The Best Photographs I Never Took
It was Christmas a few years ago. My father in law came for the annual Christmas Dinner at the Giannatti’s. We host about 20 people here throughout the day, and Floyd always came over with his warm and infectious smile. The dude knew how to work a room.
He was sitting near the window light, hunched over due to severe back pain and was smiling intently at a story my brother in law was telling him. An adventure story, I’m sure. The light was fantastic… a soft, wrapping light that brought out the features of his 82 years, and added a bit of sparkle to his eye.
“I should grab my camera and get that”, I thought, just as someone asked me to do something in the kitchen. I didn’t grab my camera at that moment, and when I finished in the kitchen, the moment was lost.
“I’ll get it next year”, I thought to myself.
We were on a small dirt road, in a forest somewhere north, a long time ago, when my mom and dad started playfully goofing around and tossing pine cones at each other. It was a sincere moment between them and something rather… rare.
“I should grab my camera and get that”, I thought, and I headed back to the truck. I stopped to grab a drink and when I had turned they had moved on to doing something else… each alone to themselves.
“I’ll be ready next time,” I thought. I will keep my camera at the ready.
On a very warm summer’s day, my next door neighbor, Mr. Bailey, asked me to come over and see something he had made. It was a magnificent stained glass window decoration that he had lovingly built by hand. The craftsmanship was stunning and he was very proud of the work he had put into it. At 90, working with your hands on delicate things like glass is no easy feat.
“I should grab my camera and get that”, I thought, it would be a great portrait.
But I got caught up in other things, and didn’t get back over to my neighbor’s house in time.
A true luxury, a gift of improbable proportions, a terrible foe, and an all around bastard.
Time is the currency we always underestimate. We think we are given vast quantities of it to spend as we want, whenever we want, on the most frivolous things we want.
“There’s more where that came from” is a wonderful mantra when thinking about money. It sorta sucks big time when thinking about time.
We can make more money. We cannot make more time. And time is even more relentless than the seas that pound rocky shores to sand over millenia. Nothing we can do, buy, beg or steal can stop time from simply passing.
Except… a camera.
To me the still image is the most powerful tool we have to stop time. Ineffective, lame, small potatoes tool for sure. But it’s all we have at the moment.
I got you now, time. In fact I preserved that moment, however simply and unsophisticated my capture of it may be, forever. That 1/250th of a second. Out of a lifetime… Yeah – I got that one, time dude… so bite me.
My first daugher at 4 days old, lying in a patch of sunlight on the floor near our window.
My girls laughing for their first “trio” shot (with ever so many more to come) on a small rock outcropping in the foothills. That rock is gone, covered over by a CVS Pharmacy and a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. And they are all oh, so much older… but I got that tiny little moment of our family lives. I GOT IT.
On a tiny piece of slide film, now scanned and printed and archived.
My wife, graduating with honors from her Master’s Program. What a day.
Those shots I got. I had my camera with me and I cheated time a bit. It was as fleeting as ever, but I snagged my 125th of a second of it and preserved it in the best way I know. Primitive and less than perfect, but better that we have it than not.
We turn our lenses on the things that matter to us far less frequently than we photograph things that in the end have no meaning at all. I would trade a terabyte of model shots for a gig of my folks, or more of my kids growing up.
I never made it back over to Mr. Bailey’s, and he passed later that week. My folks and I never went up to the little road in a forest again and they are now gone. My father in law never came to dinner again and passed later that year.
Those photos will never be made.
Time made certain of that. Time didn’t hear me say ‘next time’ because, well… there is no next time.
The moments we live are spent as we live them. We never know how much time we have, and yet we waste so much of it on things that have no importance, while missing those tiny moments that would have been cherished.
The still image is, for me, one of the most fascinating of art forms. Capturing a moment of time, and holding true to that moment as best it can, the photograph can help us feel, remember, and enlighten. Yes, it can trick and deceive us as well, but that is for another essay, at another time. For now, we are discussing the better side of the photograph.
Today is father’s day. Grab that camera and if you are fortunate to be able to make an image of your dad, do it. What I would give for an opportunity to make one last photograph of my father, my mother, my brother… what I would give.
Make photographs of the people you love, and the life you live.
Make the best photographs you have ever taken of those that mean the most to you.