Doug Bruns

Why do we take pictures?

In Family, Memoir, Photography on July 6, 2009 at 12:55 pm

“Why do we take pictures?” asked my father.

Me, my father, uncle, aunt and cousins are sitting around a kitchen table. There is a pile of old black and white photographs spread out in front of us. Some go back, as best we can determine, a hundred years. They are in remarkable condition, having been stored in boxes in the garage of my late cousin in California. They are family records, created by a clan that had faith in the value of the visual. It is spring in Indiana and cold outside. Inside I relish the warm glow of family comfort. My father and I traveled from the east coast for this, to join our family and sort through these pictures, all five cartons of them. We had been at it a few hours when my dad, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of photographs and overwhelmed at the memories they evoked–he had grown quiet an hour previous–pushed the photos away and into the center of the table, folded his arms, and asked the question. “Why do we take pictures?” No one really heard him–or if they did did not want to hazard a response.

To paraphrase Susan Sontag, photography is the only art form where the viewer perceives the work from the vantage point of the artist. Concerns regarding the artistic nature of photography aside, Sontag is correct. My father was experiencing the photos through the photographer’s viewfinder. Before him his ancestry played out. His future was no longer and the people in the photos before him were dead. I once discovered a century calendar. That is, contained within two sheets of paper was displayed every year and every month and every day for the next one hundred years–as if the future could be reckoned so simply. I looked at it, the calendar, and said to the person with me, “Somewhere here is the day I will die.” I made a motion over the calendar with my hand, like a magician, presto. My father was looking back, reverse of the one hundred years, and I wonder if he sensed the end of the calendar, if not his own calendar, then the calendars of all those whose image lay on the kitchen table in front of him, beings wiped from the slate of time.

There was a packet of small photos in the collection, wrapped in browned paper. I unfolded it. I held in my hands two typewritten pages, signed by my father, mailed home from Germany, dated June 4th, 1945. I handed the packet to him. A dozen pocket size photos tumbled out. A bridge in Luxembourg, the Eiffel Tower with my father standing in uniform in front, a Paris cafe, a bombed village square. He read the letter, fifty-four years after he composed it. We stopped and listened. Then he reviewed the photos. He recalled that he had them printed in a little photo shop in Carlsbad. I have taken pictures for over thirty years and when I see one of my photographs I can remember exactly the instant I released the shutter. This is not as uncommon as it sounds among photographers. Dad recalled every photo and had a little story to accompany each one. He especially liked the image from Luxembourg and said he had printed it many times himself in a makeshift darkroom while in the army in Europe. He doubted that he still had the negative.

Of his project, The Americansthe photographic genius, Robert Frank, said, “I thought of something Malraux wrote: ‘To transform destiny into awareness.’” Applied to photography Malraux’s expression encapsulates the answer to my father’s query: Why do we take photographs? By definition a photograph speaks to the future, if not destiny. A photograph is made in the hope that someone will look at it. By doing so, we, the viewers have completed the transaction–otherwise we are simply voyeurs. Even the creative photographer is viewer, self-referentially.

In 1984 the photographer Garry Windogrand (1928 – 1984) prematurely died of cancer. His survivors discovered left behind 2,500 rolls of exposed but undeveloped black-and-white film; another 6,500 rolls that had been developed but not proofed; another 3,000 rolls that had been developed and proofed, but not edited. All told, 12,000 rolls of film exposed in the last six years of his life. That makes 432,000 pictures he made but never saw, or approximately 200 exposures a day. My father’s question is redundant in the face of such magnitude.

Until the advent of digital photography and the technology of immediate review on the camera back, the photographer had to wait until the lab returned the images to confirm his or her awareness of that photographic instant. The lag is now compressed, but can never be erased, even at shutter speed 4000th of a second. Zeno’s paradox can be applied, a distance can always be divided by half ensuring one’s destination will never be reached. The camera can never capture the present, only the past. But I am growing obtuse. Mind you, we were simple people sitting around a kitchen table looking at pictures. We had just eaten cheeseburgers with pickles and chips.

Photographs are not so much possessions as they are spirits, even memory incarnate. I am not talking about the so-called fine art photographs or journalism. I am referring to the family snapshot: the kids at the beach, Grandma on the porch, the birthday cake and the kids dressed for the prom and the first car–the solder in front of the Eiffel Tower. They are spirits, ghosts of an exhausted instant. The moment the shutter is released something new is made and it did not exist previously.


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