What’s wrong with this picture?

I take a lot of pictures, and upload many of them to Facebook or Picasa. Watching the world through the lens of my camera makes me slow down and see things I might otherwise miss. Posting the images online helps me keep connected to family and friends. And, just like doing the New York Times crossword puzzle or voting Democratic, taking and sharing pictures is a ritual that links me with my past.

My mother’s father developed stunning black and white family portraits in his basement darkroom. My mother favored color slides: summers at the Cape, travels in Europe, babies, birthdays, the family assembled around the Passover table – in almost every roll at least one shot of my father holding aloft the matzoh, inviting all who are hungry to come and eat.

In those days before digital (or even one-hour film developing), you had to wait to see how your pictures came out. In our family, viewing the slides was an event. Someone would set up the screen. Someone would pile books on the table to raise the projector high enough. Someone would crawl under the couch to plug in the cord. Then we would sit back and see what Mommy took, and how her pictures came out.
Those slides were among the items I claimed when we disassembled the house: eight shoe boxes of about 30 rolls each, with 20 or 24 slides to a roll. It took me 10 years to finally buy a slide scanner and start sorting through the pictures and sharing them online with my family.

Not every shot is worth preserving. Some are blurred. Some are poorly exposed or badly composed – a thumb over the lens, the subjects too small to make out. The computer makes it possible to correct the mistakes. But should I? Is it my job to preserve the record of my mother’s often imperfect photography, or to produce the best possible mementos of my family’s history?

At heart, I am a preservationist — just like my mother. She’s the one who refused to throw away a single slide, even those that came back blank. She even kept the slides that melted and warped when the projector jammed and no one thought to turn off the hot lamp.

When I look at these melted slides, I see my notoriously unhandy father fumbling in frustration with the uncooperative projector. I hear my mother issuing her instructions from across the room. I feel the tension in the room – stress I shrank from when I was a kid, but would give anything to experience again. I doubt that it occurred to any of one of us, back then, that the essential story of our family wasn’t just in the special events Mommy recorded with her camera. It was also in the ritual we enacted, however imperfectly, when we gathered to share that story.

3 Responses to “What’s wrong with this picture?”

  1. Aimee Swift Says:

    This brings me right back… as my father is also a photographer. I grew up with the spare bathroom converted into a darkroom, black and white prints drying all over the house, and my dad always with his favorite Leica around his neck, ready and waiting to snap that picture. I, too, remember family slide shows. And, although there is no question as to the benefits of digital cameras, and the convenience and sheer magic of Photoshop, my heart aches for the photography of old.

  2. Dick Swift Says:

    An editor edits to maybe one single picture from possibly hundreds…easy to do since the one will just stand out and since the editor is an observer and objective. Being an emotional part of the picture makes life tough, but sometimes using the circular file makes the stronger images more valuable on down the time line, less diluted with weak images. Ensuing generations will edit if you don’t, thinking “why the hell did she keep these redundant, goofy pictures?” When one is the printer, time constraints and cost manage the editing. Digital? One takes hundreds more images and the medium becomes more journalistic as plates of food and pizza show up on facebook. “Here’s what we had for dinner”….. yummy

  3. Lea Carmichael Richardson Says:

    Ruth, you have once again explained a corner of life in a way that is at once both universal and personal. In our family it revolved around family movies, but the rituals and dynamics paralleled yours. And now a whole generation later you have me wondering how my children, all in their 20s, would describe our familial/pictorial rituals. Thanks.

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