I love this photograph. Of all the family photos I have, this sunlight-bleached reproduction – well into the process of a blotchy chemical aging – is my favorite. The subject of this image is nothing special: a group photo of myself and some of my cousins taken at a wedding reception. I’m guessing late 80s, early 90s. I’m sure many of you have quite a number of photographs that could be placed into the same category bucket. I’m also reasonably certain at least one or two of said cousins pictured within are scanning it, assessing the clothes they wore or the way the camera caught their faces. That, plus a healthy dose of wistfulness, as I should point out that not all of those pictured are still with us.
But allow me to return to why I treasure this among so many others. It should come as no logical surprise the key elements – as is so often the case with items of personal worth – rest upon this image being a physical embodiment of general concepts I value deeply.
The first element is that of family. Specifically, the uncommonly good fortune of being a member of an extended family driven by love and joy. This is my father’s side of the family. My mother’s side, sadly, would paint a portrait vibrant with strokes of coldness, greed, abuse, and dishonesty. Fortunately, all contact was lost with them some forty years ago. But the benefit of that wide disparity is that it allowed me to understand, from a young age, the breadth of variance that can occur from one family to another. In a nutshell, when you have something good, recognize it, savor it, treasure it.
So this is my family, and let me assure you, had every cousin been present in this photograph, the primary difference would only be in the number of faces it contains. It’s by no means a perfect family – such does not exist – but it’s a family that delights in the positives rather than dwell on the negatives. They have built a place in my heart for each and every one of them, along with their children and grandchildren. And I can’t stress that enough: they have built. They expended the effort to create the bonds we have. Yes, it takes some work every-so-often.
But let’s move on to the single most valuable element of this photograph. One thing I am not fond of, nearly to the point of despising, is the posed photograph. Well, let me qualify that. If you’re a striking model posing in an indecipherable ad for a fragrance, I love it – despite the herd of llamas running through billowing curtains in the background. Capturing a specific visual image is the purpose of posing.
It’s the family/friends group posed photos that irk me. It feels like every meaningful element – joy, love, warmth – that makes the group what it is, has been stripped away by the photographer commanding, “Okay, don’t move. Now everyone say ‘cheese’.” That’s not what you see here. It’s how it started, but it’s not what you see. Chaos crashed ashore on the left side and is flowing outward to the right. So powerful is this wave, that it warranted, not one, but two horns placed upon the heads of some involved. The polished veneer of a posed photo is being stripped away by the reality underneath – the real life.
Those are always my favorite photos, the snapshots of the true moment. Sure, in those true moments we may not look our best; the lighting or angles may be poor, or perhaps the emotion on display is sheer boredom (I have one of those); but they are slices of reality on display. And that’s why I love this photograph. It is a moment of truth, a representation of what I treasure.
That and because I’m the youngest and look damn good in it.