Mundane Sacred Objects
The picture above is of me (in the pink denim), my sister and my mother, on the occasion of the first day of school in, I want to say, 1977, although I may be off a year. I’d be in second grade that year, and it was a new school, so this is me trying to make a good first impression. Not only is the jacket pink denim, but so are my trousers, and also I am drenched in Hai Karate aftershave, although of course I don’t shave at that point. Nevertheless I made a good impression on at least one person, since I met my friend Kyle Brodie that day, and we are still friends now, which means he’s officially my longest running friendship. Good job, me and Kyle.
I post this picture today for two reasons. The first is it’s my mom’s birthday, so: Happy birthday mom, here’s a very 70s picture of us all. The second is that I think this may be the only picture I have of my second grade year. There were other pictures taken — 1977 had cheap cameras and film cartridges of 110 and 126 film — but over the course of years the photos were lost or abandoned or thrown away. Some of the pictures were put into photo albums, but I don’t have the photo albums, and I don’t know who does; maybe my mom does, but if she does they’re in storage. At the end of the day, this photo is it for me for the second grade.
Which puts it up on most other elementary school grades for me! I don’t have any pictures of kindergarten or first grade; third grade seems lost as well. You would think I would have some pictures of fourth grade, because I broke my leg that year and me in a cast seems like something we’d have documented, but I have no pictures of me in said cast. Indeed, in sum I think I may have a grand total of ten pictures of myself from the 1970s. Things get better in the 80s, because of yearbooks and such, but the 90s are hit and miss until 1995, in which an avalanche of pictures arrive in the form of my wedding. But, honestly, it isn’t until the 2000s that photodocumentation of my life really takes off, because a) digital photography happened, and b) I started taking pictures because I didn’t have to send them out to be developed. I have more pictures I took yesterday, than I have of my life in the whole decade of the 70s. Most of yesterday’s pictures are of my cats.
This isn’t a complaint, really. I don’t think I’m all that unusual. Lots of pictures were taken in the pre-digital age by a lot of people, but not a whole lot of them survive until today. I imagine for a lot of folks there is just a single photo, or a mere handful of photos, to represent whole years or even eras of their lives. Photos were and are physical things; they get lost, and misplaced, and thrown out. Even the ones that are preserved in photo albums experience rot and fading pigments, and eventually the albums themselves are thrown away, when the owner passes on and none of the heirs wants them or knows what to do with them.
And you might think, well, that’s yesterday’s problem — today we all have too many photos of ourselves. And on one hand yes, but on the other hand, really, no. Digital photos are even more ephemeral than the photos taken on cheap instamatic cameras in the 70s, because they are wholly contingent on storage devices. I took more than 20,000 photos last year with my dSLR and my phone. The dSLR photos are on an archive drive; the phone photos are backed up to Google photos. Of those 20K photos, maybe 700 ended up on Flickr, which is where I post the pictures I want to show to the world, and an equal number on Twitter or Facebook, and a couple hundred at most (not counting pictures of books) on Whatever.
Thing is: Hard drives break down and data rots. I regularly transfer to newer drives (and also store on multiple drives), but there’s always a chance of a physical failure costing me some or indeed all of those photos dating back two decades. Google Photos and Flickr are “in the cloud” but that doesn’t mean they are permanent in any meaningful sense — Flickr is on its third owner since I joined it, and honestly I just assume that at some point it’s going to close up shop. Likewise Twitter and Facebook; hard as it may be to believe, one day we may all get that note that informs us Twitter or Facebook is shutting down and that we should download our data if we want to keep it, which some of us will but a lot of us won’t, and even those who do often won’t bother to ever open up again. And then, of course, what happens to all that stored data and all those stored photos when we pass on one day? Will our heirs want them? Will they know how to even find them? Will they know the passwords?
I took 20,000 photos last year; unless I actually print some of them out, or leave specific instruction how they are to be preserved (and those instructions are followed), there’s a very good chance they will all be lost one day to digital rot and neglect. And I’m someone who is (relatively) careful with digital photos, backing them up on regular basis and making sure there are multiple instances. Does the average person? It seems less likely. Do you back up your photos? Do you print them out?
What I’m saying, I suppose, is that it doesn’t really matter how many pictures you take. It matters how you keep them. We may take exponentially more photos than we did in the decades past, but even so, it may still turn out that in the end we have just a few photos that will stand in for entire years or eras in our lives, with the rest lost — like photos in other eras — to time and rot and benign neglect. Photos are often mundane things in the moment but when you come across them later as the sole image from an entire time in your life, they can take on an almost sacred feel, the one small path back to a different time and place.
Certainly I did not expect this photo of me in a pink denim outfit to represent an entire era of my childhood. but here I am, with that photo, and only that photo. You — we — may yet be surprised which photos make it through the gate of time to represent today, and which ones don’t. There will probably be fewer of them than you think.