November 17, 2006

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Saying cheese to relive a truly moving picture

Cynthia DewesPhrases such as “Say cheese” or “Don’t take my picture like this!” have become so common, they’re clichés.

Taking photographs has been part of the popular culture for a long time, and we’re all familiar with the details of posing, composing a scene, snapping a picture and trying to figure out the mechanics of a new camera.

The Brownie Reflex camera of long-past youth has been replaced over and over again with new equipment. Easy-to-use may still apply, but the technology behind the newest “easy” is beyond my comprehension. Of course, setting the camera for focus, distance, light, etc. was always beyond my comprehension. Mea culpa.

If the way we take pictures has evolved, so too has the way in which we view them after they’re developed. My father-in-law used to present “slide shows” in his basement. We’d all sit in the dark admiring his slide photos of an airplane flight in 1938, my husband and siblings as babies, and grinning relatives that my husband didn’t recognize. Meanwhile, our kids squirmed and rolled their eyes.

The problem with slides was that they required more expensive film and processing than the usual photographs did, plus the projectors and screens and other paraphernalia for viewing them drove the cost evener higher. And often, the color and focus of slides faded with time.

Later, we embraced Polaroid cameras, which produced pictures instantly. This way, you could keep reliving ridiculous antics at a party through Polaroids, even before it ended, or take a second picture of the dog if he turned his head on the first one. But, as with slides, the color and quality of the photographs soon faded. Back to the old drawing board.

Of course, all through the years, serious amateur and professional photographers used expensive cameras to produce really great pictures. But most of us were just trying to capture current reality for our own amusement as cheaply as we could. And most of us were probably not thinking of posterity when we snapped our photos. In fact, it’s my belief that photos are important only to two or possibly three generations of viewers.

For example, the slides that my

father-in-law treasured are now largely unusable, not to mention that by now their content is more historical than personal. We have no clue who these people are, but we keep their pictures anyway out of sentimental attachment. Ditto for my dad’s old photos, also fading. He was enchanted with Florida, and he recorded every flamingo, hibiscus and palm tree he could find there. The few people he photographed are now strangers.

Today, we’ve graduated to digital cameras, which take more pictures than anyone can possibly view, or want to view, while hovering over a computer. And we have cell phones that take photographs, surely one of the greatest intrusions into privacy of all time. Their gift is the fleeting image, the instant sight and possible recording of someone or something.

Well, maybe they’re on to something. Life itself is fleeting, and it’s better to live in the joyous, sad or meaningful moment rather than wait to experience it later through pictures. Carpe diem, and all that.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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