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Seeing the Whole Picture Without a Camera

Or is philosophy an excuse for laziness?

Idealized Santorini at sunset shot — pexels-gotta-be-worth-it-1029011

My lasting impression of the sun setting into the Aegean Sea on Santorini Island in Greece is hundreds of cellphones raised high to get the perfect shot. I started to do the same but decided to watch the actual sun sink into the actual ocean, not mediated by a camera. Nevertheless, it was a disappointment, one of those over-hyped moments when too many tourists like me spoiled the view.

Nor did I find the sun setting into the Aegean more splendid than other sunsets. I pulled over to the side of the road when I was driving between lakes in Minnesota, one lake on either side of the two-lane highway. The western sky was filled with billowing clouds which reflected gold and pink and scarlet and the lakes reflected the sky. I didn’t take a picture then, either, and didn’t even think about it. I have a panoramic view in my head.

I love several photographers who regularly post on Medium, and love the art form of photography. I best remember an unexpected exhibit in Italy, of Robert Mapplethorpe’s black-and-white photos of nudes interspersed between Italian marble statues of nudes. It was magnificent and jarring in contrasts and similarities.

I don’t take pictures often, nor do I like having my picture taken. I do have a grandchild and want her to have some pictures for memories. I had albums of my birth family and our staged photos every year in front of the Christmas tree and at birthday celebrations. No siblings wanted them, nor the yearbooks of pictures of people none of us knew. I disbursed about a dozen photos to each brother and sister, and then tossed the albums. I don’t have files of my pictures to sort and organize.

In part, it’s simplicity, it’s laziness. I don’t feel called to photography as my art form and don’t like the 45-degree angled shots in other’s amateur still travel documentaries. If I want to remember what Santorini looks like, the internet will provide me with many great pictures.

I also would rather be present at that moment, absorbing the reality of my experience, not trying for an idealized version. Maybe it’s why none of my siblings are drawn to the annual staged shots of our family history. I remember the tears and whining about getting dressed up and organized and forcing smiles. It’s the idealized version of the family my mother wanted to capture.

Some cultures forbid taking pictures, as it might capture the spirit, or otherwise invades one’s space without permission. The paparazzi photographers were hated by many celebrities they hounded, from Jackie Onassis to Princess Diana.

The Amish are another group that “want to be remembered by the lives they lived and the examples they left, not by physical appearance.” I remember explaining this about the Amish as I toured international visitors past the Amish community not far from where I lived in the Midwest, and they surreptitiously took a shot or two to explain to friends back home.

Perhaps I was influenced by Susan Sontag’s critical book of essays, On Photography. She wrote about the mediating role of photography. Ironically, she became partners with Annie Liebowitz, one of the world’s great photographers. Annie wrote of photographing people you know well, of photographing Susan:

“…the more you know about someone, the harder it is to take. It has to do with knowing how they imagine they see themselves. And I think that when you love them, you don’t want to disappoint them.”

I get this sentiment, too. I am startled when I see an old woman staring back at me in candid Zoom room meetings, or when I see her in unexpected places, like pane glass doors — or pain glass doors — at twilight.

There is a flash of the question “who is that?” before the flash of recognition, “oh my god, that’s me.” A friend told me years ago “that the heart is always seventeen,” and somehow, that’s how I see myself.

Perhaps that internal idealized picture has been able to accomplish many things the aging matron wouldn’t dare do. I don’t know. I don’t take selfies, either.

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  1. SingingFrogPress
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    I like very much your meditation on this, and agree with so much of what you say, yet I am burdened not only by the decades of my own photos (with Jay kids grandkids) but also albums from my previous marriage, plus photo albums of grandmothers from both sides of my family and many of my folks’ photos, and have in various closets and drawers shoe boxes of unsorted photographs, and reels holding hundreds of slides, and thousands of my father’s slides slowing fading in their boxes. I want to get to them, sorting, discarding, sending on to various relatives the photos they should have, and yet I never get to them. When I ask my kids if I should just dump the shelves of albums on the two top shelves of a book case in my dining room, they emphatically say no. I know when we/if we move out of this big old house, large and immediate decisions and dumping of many photos will have to happen. If I die before we move, someone else will inherit the job.

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