My children and my grandchildren possess, I’d say conservatively, at least thousands of photographic images of their family life. It seems to me that every second of their lives is being documented by a digital photograph; some pictures are printed out, others live in cyberspace where they have plenty of room and can be reached at the touch of a button.
This comes in sharp contrast to the collection of photographs I have from my growing up years. Compared to a post-modern family, my own photographs consist of a highly limited selection, scraggly at that, and most turning a light brown like onions that I’ve left in the bin too long.
I’ve noticed that my children and grandchildren’s digital images vibrate with rich saturated colors. They also have a visual acuity as sharp as a knife’s edge. I would have to say that they do come off as consistently joyful and celebratory. The black and white pictures of my own growing up years are marginal in quality and compared to my kids’, they seem like historic documentaries. Mine have a prevailing solemnity to them so even scenes from children’s birthday parties in the 40’s and 50’s, the children don’t appear to be having much fun but rather trying obediently to follow the photographer’s exhortation to hold still and say cheese.
What am I to make of this? A couple of things come to mind.
Not only have the complexities of handling cameras been dramatically reduced by the arrival of digital photography, but the volume of still images that can be taken digitally in a minute exceeds a film camera’s capacity for a year. Film cameras typically had 36 snaps and that was it. If you had the energy to reload another film into the camera you seriously jeopardized the mood of your subjects. You might compare this film-reloading moment in picture taking to the art of love; when being performed with mutual satisfaction requires uninterrupted attention for the whole thing to go well. If you do stop to scratch your foot or your elbow, you do it at great cost to what you’re about.
Candid photography of today, with its effortless mechanics, leaves the photographer free to click away and get great shots with the no real concerns about shadows, highlights, focal distance or anything that traditionally would intrude upon achieving decent images. The good news is how in modern photography the photographer can be highly mobile and a lot more invisible as he doesn’t need to fuss a lot with equipment. This allows for amazing spontaneity.
I had an odd thought the other day about all this. Will people four generations hence have any interest when they see a yellow deckled edge picture of my aunt Daisy wearing her white gloves and flowered hat, or a photo taken in 1936 on my second birthday where I’m looking grumpy in front of a birthday cake? Today’s digital images will certainly be more colorful and sharper but as they increase in volume, what will they come to mean to people? The sheer volume of pictures is already staggering and growing by the day. When the market’s flooded, things tend to lose value. Selecting what images may be kept or pitched will be a daunting task. Will the mystique of the photograph be lost among millions and millions of images? I don’t know.
As I think of pictures, I recall in 1940, when I saw my first rendering of world class art. A family friend I called Uncle Tommy, copied three famous paintings. Tommy was French, a chemist and an expert manufacturer of colors. The copies were exquisitely rendered. They were prominently displayed in the living room. They fascinated me.
One was Gaugin’s ‘Two Tahitian Women,’ the other two were Van Gogh’s ‘Self-portrait with a Bandage and Pipe’ and Van Gogh’s famous ‘Sunflowers’. I was in and out of the house frequently and the paintings became etched in my mind. I knew nothing about painting. Uncle Tommy said once that the paintings took a long time to complete.
I’m not sure why but over the years I’ve never put my own photographs on the walls of my studio. I had a recent urge to do that. I chose three images I was extremely fond of, because of the moment they represented and for their quality. They were scenes on the western shore taken shortly after I first arrived in Maryland and was dazzled by its stunning landscapes. One was at Elk Neck State Park, the other two at the Gunpowder Falls. The photographs are large. I enlarged them to 16 x 20. They are well done, but I’ve wondered that they mean more to me because of the time and the place where the pictures were taken. Each was a precious moment in my life that I once saw through a lens darkly and it came to life in a click.
I suspect that those of us accustomed to having much, there are some for whom the plenty is not what is so rewarding; it’s the little, the few, even the tiny, just a couple of things or even fleeting moments. Among so much abundance that life brings, the real treasures can be harder to spot than for those who know and understand scarcity.
To my knowledge Uncle Tommy never made other paintings other than the Van Gogh’s and the Gauguin. It may have been enough for him, the specialness of it. I will never know what that was.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.
One of the great traditions of the Spy for many years, according to many of our readers, is waking up to George Merrill’s essays on Sunday mornings.
Since 2015, George has graced the pages of the Spy with now some 330 commentaries with his beautifully nuanced, playful, but ultimately powerful moral observations. To my knowledge, he has never missed a Sunday since we started. But the other day he let me know he wanted a small break from the six year routine. He told me he would be taking a mini-sabbatical of sorts starting next week.
The need to renew one’s self as a writer is as fundamental as the impulse to write itself. And so, like many Spy readers, I will wait, somewhat impatiently, as George forces himself to put down his pen (and it is a pen, not a computer) to recharge for a few weeks.
While he warns he might break this self-imposed retreat at any time, it’s fair to note to his considerable fan base that it will not be a regular occurrence during the Spring.
In the meantime, the Spy will attempt to fill the gap with the inauguration of the “Spy Sunday Essay” by guest writers later this month. More on that later.