In America, The Photographer Is Not Simply The Person Who Records The Past, But The One Who Invents It. (Susan Sontag)
One of my favourite perks about writing people’s memoirs is the opportunity that it affords me to peek through their family photo albums. By photos, I mean the kinds that you can actually hold in your hands; ones that were captured on film for posterity. Some of these photos are of professional quality; others are hopelessly not. All of them are real. They capture far more than just the actual moment that they were snapped. Each frame conveys its own telling story. It’s not surprising to learn that some Native American tribes believed that photographs steal a bit of one’s soul.
When I look through my own family albums, the ones that my mother so painstakingly arranged with their short captions and their precise dates, I get transported in my memories. I carry in my wallet a frayed picture of my bubby and zaida sitting at their formica kitchen table eating dinner. My zaida’s head is cradled in his left hand as he brings a forkful of food to his mouth. It’s the same pose that I have inherited during mealtime that forever drives Lori around the bend.
Today, if you innocently ask someone if he has any pictures of his children or grandchildren, you should brace yourself for a barrage of cutesy shots – all likely taken within the last 48 hours. If you are anything at all like me, your smart phone is a repository for an endless stream of precious, aw-shucks, kinds of photos, none of which I personally snapped. But that’s okay, because we are now so accustomed to having everything available immediately at our fingertips. Personally, I’m still waiting for somebody to explain what I am supposed to do with this mother lode of spontaneously shot pictures.
There was a time when picking up your roll of film from the developers was an eagerly anticipated event, akin to opening a letter from a dear friend residing halfway across the country. You held your breath anxiously as you examined each photo, praying that they would all appear sharp and focused. Two years after we were married, Lori and I went on our delayed honeymoon vacation – a nine week trek through Europe and Israel. Armed with our newly purchased Canon something-or-other, we were blithely snapping away, roll after roll, capturing our memorable sojourn for an eternal keepsake. As things played out, eternity was confined to only two rolls of film, as the rest had been improperly loaded. To say that we were disappointed at the discovery of our clumsiness would be something of an understatement.
Today, digital wedding photos are conveniently delivered on a disc with literally thousands of shots from the joyous celebration. That’s more pictures than my parents amassed in their lifetimes. At times, it all seems a tad overwhelming. In my own, crotchety set ways, I can’t help but regard many of these photos as mere images of a moment in time. They capture the movement, but not necessarily the spirit.
My good buddy and book designer, Mike, describes photography as painting with light. To observe his work is to appreciate a labour of love. Not long after Lori and I were married, we hosted the renowned photographer, Roman Vishniac, for a Shabbat dinner. I was then working for an upscale book shop in Toronto and Vishniac was invited for the weekend to launch his monumental publication, A Vanished World. Taken between 1934 and 1939, these photographs – often shot secretly – are a haunting testament to a Jewish world on the brink of destruction. As Elie Wiesel so poignantly observed in his foreword to the book: “Not to forget, not to allow oblivion to defeat memory: that is his obsession.” During the course of the meal, Vishniac pulled out a couple of the original photographs that he shot. We were literally holding a piece of history in our hands, and the experience rendered us speechless and spellbound.
I have in my possession a couple of photographs of my Aunt Anna’s first husband – herself, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – that she somehow managed to preserve. I never had the privilege of meeting him, he died during the revolt, but the mere presence of these dog-eared snapshots in my album constitutes a direct bond to my past.
I can’t begin to imagine how my children will relate to the countless photos they have stored in their phones and on their computers. I am sure they will figure it out. Me, I remain a stubborn romantic. It’s one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like, noted the celebrated American photographer, Paul Caponigro, it’s another thing to make a portrait of who they are.
MY BUBBY AND ZAIDA