Wednesday, April 18, 2007

#107 - The Bad Photograph

The Bad Photograph

4/18/07 (#107)

It's rare to see a bad photograph at an art gallery. Each piece tends to be a study of ideal proportions, colors meticulously balanced, the subject carefully cropped in order to direct the eye to the intended focal point. In fact, some photographs are so captivating that they seem less a "perfect photograph" than a "photograph of perfection", creating the illusion that the perfection continues beneath the matte, beyond the frame, and into the physical world. I'm always astonished when a photograph can captivate me that way, like the picture of cows taken by my friend Ben Gustafson, an image as beautiful as any photograph I have seen. Cows. When I look at it, I barely acknowledge the bovine subject matter, because it isn't the cows that are compelling, it's the photograph itself: the light, the mood, some intangible element that draws me in and holds me there. In fact, it's misleading to say that it's a photograph of cows at all, because I rarely look at the cows, I look at the photograph.

While that image is worthy of a gallery wall, a great photograph doesn't have to qualify as "art". I saw a Polaroid snapshot on a friend's fridge that featured a woman I don't know, and I was entranced; I wanted to slip it into my pocket and take it home, I wanted to stare at it for hours and unlock the mystery of its allure. I'm sure there was a story behind it, but I didn't care; explanations could be made about the activities documented, but such details were irrelevant to me: I was entranced by what it was now, and how the subject seemed to be looking not at the camera, but directly at me, as if she'd been waiting for me to arrive in front of the refrigerator.

That's the wonderful aspect of a fabulous photograph: they take on a life of their own, independent of the event they document. But that is also a failure of the same photograph: by taking on a life of their own, they lose the life that was taking place in front of the lens. For example, next to my desk I have a black and white photograph of my daughter and me clowning, a moment of unrestrained childhood joy coinciding with the click of the shutter, her grin so ebullient that I defy anyone to look at it and not smile in response. It's one of my most cherished photographs---yet when I see it, I have no recollection of the day it was taken, or of what we were clowning about, or even how old she was when the photo was taken. When I see it, I remember today, laughing about the things we laughed about this morning. It is not a photograph of Sage and me on that particular day, but a photograph of Sage and me now. It captures something seemingly intangible, something other than mere visual facts. It is a photograph that remains perpetually in the present tense.

The bad photograph, on the other hand, is purely temporal---without the art, without the compelling imagery, all that's left is the visual evidence. While our various of levels of vanity cause many of us to moan when a photograph is unflattering ("unflattering" often being a synonym for "accurate" when it comes to photos of me), such reactions say more about the viewer than the photo itself. I'm not defending mistakes---a family photo that captures six scalps and the sky or blurs of movement that wouldn't get you convicted if it was a snapshot of a crime scene---I'm speaking of the photo which seemed like a good idea but which failed to capture the image as it appeared in our mind, that captures an awkward transition just prior to or after a moment of purity. It is "bad" because it is not what we intended; it contains every bit as much information as the perfect photograph, it simply isn't the information we wanted to document.

I have such a picture of me, taken on the first day that we owned our first home. I asked my wife to take a photo of me walking up the steps of our first house, a silly idea that my wife agreed to only because she knew I couldn't be dissuaded. It looks ridiculously posed, my gait unnatural, my sheepish smile giving away any sense of it being a snapshot, the whole composition purely fabricated---quite simply, it is a bad photograph. Had we owned a digital camera at that time, I'm sure it would have been deleted immediately, since at a glance, it's an image that wouldn't be worth the paper it was printed on. But it was printed with the rest of that roll, and somehow it slipped past quality control and made it into the family album where it remains as evidence to be presented in case my wife ever has to produce proof that I am the dork she sometimes accuses me of being.

Yet when I look at that photo now, I am transported back to that day---I hear the laughter that preceded Stephanie's shutter click; I feel the starched polyester scrape of my Chevron uniform against my bare neck and the odd sponginess of the requisite oil-resistant soles; I recall the moment we pulled up at the house in Connie McDowell's white Toyota, arriving just in time to see a minor fistfight in front of the neighbor's house (which proved to be a telling moment about those neighbors); I remember the awesome blend of euphoria and fear that comes with the phrase "30-year mortgage", and the dozen times in 20 minutes that I rolled the phrase "our house" off my tongue. It is a bad photograph by any measure, yet I am grateful for every one of its flaws.

You might think that because this was a momentous event in my life, I would have remembered all of these details with the visual cue of any photograph. Perhaps, but knowing myself as well as I do, that seems unlikely. My memory is like a file cabinet crammed with unlabeled folders: Each folder is full of details, but I have great difficulty finding the folder for which I'm searching. If someone asked me to write a story about playing YMCA basketball, I'd be hard-pressed to find a compelling anecdote; yet if I hear the name "Roger Gray", I immediately recall standing on the YMCA's hardwood court in my purple "Bullets" shirt, the echoing squeaks of Nikes and Adidas against the varnished floor, turning to find my face interrupting the trajectory of a basketball kicked full-force by Roger's enormous leg, my body feeling like a Bugs Bunny cartoon as it became parallel to the floor, the sting in my cheek and eye socket that overshadowed the thump of my head hitting the foul line. I'm sure there are many YMCA stories in my mental filing cabinet, but I'm not going to remember them until something triggers those memories.

Had Stephanie and I managed to capture the campy, timeless "first house" photograph I had imagined, we would have perfect documentation of front-yard euphoria, but the particulars might have been lost: Was this the day we bought the house? The day I quit the Chevron? (I certainly smiled that day, too.) The day we got the dog? (Probably not the latter if there was no dog in the picture.) But there is so much information stored in that picture's goofiness that there is no doubt about the day, no doubt about the details, and no doubt that it allows me to mine a cache of memory that might be inaccessible without it.

I wonder how much the digital camera will impact the photo collections of the average American family. In the film days, you snapped your 24 shots and hoped for the best, but with digitals, we have so many opportunities for deleting: As we're snapping shots, we can immediately view the images on the postage-stamp-sized window and deem a photograph unworthy; when we download them to the computer, we can compare and contrast and save only the best images to the hard-drive; then when it's time to populate an actual photo album, the images are sifted again to see which merit the printing process. It is a great way to eliminate everything except the perfect pictures, but what else are we eliminating from our memory when we save only the perfect pictures?

It's tempting to save only the best photos, as we will one day look back and remember only those perfect, timeless days. But in essence, the decision to edit those photographs is a decision to edit our past, sculpting a slide show of a life that is only partially represented in the pictures; we are deciding now what we will want to remember later, and by deleting the "bad" photographs, perhaps deleting some of our own memory. My memory is spotty enough that I don't want to do any more culling than is necessary---I want to remember everything that I can, and in some cases, these various bad photographs that populate the boxes on the closet shelves offer access to more obscure data. These pictures aren't perfect; but something doesn't need to be perfect to be valuable.

©2007 wpreagan