Most of my baby pictures were ripped to shreds by a coked up Pan Am flight attendant, circa 1978. In addition to working for Pan Am, she was sleeping with my father. My parents had separated, and by that I mean my mom grabbed me one afternoon and we fled out the side door of our Honolulu apartment. This was about five minutes after the flight attendant had burst through the front door, ripped a painting off the wall, smashed it on a table, slit her writs with the glass and began wiping the blood all over the white shag carpet.
We were living in the Hilton Hawaiian Village, which at the time was mixed resort/residence living. We had no car, and I was shoeless, bouncing in her arms as we kept running down Kalakaua Avenue until we darted into a coconut oil-scented gift shop. Some Japanese tourists immediately asked if they could snap my photo. Something about a barefoot, darkly tanned, chubby blonde Hawaiian kid was as much of a novelty to them as the hula girl lamps and Tiki masks that surrounded us. We both smiled broadly. They never noticed my mom hastily wiping her smeared mascara.
When we returned to the apartment to gather some necessities, we discovered the photographic shreds in a box. Random confetti of their Finnish wedding photos, my first birthday party, colorful Christmas celebrations. While my father later blamed it on his mistress, he never did explain where he was when she was destroying our Kodak moments. I have often wondered if he joined in.
And although we had the negatives, we never developed them. Not a single one. What we did do was spend hours piecing them back together like a puzzle; my mother cursing my father, his mistress and Pan Am airlines under her breath. My mom thought our family history was more authentic that way—ripped, yellowing, scotch taped together. Even though my parents remarried seven years later—she wanted him to remember what he’d done. It was tangible evidence of his sins.
So maybe because my photographic family history was desecrated, I am unusually sensitive to photographs, their permanence and meaning. Of course I’m not alone. Most people who have lost all their possessions in fire mention the photographs first.
All that preservation of the past; those seconds frozen in time melt in the flames. And while some claim history repeats itself, the only tactile way to relive it is by sorting through family albums.
It was in 1888 George Eastman introduced the first Kodak camera. He boasted, “Photography is thus brought within reach of every human being who desires to preserve a record of what he sees.”
But for generations, expense and finite amounts of film on hand demanded that what we recorded had to be something we deemed permanently valuable. Weddings. The birth of a child. Even open caskets.
Years ago there was a murky joint in New Orleans called Dead Mozell’s Café. It took its name from a vintage black and white photograph. One of the Mozell sisters had died a day before their scheduled appointment with a photographer. But photography was such a status symbol back then, that the three sisters dressed in their finest dresses and propped the dead one up in between the living.
Placing importance on posed photographs remained unchanged for generations. A few years ago, I was walking with a friend on the Upper West Side and we found a stray photograph of an Olan Mills family portrait from the 1970’s. It was resting on the sidewalk, a portrait of a mom, dad and toddler. The father looked proud and the mother looked worried, like she was calculating the cost of a photograph they couldn’t afford. We couldn’t leave it there to be thrown in the trash, or flutter into a drain. It was too sweet, sad and full of mystery. So my friend took it home, framed it, hung it on her wall with her other family photos and called them “The Johnsons”.
Since then I’ve started to wonder if lost and discarded personal photos find me. I’ve rescued little girls with Shirley Temple ringlets and ruffled socks. Young couples from the 1960’s, standing in front of modest new homes, hemlines rising and side burns about to become mutton chops. Handsome soldiers smoking cigarettes. And even two Pan Am flight attendants, dressed in their uniforms, smiling in front of a 747.
I come across them in apartment trash heaps, when it’s clear that someone has died, and their relatives had no use for their musty personal items. I uncover them at garage sales. I buy them in frames from illegal street vendors. I am forever curious about how these framed photographs went from their glory days on the mantelpiece to their ignominious place on a dingy sheet spread over the sidewalk, nestled amongst the mismatched used shoes, broken lamps and defunct technology.
For whatever reason, I cannot pass these photographs up. Maybe it’s because when I look at them, I realize that particular moment was deemed worthy of preservation. Someone gave it thought, and placed value on that moment. But now that we’re in the age of impermanent digital photos, security cameras, traffic cameras, value and permanence are up for grabs. Far from being reserved for special moments, we are now photographed all day long. Our every moment, no matter how mundane, is likely to be caught on security cameras at the grocery store as we shop for ground beef, take cash out of the ATM or run a red light.
Christopher Isherwood once famously wrote, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all of this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”
Were he alive today, he might have to re-write that line. After all, “I am a camera” implies that one person is the subject and another person is the camera. Isherwood’s camera is removed; there is a separation of camera and subject. Not anymore. Technology has made us both cameras and subjects 24 hours a day. But none of it has to be “developed, carefully fixed, printed.”
Digital cameras have given us the option of taking photos of the man shaving or the woman in the kimono, e-mailing it, then disposing of it. If photographs are snapped and deemed too ugly, they are deleted. That moment did not exist. People who are too superstitious to shred a printed photo have no trouble deleting them. No value judgment is made. No one runs out of film, or has to question if the shot is worthy. The importance of image is no longer examined. Anything can be recorded. And no one has to fear losing their photographs in a fire, as long as they’re stored on a hard drive.
So with this digital revolution, something that was at one point so important that Mozell sisters would prop up their dead sibling has become ephemera.
Then again, “meaning” is different now. Any paparazzo can tell you that the public is hungry for random, unprofessional shots of celebs going to Starbucks in bedraggled sweats, not slick images from expensive photo shoots. These “Average Joe” shots are considered more “real” as though the fan is somehow slipping inside the celebrity lifestyle. When people see these unflattering photographs in cheap magazines, it seems like the pedestals we place celebrities on have room for us too. Still, if there is truth to the ancient Native American belief that snapping a photograph seizes a bit of your soul, it could explain why some of the most photographed celebrities seem so soulless.
But do these everyday shots actually offer a candid glimpse of the celebrity lifestyle? Sometimes I think the art directed, carefully staged portraits strip the celebrity bare in a more authentic way. The perfect pose, your good side, the beautiful illusion of photoshopping and lighting, it exposes the hungry need to be worshipped. It’s the very essence of fame. Then again, it’s hard to know where the truth lies: the image you want to present, and what you are. They are linked, but which is more valid?
Is there such a thing as an authentic pose? Much like my mother dutifully presented a fake smile for Japanese tourists on one of the worst days of her life—aren’t most birthday party grins and cruise ship celebration snapshots just as forced?
So if smiling for the camera doesn’t capture real emotion, maybe posed photographs offer up another kind of truth. They capture what we wish we’d felt.