I love the move to digital photography with its endless chances to get the shot right, and I delete the bad ones as I go along. When I sifted through a box of old, curled up family photographs, though, I realized all those deleted moments must have held some gems, and real history isn’t always composed just so.
In a film roll of 36 prints, I’d find at least a few good pictures, sharp and perfectly lighted, with a facial expression of my own I could tolerate, or my baby looking angelic, or a loved one’s eyes sparkling with affection. The other 33 pictures might be slightly out of focus, or have a head chopped off here, an angry expression there, or maybe a messy background that I didn’t want to advertise to the world. Those shots got stuffed into a drawer.
The rejects contained elements that it took decades to appreciate:
- The kind of lousy shot of my parents with my son has in it my only photograph of the “Macquarium” my dad made out of an early generation Apple computer, a lasting reminder of his quirky ingenuity.
- The series of pictures of me and my brothers sticking various numbers of fingers out reveals codes for the new camera settings my dad was experimenting with; as we goofed off, he earnestly took notes on the settings.
- Dorky me, my dad, and my little brother pose with the heartbreaking Twin Towers looming behind us; to our naive selves it was unfathomable they could ever come down.
- My brother and his curls that “grow so incredibly high,” as his beloved Beatles themselves might have described them.
Years after my father died I found an old camera with a half-used roll of film from an afternoon my kids and I spent with him in his backyard pool. I had switched to a digital camera and never finished the roll. After my nostalgic afternoon going through the drawer of old photos, I shot off the rest of the roll and dropped it off to be developed.
As I drove to the store to pick them up, I thought about how picking up developed pictures was a treat that’s been lost to the digital age. I would always rush through the photos looking for the surprises, the perfect iconic moments. Then I would go through again slowly, scrutinizing. I’d go through a third time, selecting the ones to save in a photo album, condemning the others to the drawer.
In the roll from my dad’s pool, there weren’t any hidden gems as I had anticipated. No unusual expressions captured, no special portraits of my dad. But I held the photos in my hands, and in those ordinary shots I saw my dad watching the boys see who could hold his breath underwater longer. He egged them on, as he had egged me on when I was small.
I saw a perfectly mundane afternoon by a backyard pool, one that was long gone and almost forgotten, and I was glad that those mundane moments weren’t deleted.