Saturday, August 02, 2008

Worth a Thousand Words

There's an older woman standing next to me in an aisle, perusing photo frames with an expectant posture. She shuffles them around to get a look at every one and holds one out to me when she finally finds what she's looking for. "That's my son," she says, indicating the appealing, gap-toothed, towheaded anyboy peering from the frame in black and white over the head of a subdued Dachshund. "This was years ago." We have a short visit but I don't ask how long ago it was and try to imagine his probable embarrassment now if he knew his mother was showing strangers in a T.J. Maxx the photo with his serrated teeth and satellite ears. He was probably a very happy boy. Children can't help looking unnatural when forced to smile in photos. She claims she buys the frame whenever she finds his photo.

I spend a pleasant while amongst the frames wondering about the other people in the stock photos, the perfectly groomed upper class families and angelic children and romping retrievers. How old are they now? Eventually I look past the people at the barns and lighthouses and stone walls, misty southern fields with even fences and halos of sagging trees dripping moss. Are the farmhouses still standing? Are the fences still unrelentingly uniform? Some images don't even contain people, but immortalize a single trillium blossom or a field of daisies or a glossy brook or a stand of still trees. Any of these places might be parking lots now.

The photos feel like a pause in a film; the dog should finish his bound and begin another, the brook should begin to pour, the daisies should quake in a breeze, blazing in brilliant color. The family should continue to tussle and the children should grow and the lighthouse should flash and the brick wall might crumble over time or shortly find itself the perch of an old man with a knobby cane. He should have been in the picture. Grandma used to scold and say there was no point in a picture without anybody in it. "Years from now nobody will know where that was or who was there." And it's true. I don't know where the brook runs, I don't know where the wall waits, I don't know where the daisies sway in the sun.

The strange thing is, I care. The photos feel orphaned. The people who purchase the frames will take them home, peel out the glossy paper with sepias and grays, throw them away and replace them with photos of their own. Early in the history of the camera, Native Americans and members of other cultures resisted having photos taken, afraid the camera would capture their souls. Maybe that's not the way it works; maybe souls, or some portion or slice thereof, become trapped in the photographs, become communally encased in shoe boxes destined for the flea market when a family dies out or the photos become misplaced. If enough pictures of one subject were put together, would there be enough soul to make a whole one? I wonder if the woman whose son's face sells frames has mounted a lifelong campaign to collect all the pieces, suddenly possessive of the image she allowed to escape.

How many times have I stared at a photograph of an unknown person clearly long dead and felt a jarring sense of recognition or some nameless emotion, and always with that underlying curiosity of who they were and what they left? Children and grandchildren? A building? A work of art? An original recipe? A book, or a story passed down? Or maybe nothing they touched exists anymore, destroyed in a fire or buried with them, which might be the preferable circumstance, so no future beholder, a stranger, can peer at their features and judge their clothing or posture or number of remaining teeth.

Or maybe a photo is just a sheet of sealed paper with nothing in it but patterns of colored ink, and it has no more connection to the past than the paper has to the tree that produced it or the ink to the stone or plant. That is a less-than-satisfying scenario.


Blogger Shepcat said...

Did her story and her manner seem credible to you? Or might she perhaps just be a crazy old broad who had fixated on that particular child with a sort of autistic precision upon seeing his repeating image on trips through shops, department stores and five-and-dimes? If so, might that child's face be so engraved on her psyche that she'd instantly recognize him as an adult if she passed him on the street today?

There's another thousand words entirely.

August 2, 2008 at 8:53 PM  
Blogger A said...

Oh, I believed her. Her manner was pleasant and she looked very together, a grandmotherly sort dressed in sensible shoes, and her search wasn't manic. If she were nuts she could pick a different photo every time she wanted to start a conversation with a stranger in an aisle.

And she talked quite believably about the shoot and the girl -- for there was a girl -- in the picture, describing her as someone she knows today. Which she also could have been making up, but I swear, the boy really did look like her.

August 2, 2008 at 10:29 PM  

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