The Magic of Photos

Spring Fever caught me early this year. It probably has something to do with the weather – 45 degrees and sunny, with hardly any snow all winter. My mind obviously thinks that spring is here (foolish thinking, and I’m sure I’ll end up shoveling several feet of snow as pennance). At any rate, I’ve been on a cleaning frenzy, going through boxes and files and throwing away anything I don’t absolutely have to keep. I’ve come across a surprising number of old photos in the process.

They’re mostly 4×6 prints, probably from the local drug store lab. They’ve been given to me by friends and family over the years and tucked away in one of those folders marked “Personal” that ends up holding anything that doesn’t fit into another category elsewhere. Out of sight and out of mind. Until now.

In this electronic world, we have a decreasing amount of contact with physical objects as more and more is converted to digital formats. I know that I’m part of that equation – as I go through my files, I’m scanning everything and tossing the originals. Which says nothing of the tens of thousands of digital images in my library, a fraction of which have ever been printed into physical existence.

This is, perhaps, a shame. It keeps so many of these photos hidden away. Photos are the physical manifestations of our memories and dreams. They possess the ability to connect us with our past in a way that nothing else can, literal slices of time preserved in glossy color. Without them around us, on walls and atop the TV stand, we tend to forget.

I know that I’ve forgotten. Many things. Certainly whole hours and days; probably months or even years. And I’m just talking about the good parts here, the things that we should remember, because they mean something to us and helped us become the people we are today.

I went through the photos I found, slowly, savoring them. And remembering. Remembering not just that first ride on a new 4-wheeler with my brother, but all the other rides we took across the years that followed. Remembering Cinders as a kitten, always mischievous and full of energy. Remembering summer afternoons spent with friends, with no real concept that we would actually grow up and apart.

It made me sad. Sad because I allowed myself to forget these things, these moments. Donald Draper, of Mad Men, started his Kodak Carousel pitch by saying, “in Greek, ‘nostalgia’ literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards… it takes us to a place where we ache to go again.”

He may have been pitching the Carousel, but what he was really talking about were photos. And he nailed it, especially the ache we feel when we look at photos and believe that we would give anything to return to that place, just for a moment, and relive the feelings that went with it. But of course we can’t. Our memories are but a pale shadow, even when strengthened by a photo. That’s all we have.

I look at this photo and ache to go there again most of all. Three of us were in the same Ecology class, in high school, and were collecting leaves for a project. We drove up to Wheelerville Road and parked along the creek. We brought a picnic and sat on big rocks eating sandwiches and laughing together. No matter what has changed since then, at that moment in time I know that I was truly happy. I was with people who I loved.

That’s an awful lot of magic to be contained in a single photo. It’s all that’s left of that moment, and I treasure it.

We should take more photos. We should make more prints. And we should take the time to stand in front of them, to hold them in our hands, and remember.

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