Written on July 19, 2009
going through some of my mother’s files tonight i found this proof sheet, labeled december 10th, 1963. ten years before i was born. the man in some of the shots with her looks like my uncle howard. i asked my mother who took these pictures, since there isn’t a credit anywhere, and nothing written on the back of the contact sheet. she says they were taken in chicago but she can’t remember exactly who the photographer was, though suspects it could be victor skrebneski. i should try to find victor and see if he’s still got the negatives!
growing up our house was filled with photographs. my mother took endless snapshots herself, most involving my brother and myself, and at least one of our many pets. there were photos scattered around by mary ellen mark, richard avedon, annie leibovitz, albert watson, lynn goldsmith and many others. most of them were of my mother’s clients. most of them i ignored when i was very young, thinking it just another part of my parent’s work, same as the phone calls that used to interrupt us during dinner. i sometimes think that my family sort of set me up to be a photographer – or, at the very least, to be the kind of photographer i am. they were all essentially freelance, there was always a home office. there was never any “going home” from work. your work was part of your life, and vice versa. spillover was absolute. this seemed normal to me, and as i’ve been a professional photographer for almost fifteen years now, it still does. i make that long 25 foot commute to my office every morning and most days i start work (emailing, photoshop, filing, etc) before i even eat breakfast or shower or even really wake up fully. usually i go to sleep late at night because i notice that letterman is over, or i’m falling asleep at my desk. work is life, life is work, photographs are important. these are things my parents taught me, even if they didn’t really mean to.
when i started to take photography seriously my mother stopped taking so many pictures herself (a major left turn for me in college, as someone who was gearing up to be either a professor, a writer, a rock star or a chef – and never displayed any artistic talent whatsoever before a camera was dropped in my hands on a whim). the unspoken agreement was that it was now left up to me. besides, the whole digital thing didn’t jive too well with her. my mother and high technology are uncomfortable with each other.
everyone in my family complains loudly and regularly about the mess of papers and piles of pictures in my mom’s office. but for every complaint there are a dozen thirty-year-old snapshots that not a single one of us would want to throw away. they’re all piled haphazardly in a giant bowl in her living room, the order rearranging every time someone goes through them. there are even old wallet size photos of my great-grandparents in there. this bowl is a family treasure, truly, and every time i look through it i lament that one aspect of digital photography: will anyone have a giant bowl of snapshots in twenty years? with everything being created and archived in pixels, i’m afraid we’re all missing out on the simple analog pleasure (and surprise) of finding out something about our families and the people who matter to us that we otherwise might have forgotten.
this is not a luddite rant. i’m a great believer in the merits of digital photography. i use digital cameras and love computers (while still being wary and uncomfortable with excessive retouching) and am a technophile if anything. but i might feel a bit better about it all still if everyone – or maybe even just me – had the wherewithal to make small prints of everything, too, and just throw them in a bowl somewhere.
images are valuable things – and sometimes they’re most valuable as things you can touch.