My family has always been fairly nomadic. Our adventures have been well-documented on this blog, along with my own tendency to move on after a few years. In every house we lived in, regardless of how temporary or whether we owned or rented it, the first thing my mom did would be to unpack the photos. We had boxes and boxes of them, albums stuffed with our childhood, reminders of where we started and the people we were figuring out how to become. There are pictures of pony rides and birthday parties, images of babies sleeping and covered in first foods, memories preserved of beloved family members and homes in far-flung locations.
When we go home to Vermont, these albums are still reassuringly there, in pride of place on the bookshelves, prints in mismatched frames on the wall. I see my sisters and I in front of the Christmas tree, my Grammy Norm with her arms wrapped tightly around the three of us, that same Grammy in a glamour girl pose 1000 lifetimes ago. I see my wedding day, my daughter as an infant...
I talk alot about how photographs have the power to transport you, how they can act as a time machine. But in a digital age, how many of us have thousands of photos hogging up space on our phones or IPads or our point-and-shoot digital cameras but only a handful of prints? And the prints we do have, we whizzed off instantly at Boots so the ink has run and they're a bit blurry and hardly do any justice to that precious memory of your best friend's 30th birthday or the first time your 6 month old sat up on a swing at the park on her own or any number of priceless moments that you had to document?? We're all guilty of it, I'm certainly guilty of it (I have to regularly delete out photos just to have space for more on my phone!).
What always strikes me when I return to my mom's house is that those same thousands of photos that we keep on our phone, she still has the prints! The tangible, imperfect, sometimes out-of-focus prints! For our generation, I'm sure it's the same in most of our family homes. And it's a jolt of nolstalgia when we come across those photos. There are very few memories I have that don't contain my mom with her battered old Pentax in hand at the beach and in the garden and at our dance recitals/softball games/various milestones and the excitement of dropping off the film to be developed, not knowing exactly what was on it this time.
In 2003, just as digital photography was building up steam, I graduated from high school and my mom gifted me with the most beautiful Minolta. It had digital displays and auto-focus. It had all the bells and whistles of a truly great camera. However, I was an ungrateful little brat and promptly stashed it away in my closet for the sheer annoying fact that it wasn't a digital camera. Here mom was so thoughtfully gifting me with my very own fancy-pants version of her Pentax, hoping I would artfully capture the next exhilarating 4 years of university and really learn my craft, when all I wanted was some drunk selfies with my friends that I could delete in the morning after cringing my way through them (this was also pre-Facebook, we really had it so good!).
It wasn't until my sophomore year when I spent a semester abroad in Florence and was to study black and white photography the old-fashioned way that I dusted off that beautiful old beast of a camera. Suddenly, photography was ART! (yeah, yeah I was a slow learner). I spent days alternating between the painting studio and the dark room, learning all those bell and whistles and switches and what the numbers meant. I learned how to manipulate an image, not in Photoshop, but in a developing tray and on the enlarger. How to burn to push shadow and dodge to brighten darker areas up. I learned about Sally Mann and Diane Arbus and posing my subjects without cheesy grins. I became brave and asked the artists painting the Duomo if I could take their pictures. I stopped being awkward and became confident approaching strangers, knowing that I was creating.
In 2009 I was living in another foreign city. This time I was in Hamburg working as a nanny for a English/German family and feeling somewhat adrift having finished my degree some months before. I was at a fleamarket (the Germans do them better than anyone!) and it was serendipity: a 35 year old Minolta SRT-II, unused for over 20 years, in perfect mint condition. Once I loaded up my first roll of film, that camera rarely left my side and hasn't really in 6 years.
Eventually, I finally picked up my very own D-SLR and learning the magic of digital editing (and the relative ease of Lightroom compared with a darkroom) has been like being back in that classroom again. For awhile I was fighting to produce clean, crisp, perfectly balanced digital images. It was hard to reconcile my film background with this shiny, quick new way of doing things. But the images didn't look like mine, they didn't look like those memories I was trying so desperately to preserve. So a few years ago I went back to the basics. I switched my Nikon over to 'manual' and went over my notes from many years ago. I adjusted aperature, I overexposed, I re-learned the principles of photography because they're all the same, regardless of equipment. And I stopped working with my Nikon like I was cheating on my trusty Minolta.
When Hadley was born, I realised that it was time to fill those albums for her. And whilst I still take a ridiculous amount of photos on my phone, I make sure I remember to slow down and reach for whatever camera happens to be nearby. It could have a roll of film in it or a memory card but regardless, I make sure I take the same time to look through it, focus, adjust and shoot. I edit now in a style that hearkens back to the grainy texture of film. I print as much off as I can, sending it off to a lab rather than running for instant relief to Boots. There are photos on the wall and in drawers, there are albums on the shelves now and real, tangible images that she will get to come home to.
Going analog in my work has caused me to take a minute and take stock of the other places in my life where I can unplug. I'm trying to look up more, listen to more records and read more books. I'm rying to be present in my life, to slow down and stop looking for instant gratification. The strongest memories aren't going to always be captured by the click of a shutter. But if they are, I'll do my best to print them out, frame them, hold them tight and keep them safe for when we come home.