Thursday, April 7, 2016

Coming Into Focus


My father always told me that to take a really great picture, you’ve got to center it. You’ve got to have a focus. I think about this one and only lesson often. What’s the focus, the purpose of the photo, and are we always clear about what it is when we take it? Because the thing about getting older is that your focus shifts. The things you thought were the big rocks, the ones that really mattered the most, suddenly look like pebbles. It is impossible to prepare for how this center can and will shift with time, and age, and children, and adulting. That what seems like everything now has the potential to fade.
Recently, about six years late to the party, I joined Instagram. In one of my first photos, I took a picture of my mostly drunk wine glass using the Gingham filter. As I posted it, I liked that the picture told the story of what might be happening in my life. Maybe I was out with my husband. Maybe it was Mom’s Night Out. The shadowy promise of the filters offered me the opportunity to add this glassy what if feature to my life, beyond just what is. Not once did I hint anywhere in that picture that I was eating a Caesar salad by myself with dried cheese on my shirt while the sitter put the kids to bed.


But it makes me wonder, in this more modern conceptualization of how we document things, are we smoothing away all the good stuff too? When we instantly filter our pictures, we lose the opportunity that hindsight and reflection offers you, the one where you get to see that what you thought was in focus that night really wasn’t. That the detail you cropped out (the dried cheese on your shirt left there from the child curled up in your lap during her dinner two hours earlier) was in fact the part you’ll want to recall in the long run, at least way more than an artfully shot empty wine glass. It makes me wonder at what point my own focus shifted enough that I started taking pictures as much for the goal of how moments would be received in as much as remembered.

Quite serendipitously, I stumbled upon a bin of old random photographs just the other day. They were mostly from my early days in New York City when life, like most of my pictures, felt blurry, haphazard, and unfinished. It was full of those pictures that at the time you think are too awkward or silly to put in the albums. But only now, with nearly 10 years between me and most recent photo in there, was it clear that my focus at 25, or at least what I thought was the point of that picture, had undergone a seismic shift. And my gratitude for those pictures to remain, untouched after all these years to offer me the grace of reflection and to revisit a whole new story of what the point of any of it ever was, ran deep.
Grateful for this photo of what I think was my 25th birthday that I appear to be celebrating with three random waiters and my brother in law’s left ear. Because the smile on my face says, “I am doing this.”

 

Grateful for grownups in silly hats and reflections in mirrors.

 
Grateful for this picture that appears to show an aluminum tray of food growing out of mother’s head, and the only way she ever smiled for her oldest and first grandson because while they were all special, he was the first, and the one that made her a grandmother.


Grateful for this random picture of Amsterdam Avenue and the exact way it used to look on all of those seemingly endless days when I would walk up and down on the way to work or dinner, or on the way to nowhere really, just hoping that if I walked enough it would lead somewhere.
 
 
Grateful that I can opt out of wearing these Sears pants with the stripe down the side which I hated more than life itself, and for this memory of a rare moment when, despite the crowded New York City street, it was just me and her.

 

It made me realize two strikingly important things: 1) I really need to print out my photographs more; and 2) the focus, the purpose of any of it, is not always clear.

I read an article the other day in the New York Times Magazine where Teju Cole bemoaned the celebration and faux artistry of the “Too Perfect Picture,” decrying the dangers of reshaping realities through highly scripted moments. In his piece, Cole writes: “Good photography, regardless of its style, is… emotionally generous. It outlives the moment that occasions it. Weaker photography delivers a quick message — sweetness, pathos, humor — but fails to do more. But more is what we are.”

Life indeed is more – more emotionally complex and rich and painful and wonderful than nearly any image of our past or present effectively captures. But the very least we can do is honor this complexity by rejecting filters that serve to broaden the artistic merits and general palatability of our personal memories. There is good stuff in there, hiding in your blurriest, most poorly taken photos. There are super important details that you have no idea are important when you take the picture, but will most certainly matter years later when you realize that each moment is bigger than itself. It's never just about the birthday or the vacation. It's about the people and smiles and smells and distractions that make up a whole memory.

*****

I take her picture before we leave for her friend's princess party. Right now, she is at the center of this picture and of much of my world. This makes sense, at this moment in time, for my focus to be here. And I know that years from now this picture will be about more than that – about the slope of her nose, or the book she was trying to read, about the plastic badminton racket sticking out from underneath my nightstand, and the way they all would fall into our bed as if there were nothing more soft and warm than mom and dad’s room. Years from now it won’t just be about her. It will be about the me I was when they were small, the way it felt to be the center of their world and to have them be the center of mine. I will come to realize it’s less about what the center is and more about the knowledge of who you are and the people you need in your life to always have one. To hold on to that, when the world and your focus keeps shifting beneath your feet.