Take a Picture: Will it Last Longer?

If you haven’t taken part in looking at a slideshow of what your goofy neighbors/ cousins/ coworkers/ parents/ teachers did on their trip to Pensacola/ Reno/ Dubuque/ Riyadh, then you’ve at least heard the stories, seen the depictions on some Nickelodeon show, or read about it in some coming of age novel.  Sure, Dear God, Are You There? It’s Me, Margaret, will never be replaced by Dear God, When Will Pictures of Aunt Rhea’s Trip to Tuscaloosa End? in anyone’s esteem.  Perhaps that’s why those slide shows have all but vanished, but I find it funny that the new wave of social picture taking hasn’t entirely brought in that market that’s aching to say ‘and here’s your Uncle Chester where they filmed that one where Doris Day sings that one song.’  Instead, I’ve lately seen pictures that commemorate the scalloped potatoes, pink cocktail, and dozen empty shot glasses from the previous night.  Yes, on some level, it is better than seeing a hundred pictures of that time that your distant cousin took a trip to Somethingshire to see where they still make honey mead, but part of that is because it’s an opt-in option, and part of it is because it is nearly instantaneous. Almost by their nature, a lot of these recent Facebook/Tumblr/Instagram pictures are about as fulfilling as watching a commercial about something that you’d never dream of buying from a store that you walk past every time you need to drop off a letter—and have never visited.  Moreover, a lot of the pictures that I’ve seen are selfies, wildly askew, with the subject almost entirely out of frame, in poor light, or goofy.  If not, then these pictures date back to 1988, and the caption is usually some punchline about short shorts or hairy armpits.  By themselves, there’s nothing wrong with these pictures.  There’s a right audience for all of these pics.  However, a selfie taken from a mirror at a Denny’s restroom probably has a very limited audience, and your Great-Aunt Margot’s centennial from 1983 probably won’t draw many individuals outside of your own family. 


Recently, with deaths and births in the family, Father’s day, Mother’s Day, and birthdays, I’ve seen a lot of pictures.  With the exception of the new member of the family, these pictures are frequently from before digital photography, or at least from sources other than social media.  I’ve started thinking about how I haven’t seen many of these pictures that have been recently generated, and rarely take part in these pictures myself.  Sure, we all have our reasons for abstaining from these photo opportunities (Why, oh why, did I have to wear the same belt as my cousin?), but there always seems to come a time when we want to look back at pictures – whether to laugh at ourselves or to remind us of that bike that was stolen out of our backyard or that dog that ran away and was never found.  (Remember your Aunt Irma’s nephew who briefly dated the girl from the A-Team?  Oh, you don’t?  Well, here’s a picture of you with him, so there’s your proof.)  I’m not saying that all family pictures are good pictures, but if your niece or nephew gets lost at sea, I’m pretty sure that you’d want to have a more recent picture than a grainy picture from his or her first grade recital.  Then again, you better hang on to that picture from the recital, as well.  It might be the only time he looked good in a tux.


You might think that this is just a rant about pictures, and that dumb picture of a can of mackerel that’s on my own Facebook wall, but there is actual application to writing.  Some years ago, I was in a writing class with someone who spent paragraphs (as in more than one) writing about what her main character was wearing, from the color to the designer to the cut to the way it accented her best features and de-emphasized her bad ones.  And then there was the next one, and the next one.  All of this is in the context of items I’ve read recently that mention how you should have a mental picture of your character; how do they look, how do they act, etc., to the point that you can picture your character as if they were a real person.  The next step is communicating that image to someone else using nothing but the words on the page.  Okay, I’ll bite.  But tell me; how many people could sit down with a sketch artist and one by one describe the exact same image of Hermione Granger (especially prior to the Harry Potter films) or of Valentine Wiggin?  Of course, there are some elements that will carry over, no matter what – the fact that Tom Robinson’s arm is disfigured from being caught in a machine or that Crooks’ back was shaped like a question mark – but I don’t remember the shape of Taran’s chin, nor do I remember how Tom Bombadil wore his hair, and I certainly don’t remember if Mickael Blomquist wore Versace or Armani.  But the interesting thing is that people do often wear outlandish things or have their hair in outlandish or innovative ways.  And, when those outlandish or innovative ways become old, hackneyed, or infeasible, then the world moves on.  The people who do adhere to these images become curiosities or relics – sometimes there is a mystique about them, such as Roland Deschain of Gilead being a gunslinger in the ambiguous, wildly anachronistic (but oh so fun) world of The Dark Tower, but I’d have a hard time imagining a book where the hero is still wearing crimped hair and bedazzled jean jackets in 2013.


Part of the issue with discussing clothes or hairstyles or body types is that we have an image of what people look like based on their actions.  If Dirk Pitt was described as having a belly that rolled over his belt, we probably would have a hard time imagining him as an adventurer, an athlete, or a romancer of exotic women.  However, if Rodney wears his hair in a flattop while the rest of the men in his community have hair that partially obscures their eyes, then we’re given an image that not only describes a person, but also describes how this person is different from everyone else within his or her community.  The same goes for dimensions (height, weight, breadth of shoulders or of hips, etc.), and it may also help to comment on them in terms of changes or in terms of the psychological effect that these physical attributes have on people.  For instance, if Annie was a size sixteen and is now a size eleven, the likely weight loss may indicate a number of things, both positive (she’s working out more, she’s back at a job that isn’t staring at a computer monitor all day) and negative (she’s been starving herself, she’s taken to smoking, etc.).  That difference, and its psychological ramifications, is far more important than the actual measurement.


Finally, think about the ravages of time, and the impact that they have on us all.  Reginald may have been the star of the first infantry, but now that he’s out to stud (or outlived the rest of his squadron by some fifteen years), he’s not the same person that he once was.  How does he react to a picture of himself next to a young Howard Hughes?  Does he have survivor’s guilt?  Does he look back at a young man, so full of hope, and realize that he’s made good on everything he’s ever hoped for?  There’s always those before and after pictures; whether they’re before and after WeightWatchers, meth-use, or Le Tour, there’s undoubtedly a story there.  As a storyteller, and hopeful novelist, it’s my job to build these fictitious pictures and the stories that go with them.  As someone who will someday be fifty, or seventy, or ninety-two, you owe it to yourself to take pictures to supplement your own stories.  Memories fade in the same random manner that they form, but taking a picture will help them persist with time.


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