A picture of you in your birthday suit,
You sat in the sun on a hot afternoon.
— from “Picture Book” by Ray Davies
Piecing together memories of childhood, instinctively searching for meaning, I’m drawn like a magnet to photographs. Those frozen moments, those static people staring out through the decades like submariners of temporality: They seem uncanny, as though they know something that we don’t.
Pictures have created my memories. Those photos are like a book I was handed, with my name on the cover, the story of someone I intuitively understood I was expected to learn to become.
Someone’s son. A student. The mirror for the eyes of others. A person.
We’re drawn with heavily instinctual fascination to documented evidence of our existence. We view raptly moments from our past, open-jawed at split seconds frozen and crystallized and flattened into two dimensions. We look on with primitive awe from subterranean caverns of evolution and wonder.
To put it another way: for me, old photos are my memories, in some ways far clearer than lonely and half-formed vignettes cooked up in my mind. Because my parents were very young, I gradually knew there was a difference in my experience from many others I would get to know. (I had learned to look for differentiation as evidence of myself, a concept that could always feel slippery and fleeting).
In the pictures of my youthful parents and me, I would gradually discern how difficult things might have been for them, their own arc of life still in an early relative upswing (inhale, exhale, live, die). How odd, I think I see in their eyes. I barely understand what I am. And now I am a parent. They were trying to figure out a lot of important business on the fly. In that they were hardly alone.
This was, to my mind, the golden age of the photograph: analog, the precious product of finite film, created by a machine available to all. It was democratized, cheap and easily available. It was like conceptual fire, stoking changed frameworks and changing how things worked. (And this was the last gasp of the pre-digital age, at a speed the mind could process, before the proliferation of ideas and images began to warp, distort, and damage our essentially primate hunter-gatherer outlook.)
They were, and are, primal magic. They conjure a life. They cast the spell of a person.
Physics and Buddhism both maintain that the passage of time is an illusion evoked by the particular limitations and conditions of our existence. Reality is an (at least) four dimensional solid, with each moment separate and discrete from the next, suspended in an unchanging eternity, nothing lost, an incomprehensible forever in each throwaway second.
OK, there are real impracticalities in carrying this idea around all day — not least among them that we’re generally not capable of seeing through the illusion. Dinner will be ready in five minutes, Saturday was three days ago.
But it whispers to us.
Picture book, pictures of your mama, taken by your papa,
A long time ago.
Picture book, of people with each other, to prove they love each other,
A long time ago.
— “Picture Book”
The camera is a memory making machine, and it’s a truth teller. Like a tear suspended eternally in amber, it shows us a moment suspended in an unchanging forever. We see a child staring out from an unchangeable moment of joy, or the side of a house speckled with raindrops that will never evaporate.
They’re windows into the truth.
It took me a very long time to realize that I never felt like a child. Maybe it was because my own parents were very young, and I sensed their own struggle and confusion and felt an unconscious pressure to accelerate my own self-sufficiency. Perhaps a lack of consistent attention affected my ability to be vulnerable.
It felt like there was one solid, stone-serious, conscientious self inside me. But not always.
The dream maker, the narrator, the meaning craver inside me came to the fore and took the spotlight. There were rewards to come for being able to interpret reality, keep it at arm’s length, and express it through language. That conjuring trick sustained many illusions for a very long time and feathered my nest and represented something others could resonate with and even respect.
Looking at a photo, though, is like peering into the truth beneath all that: each moment independent of stories with no ultimate meaning, an unimaginably vast totality that we’re taught to slice into pieces called I and me.
I could never explain why I felt so empty inside, why this person who was supposed to be me was so elusive and difficult to define. I responded by being a very serious person indeed, and throughout my formative years sensed this was encouraged by loved ones and authority figures pointing the way.
For a very young parent, for a young woman coping with substantial demons of instability and fear, or an ambitious young man focused on his own gain, what could have been better than a diligent, serious, and quiet child?
A good son, in other words.
Some indigenous people have reacted to the camera with terror and repulsion, sensing that the captured image represents the theft of a spirit, soul, animating principle.
Frozen, encaged, never to move, suspended in the thickened jelly of eternity.
But maybe what’s stolen isn’t an unchanging spirit, but the illusion of such a thing. Perhaps their visceral repulsion and our own unshakeable attraction are two aspects of the same thing: the understanding that we are looking through time’s illusion into something staggering and always slipping away from us, instant by instant.
I was a good son. And they were good parents. In the world of things.
Picture yourself when you’re getting old,
Sat by the fireside, pondering on.
— “Picture Book”
Other stories in the Neutral Observations Project are here.