Photographs and Memories

The young couple waded in the edge of Assateague channel in front of their campsite. They had arrived the day prior in a rental RV. Over the channel, an osprey and a bald eagle vied for air supremacy. Two dolphins swam past, foraging for spots and croakers as they went. To the East, the first colorful sunrise in a week painted the sky amazing hues of orange, red, pink, and yellow. It was a breathtaking view. But the young parents saw none of it. Since they had arrived the prior day all of their attention had been on their phones and their phones had been focused on their little boy. I had spent the afternoon crabbing and, in the process, watched as their naked little cherub danced about the beach all the while being thoroughly videoed and photographed to complete the childhood record.

I don’t have pictures of the best sunrises. I was busy sipping coffee and enjoying them.

Later in the afternoon, we packed up our crabbing equipment and decided ice cream was in order so we set off for Chincoteague’s Island Creamery. Once there, we obtained our frozen treat and had just sat down at a shaded table outside when I noticed another young couple with a small child. Like the couple in camp, all attention by both parents was on their phones recording every moment as the youngster smeared ice cream about his face. Meanwhile, the $10.00 worth of ice cream the parents had purchased for themselves melted. I watched as I ate my ice cream. Eventually, the phones were sated, the child’s face wiped off and the parents ice cream soup was discarded uneaten.

The important this is to capture the moment.

After contemplating my observations of modern parenting, I made a wry comment on Facebook reminding young parents not to forget to look around a bit instead of constantly recording. I received a comment back from a parenting friend reminding me how fast children grow, and are only a certain age once. Dolphins and sunrises last forever and we can always see another one.

Yesterday was our last day in Chincoteague, VA for the year and I thought about my comment and the response on my ride home. I concede that I am not a parent and therefore can probably never understand. I do get that childhood is fleeting and parents definitely should capture the moment when possible but I feel like there is a happy medium. I am glad I grew up in a time when photography was a lot less convenient. For the younger crowd, it hasn’t always been as easy to take pictures and videos as it is now. Let me give an example.

Friday morning we visited Sandy Pony Donuts in Chincoteague. It is a food truck in the middle of town that makes hot donuts to order. We stood, socially-distanced, in line squinting from afar at the list of available donut choices. Finally, I carefully approached from the side, snapped a picture of the menu with my phone, got back in line and zoomed in with my fingers so my wife and I could read the choices comfortably. If we had tried the same thing in my childhood it would have gone something like this:

“One day” was about as instant as it got.
  1. Load the camera with film. You have 24 exposure. Make them count.
  2. Use a handheld light meter or possibly a built in light meter to get an exposure reading.
  3. Set the dials on the camera and lens for the required aperture setting and f-stop.
  4. Dial the focus ring on the camera until the little parallel picture in the middle of the lens lines up to get good focus.
  5. Snap a picture.
  6. Readjust the camera to the f-stops on either side of the one used and take 2 more pictures just in case.
  7. Continue this process throughout vacation until the roll of film has been completely exposed. Remember . . you have 24 pictures on that roll. Don’t waste them! Make sure it is things you really want pictures of. What? No, you have no idea if they’ll be any good or not. You could have 24 fuzzy pictures of your thumb.
  8. Once you reach the end of the roll, flip the little metal handle out of the camera and crank the film back into its canister.
  9. Pop the film canister out, put it in the little plastic bottle and either take it or send it to get developed. You might be able to find a 24 hour place or, if money is no object you can get your pictures back in a couple hours. If you are still in line for donuts, you may want to go with the latter.
  10. When the phone call comes in that your pictures are ready, or the appropriate amount of time has passed, go pick them up and hope that they came out well.
  11. You can now find your donut menu in the stack of photos and, assuming it wasn’t out of focus or your exposure wrong, or the film processing didn’t screw up, you can then pick out your donuts.
  12. Oh. Wait. You wanted that picture enlarged? Hmmm. Back to the film processing place for a special order. But that will be 3-5 days and the donut truck will be closed so maybe don’t bother.
This was how we did it. Wise vacationers chose 36 exposures to last longer.

Yes, things like Polaroid and Instamatic cameras came along as well as completely automated 35mm cameras but the process was still laborious, limited and took a lot of thought and consideration for what you wanted to use your film for (We won’t even get in to flash bulbs, and flash cubes.) In today’s world of Instagram, snapchat, Facebook, and a myriad of other social media and photo sharing sites, many of the younger generation would lament that we missed out on capturing the memories of our lives. But we didn’t.

Photographs and memories . . . are they the same thing?

Photographs and memories

Christmas cards you sent to me

All that I have are these

To remember you

Memories that come at night

Take me to another time …

Jim Croce

We all have pictures of our lives. Some we took ourselves, others are from old family albums or found in old bibles. I have a box of 35mm slides that has been sitting on a table in my office for 7 years. There are 244 slides in that box.

A lifetime of family memories captured on a format that really is not practical. At one time nobody could ever fathom that Kodak and 35mm slides would no longer be a thing.

These are all that is left of the thousand or so slides I cleaned out of my parents closet when I emptied Dad’s house. These 244 slides are family photos from mine and my brother’s infancy until the demise of 35mm cameras which was the major portion of our life. Digital photography came along about the time my brother and I made our own way in the world. Along with the 35mm slides I have a pile of photo albums with prints. Again, a chosen few books of dozens of images.

So what was on all the photos I got rid of? Mostly it was my parents vacation pictures. There were dozens and dozens of pictures of the sights they saw when vacationing. Random shots of mountains, rivers, trains, beaches, birds, animals, from all over the US. The pictures had been viewed once, labelled, filed, and tucked away never to be viewed again. The second collection I disposed of was pictures from my parents dating and pre-child years. There were few pictures of them (which I kept) but pictures of events and parties they went to. Some were from the boat club. Some were picnics and gatherings. Upon close study, I probably could pick out a person or two in some of the photos but for the most part it was like looking at pictures in an old soda shop. (We had those back in 35mm days.) It was just random people most of whom were dead and who would only be recognizable by those who are also dead.

The last set of disposed of pictures is the most (or least) interesting. They were baby pictures. There was a seemingly endless barrage of baby pictures of my brother and I. There was slide after slide and print after print all labelled with theoretically significant events. There were pictures of us in a house. There were pictures of us at the beach. There were pictures of us in a car. There were pictures of us on a swing. It turns out even before digital photography my parents were the dutiful parental photographers and took all the appropriate pictures of us. Only us. One picture after another of my brother and I. Over and over and over. Yawn. I disposed of most of these. There is nobody left on the planet (including me) that cares what I looked like as a baby. I’m equally sure once those pictures were stashed away they were never seen by human eyes again. Granted, this was all before the days of social media where we can now display our pictures for immediate viewing by the world. A couple examples of random school pics from the 70s . . .

“But Pete, don’t you want to look through pictures to remember things?” Yes! I do. I have spent countless hours looking through those 244 family photos and I loved every minute of it. But, getting back to photographs and memories, photographs by themselves are not memories. Photographs are just a placeholder for memories we create with our experiences as we go through life. We all have many memories of things for which we have no photographs. How often does something happen that we say we wish we had a picture or a video? My question is, why does that matter? It happened to you and if it had relevance you’ll remember it the rest of your days! It becomes part of your experience. If you want to see a photograph or video just google. YouTube and the internet are filled with millions of pictures and videos of something similar. A photo is just a reminder of a day or an event. Other placeholders are momentos we collect (like a matchbook) or a familiar smell. To this day, I can’t catch a whiff of Hoppes #9 Nitro solvent and not be whisked back to a rainy, post-duck hunt morning. How often did I smell Hoppes #9 while enthusiastically cleaning and wiping down my Dad’s Remington 1100 or my Savage single shot? I worked at the metal workbench in the utility room behind the kitchen while Dad brewed a fresh pot of coffee. We would enjoy a late breakfast then set to work plucking fat mallards that may have been in Canada a day before. Scent is a powerful reminder.

But photos are equally powerful reminders. Let me randomly flip open one of my photo albums. (Again kids, these were the things we kept our pictures in before we had phones, computers, and Instagram.)

My generation’s Instagram

Ah, here’s a good one. This is a picture of my best friend Joe and his dog Splash. Splash crossed the rainbow bridge a long time ago and Joe and I were a lot younger then. It was a beautiful fall day and Joe, Splash, and I spent it on the “little mountain” pursuing ruffed grouse. The memories of that day are etched in my head. It was the day splash really figured out bird hunting. I can still picture the second bird I killed that morning. I was carrying Dad’s old 1100 and Splash was above me on a hillside working through a thick patch of grape vine. I saw his head whip around, and he dove head first into the brush. He dug through, burrowing under a tangle. I saw the bird start to run and then flush as Splash nipped at its tail. The board took flight and soared down hill tumbling in a puff of feathers at my shot. Splash was a proud boy as we picked it up together and I gave him a drink of water from my water bottle. I remember the sound of the crunching leaves, the smell of the warm autumn woods, and the whirrrrr of the grous’s wings as it flushed. I can feel the slight heft of the grouse as it lay in my hand, Splash sniffing eagerly. I can see this in my mind as clearly as if it happened yesterday and a few less grey hairs ago. Yet I only took one picture and no video. A picture is just a moment in time and one or a couple is sufficient to spark the memory. The memory is made from experiencing life.

Joe and the late Splash on a fine autumn day.

Some would argue that I’ll want pictures of everything to jog my memories when they start to fade. I would argue otherwise. Our memories are ours and ours alone. We may have shared experiences with others but our memories are collected during our lives and die with us. Pictures can’t fix that. I’m sure were my Mom alive and healthy today, she could have looked at any of those vacation pictures I threw out and told me all about the day and what they did while on that trip. But as the brain cancer took her mind, many of her memories preceded her in death. In her last weeks, I asked her about some of the pictures in the house. While some still had meaning, many she couldn’t remember and some of those were pictures I knew she was familiar with. The memories were gone. Similarly, I have a close family relation that is suffering from Alzheimers. I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m guessing that that person would no longer recognize the memories meant to be inspired by pictures.

When memories are gone they are gone.

I’m not suggesting we should all stop taking pictures and videos. They can be fun and helpful. Who hasn’t laughed at a picture or appreciated a shared moment from a friend via a photo or video? Heck, many of us survived the isolation of COVID-19 thanks to photos and videos from families and friends. But even as I look at my own Instagram and Facebooks accounts, I think “Why would anyone want to see that?” I remember my Mom pointing out that nobody really wants to see anyone’s vacation pictures. Sure, we politely look and these days are quick to hit “Like” but honestly most of the pictures we share are “Look where I’ve been or look what I’ve done” and let’s not forget “Here’s my little angel with a seashell . . holding the seashell backwards . . . trying to eat the seashell”.

Really, nobody likes your vacation pictures. (I need to go delete some pics from my Instagram.)

Still, I’m glad I grew up when it was harder to take pictures. (Especially naked baby pictures and videos. That poor child in the rental RV is going to be miserable when he brings his first girl friend home.) Actually, I’m glad for my parents I grew up in a time when it was harder to take pictures. We lived life together instead of worrying about putting it on Instagram or watching it later on YouTube. I think about things like dance recitals, or school plays. Remembering when I was in school and parents filed in to the gym or auditorium, took a seat, the lights went down and we performed in all of our out-of-tune glory. Parents and family enjoyed our performance, applauded, and then we went home. Now, go to any of these events and the children look out on a sea of phones and tablets staring back at them. Parents work hard to not miss recording a single moment. The person behind them gets to see their phone or tablet screen, and the parent themselves is busy keeping their offspring centered in frame even if their child’s credit in the program is “2nd reindeer” with no speaking parts. Not a moment of 2nd reindeer’s stage time goes unrecorded. The recording parent doesn’t actually see 2nd reindeer on stage but hey they can replay it later. ‘Cause that’s the same.

The view from the back during school plays and recitals.

My parting thoughts are that while it is easy to photograph and video every moment of life, just don’t forget to live life now and then. Just remember you’ll probably never look at 90% of the pictures you take ever again. Grab your child by the hand, go to the beach, and play in the waves. Just once, leave the phone home or in the car and make memories. It is easy to say, “I can always see another sunrise” but none of us have that guarantee.

3 Comments

  1. A donut truck?! I’m on the road now! Hope you had a great trip!

    100% agree, Pictures are lovely but if you miss actual moments what’s the point? I’ve totally found myself looking through pictures of landscapes and wonder what I was thinking… although I do like when I capture a good one and frame it on my wall. Makes me think of the people that get attacked by wildlife because they take pictures and don’t respect their space.

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