On the day my mother turned eighteen my grandfather insisted she start paying rent. She was a dancer, but even when she could get paying jobs they didn’t cover the monthly note so instead she got a job in the Sears camera shop, working on commission. If you came in for a battery my mother would sell you three rolls of film, lens cleaner, a shoulder strap and two batteries. My father came in for developing paper. On their wedding day she gave him the best camera they sold. I still carry it today.
I take pictures that show the world as I see it, the dark and fascinating, the play of shadows over sun drenched sidewalks, the art in the façade of a library. I shoot with black and white film, low speed. I take every photo three times, bracketing the images with different settings just in case. I burn through roll after roll of film, buying it in quantities when I find it, which is less and less often. In all those photos I’ve learned there’s truth to the ancient superstition that photos still the soul.
Not the soul of a person, but the soul of a moment. When you’re shooting you freeze an instant: the pile of wrapping paper stays forever on the floor next to the always fresh Christmas tree. The first year, you remember everything: the smell of the tree, the paper cut you got opening presents, the way the sunlight came in the room because you’d slept to late, the taste of coffee, the ache in your shoulders from carrying too many bags in the mall just yesterday. Time passes and the details fade. A glance at the photo and most of them come back. But soon it’s hard to remember that Christmas without focusing on the wrapping paper. Years go by, and now all you remember is the wrapping paper, but not the paper cut or the roll, not the smell of it as the clock ticked down with someone standing just outside the door trying to get a peek. No, you can only remember it crumpled, like in the photograph.
Until, really, you’re only remembering the photograph and not the moment.
It gives me pause, to remember my beloved dead, to think of their smile and know my first thought is the smile captured in a photograph. I worry that I’ve lost so much more, a thousand smiles, never documented, gone from my mind. I worry that someday the photographs will fade and then, what will I have? A hazy detail-less image, fuzzy even in my mind, precious and only half true.
Sunlight falls across my lover’s face, a flower opens up, I look at the table groaning under the weight of a holiday feast, and I promise myself that I’ll hold the moment forever, never forgetting even the smallest detail but, in the end, I know better, and I take a picture.