There has lately been a flurry of talk at my house about picture-taking. First, there were the beginning of school pictures for the yearbook. Next, there were the soccer pictures to accompany the end of the season (which is just now occurring). Finally, one of my kids had a special school project that involved taking pictures of him in various stages of engagement with a special stuffed animal; this animal was our houseguest this weekend in honor of my son’s turn as “Student of the Week” in his class.
What struck me about all of these picture was not just the flurry of activity that we devoted to their creation, but my response to the picture-taking process (and, ultimately, the pictures themselves). For my almost-teenage daughter, school pictures are essentially a litmus test of her self worth, and thus she spent considerable time planning hairstyles, clothes, and different sorts of smiles to pull off the look she wanted. When she got her pictures home a few weeks ago, they were just as she had practiced. Everyone was pleased.
For my younger sons, there was a similar concern over appearances, although not necessarily conformity. My youngest son — currently a second grader — wore his prized tuxedo to school, an outfit he dons anytime he feels a special occasion coming on. For his older brother, “looking nice” involved picking out one of his millions of striped tee shirts, checking with me to make sure that it wasn’t the same striped tee shirt he wore last year (we’ve committed that crime once before, so you can’t be too careful), and then spending some time in front of the mirror to be sure that his hair flopped across his eye in just the right manner.
Yet when I received my sons’ pictures back this week, they were not quite what we all anticipated. My younger son’s tuxedo tie was — literally — falling off in his picture, and I must admit that he looked a bit stunned (cute, but stunned). And while my older son managed something like a smile, if one looks closely, there are the remnants of his lunch adhered to the side of his face. If you didn’t know what it is, you’d think that his smile was partially surrounded by an orange glow. Orange like the chili he had for lunch.
Now I am not one who obsesses over school pictures, or at least I didn’t think I was. For while I usually consider myself someone who would find exceptional charm in the not-so-perfect, my first impulse upon viewing them was to wonder aloud why the photographer or some other adult with half a brain did not re-attach a tie or tell a child that he needed to look in a mirror. I pondered my reaction again today as I watched one of my sons (“chili glow”) line up for the aforementioned soccer pictures, and even though the placement of his flopping lock of hair was perfectly suitable, I was like a lemming toward the cliff as I joined what felt like hundreds of other adults around me who, as a group, attempted to manipulate their sons’ hair with their very saliva.
All of this left me pondering: What is a picture? What is its function?
I suppose the canned answer to that is pictures help us make memories, but this should cause us to consider what material constitutes a “suitable” memory. Even though there is a substantial body of academic literature devoted to considering the ways in which memories are constructed, what remains relatively uncontested is that memories are always selective — they are designed to leave out information even as we believe them to be records of the past.
After all, we all know that there are certain things we do not photograph, partially because there are certain stories we are forbidden to tell (we do not intentionally photograph someone’s rages, or alcoholism, or overeating). We also do not pull out our phones solely for the purpose of documenting the process of cleaning the kitchen, commuting to work, or sitting in our cubicles. We do not photograph the mundane unless we have found some clever way to turn it into something special (think, for example, of “food porn,” which involves posting pictures of one’s more extraordinary meals).
But as my own response to my kids’ pictures demonstrates, we often expect that when we purchase professional pictures, what we are buying is the chance to wipe some of the reality away, to provide some sort of stand-in that creates a more suitable memory in line with our expectations. Isn’t this how everything from prom to wedding pictures work — when do we ever look (or dress) like that again? What about those pristine family shots in the great outdoors, where no one is visibly sweating or becoming a mosquito feast?
In this sense, perhaps the pictures we take are more about omission than completion. I can think of no better example of this than the Glamour Shots craze of the 1980s and 90s, which produced images that communicated, in a single shot, “This is what you would look like if you weren’t you.”
photo credit: http://www.missionbayhighalumni.com/yearbooks-crownpoint.html; https://nonverbalforte.com/authenticity/