter’s imagination lately. “Who’s that, Mama?” she asks, pointing at friends and former students whose names I can’t always recall.

She was “Star of the Week” a few weeks back and we were asked to bring photos to put up on the bulletin board of her. I chose pictures of her doing favorite her favorite everyday things: riding a horse at Van Saun Park, hugging our cat, playing in the sprinkler, reading a book. I also chose the classic hands-in-the-birthday cake shot from when she turned one, a moment conceived and constructed for her, as it had been for me, solely for the purpose of taking that photograph.

As I was choosing which images to print and share, I scrolled through more than 3,000 of her and my son, images we’d taken since she was making my belly the size of the pumpkin on the table next to me at the pick-your-own farm. So many of them had been shared with friends on Facebook that I was able to print the ones we needed by logging in to my account from a kiosk at my local CVS. I put them all in an album yesterday, and tonight we sat in the orange chair while she explained to me what each of them was.

I wondered what the ability to document everything in images has done. Are we more likely to capture the everyday? Or have we curated all of our moments into miniature occasions? Are our pictures more reflective of what we experience since we know better how to make the photos in our phones match the snapshots of our memories? Are photos now proxy for memories, or have they always been?

I’m not sure, but tonight I read an article about how shelter pets who have been waiting for forever families for months are getting adopted within hours of a good photo of them being taken and posted online.

It is the same sort of curated authenticity and instant intimacy that is perfected in Instagram feeds and that make us feel like we know the kids of our high school friends, people we haven’t actually seen since graduation. The simple tricks of perspective, backgrounds, tonality – and the freedom to take as many shots as needed to get it right – hold promise beyond perfecting the holiday portrait or portraying the perfect family, and they’re saving animals lives.

As I was putting Nacine to sleep tonight, I told her the story of Rascal, the stray cat we brought in to our basement who had kittens in a laundry basket. Rascal nursed and weaned them and they opened their tiny kitten eyes in a refrigerator box filled with our old sheets and towels and then promptly left our lives the way she’d entered through a screened door. I wondered if I remembered the story itself so vividly or if it was the photos we’d taken of baby Tit-Tat and her brothers and sisters that cemented the memory there so I could share it tonight.

Either way, I think, pictures hold power: to turn moments to memory and memories into moments again.

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