Time drips on like a leaky faucet and we're watching our supply drip away drop by drop with the ever growing knowledge that we don't have a wrench that will fix this one.

Bill Clinton. December 2012

It's odd, at times, to watch the fevered pitch at which we work our photography. As though grabbing more and more images somehow makes us immune to the unknowable future. Amateur, professional, mom-with-a-camera; we're all just trying to stop time so we can understand our own little segment of the world, our own little serving of existence. And, at the time it seems valuable to us, as though by taking a photograph we'll have a special understanding, made clearer with our two dimensional representation, reinforced by the notion that we've got that slice of time in the bottle of our files; preserving it so we can drink from it to remember and re-live that portion over again. To feel the same feelings. 

But it seems that nothing really works the way we'd like. The memory reminds us of a different time. A time before the steady drip of the faucet makes us hear more clearly Time's Winged Chariot drawing near... And the memory of stronger muscles, clearer eyes and more connection laces our reminisces with a bittersweetness. As though we might have been better off to savor our memories than regard the hard evidence.

I remember so well the day I took these images. At the time photographers jostled with each other for position. I was in an area near the stage that was reserved for the few image makers and the video camera man who were working directly for the paying client. A grandstand full of editorial and other photographers were corralled on a stand half way back in the auditorium of 3,000 people. But it hardly mattered since everyone had a smart phone with a camera, or an iPad or some other capture device.

The thing I remember as I nailed my images and then made a quick exit to prepare for the next stage in the pageant was the fervor with which everyone was making images. As though capturing yet another image of Bill Clinton wasn't just desirable, it was necessary. I imagine that a lot of people were taking images in order to prove to friends or family that they were really in the room with someone whose office created this pathway in history (and no, I don't want this to turn into a discussion about whether that pathway was ultimately good or bad.....so don't fire up the word processor and get political. One side or the other). 

Some people were making images just because making images is what you do when you see or experience someone who is designated as "famous." And some, in fact many I think, were putting a bookmark in the moment so that they could come back at some future time to re-assess the day and the speech and reconstitute it in a different way. As a different mix.

But now, looking back only four months I feel a certain sadness. I can look at Mr. Clinton and see how much he's aged since he became known to me in what seems like only a few years ago. I captured his image and it became a proxy for the aging of a whole generation. Yes, the photo proves I was there and he was there. Yes, I can show my friends or clients. But I'm showing them only a random slice of visual proof with no context and no content beyond the inventory of how he looked in that moment.

I heard last night that one of my close friends passed away. It was sudden and unexpected. A person I shared life with for at least several hours a week, for well over a decade. One of my thoughts this morning as I was driving back home from dropping Ben off at school was that I had so few photographs of my friend. The ones I have are quick snapshots of him in small groups. At swim meets and parties.

And, at first, I felt upset that I'd made so few images of him. Almost dismayed that I never had him sit for a portrait. 

But the more I sat with those thoughts the clearer it became to me that the photographs would have never been able to capture what his friendship really meant. It was all about swimming together and sharing hot coffee with a small group of tired swimmers every saturday morning at 10:15, after practice. It was our shared love of good red wine. And our admission to each other that we enjoyed the old, campy James Bond movies. Our relationship had content and context. We logged thousands and thousands of laps together in lanes three and four of the pool. We pushed each other when we needed pushed and gave each other slack when we needed the pool just to be a safe place to get away to.

If I had more formal photographs of my friend would it be different for me today? I don't think so.  We had no unfinished business. Nothing left unsaid. Nothing that I would need a photograph for as an aid to rumination. We swam well. We played nicely and my memories will always be about the content and the context, not the two dimensional iconography of a single frozen moment. 

Funny, to me, how life has a way of puncturing my preconceptions. 

And so, when I look at these images of president Clinton I wonder what value they really have to me or anyone else. What are we really sharing? What do they really tell me? I have no connection to him, no context. They exist now for my client as part of their public relations and their marketing. And they exist for me as proof that I can photograph a speaker at a podium. An advertisement for my craft. In another sense his image is a resonance of an era in the American experience when we felt less vulnerable and more buoyant. 

Photographs don't plug the leak of time. They don't resurrect the past, only subjective memories of a past fiction. Their very thin-ness, the fact that they are a quantum-thin slice of a moment makes them only a marker of one of millions and millions of interconnected instances. Each with its own context and reality.

I am happy that I've learned to pull out my camera and put it between me and my family and friends less often. Far better that I actually take those times and events to be totally present in the moment and not busy translating them for future consumption. Better to be engaged as part of the memory rather than sidelined as its documenter.

Would I trade one lap swum for one more photograph? I would not. The time spent sharing the adventure is what gave our friendship meaning. As photographers our offset (buffered?) observations rob us of the whole-ness and immediacy of our experiences. We introduce our own parallax.

In the days of film and no digital the record of our lives was more circumscribed. Less ample. Now we have a surfeit of images but looser connections. The images work as placebos or placeholders for real, hands-on friendships and relationships. This is my reminder to shoot less and share more.....of my attention. Funny...I've always bought into the power of images but now I'm becoming equally aware of the power of just being present. Being fully there. 

Our cultural myths meet our personal realities.


Roger Whitehead said...

Your swim buddy was lucky to have had such a kind and thoughtful friend.



Anonymous said...

I hear what you are saying but I do not completely agree, especially for video.

I have done a LOT of filming of my immediate and extended family and when my kids or their cousins watch them they love seeing themselves 10 years ago.

My oldest nephew had a bad year (he is now much, much better) when he was bedridden for weeks at a time with migraines. One of the ways he made it through was by reliving happier days by playing hour after hour of movies I had left with him.

I am almost never in the videos but my voice is usually at the beginning of every clip to frame what it is about. My mother said in those days it was like I lived there because when she went downstairs she would often hear me talking.

Jim said...

I'm sorry to hear of your loss. I disagree though about photography necessarily distancing the photographer from life. For those of us who are introverts it can be a way to connect with life, a safe role through which we can participate in things we might otherwise avoid and the sharing of our images a way to share ourselves.

RE: The passage of time I once photographed a Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala and its subsequent destruction. One of the purposes of the sand paintings is to illustrate impermanence, that with the passage of time all things change and pass. Looking a those photos recently I was struck by the irony that in photographing it, I (and many others) had recorded the mandala on film and video (8mm film actually, it was many years ago) had countered the point of the ceremony, making permanent (relatively) something intended to be impermanent. For me those photos do bring back the past and I am glad of having them.

Dave Jenkins said...

I'm with you on this one, Kirk. In the last few years I have become much more present and much less hidden behind the camera. Fortunately, my daughters-in-law have taken up the slack in family picture-taking.

atmtx said...

Sorry to hear of your loss. Luckily, it sound like you have worthwhile memories of your friend.

Claire said...

Kirk, first off, sorry for your loss, my thoughts go towards your friend's family and friends (you included).
I get your drift about how docmenting any given event takes a slice off said event from the photographer. I see it as the price to pay on the instant, to own the moment forever. And I'm sort of cool with that. I'm the family photographer so that responsability lands on me. It's particularly acute on trips, where I enjoy 90% (or is it 80 ?) of the places we go and things we do, because I'm aware full time of what I want to shoot, how I want to shoot it, etc. I often wish I was the lambda tourist (which ultimately I am, really), snapping self portraits in must have spots and that's it. OTOH, I make about a thousands shots monthly, and have dozen thousands pictures of my child since she was 3 days old. I don't regret one single second spent pushing the shutter. It allows me to bask in those already gone four years with her. That's priceless. I was thinking no later than two days ago that I have very, very few pictures of my dad, gone in 2004, and I absolutely wish I had more. Would he be less dead ? Obviousy not. Would it change the memory I have of him and our relationship ? Neither. But when a loved one leaves pictures (and videos) are the only material existence they have left, and its a precious one. Now, *another* picture of President Clinton ? (albeit the excellent one you shared). Not gonna change the course of your existence. Or his, or ours.

Dave said...

I think this is why, though I'm not good at it, I greatly enjoy street photography. Not those creeper type things but shots that capture people as they are, in the middle of life going on while they are out making other plans. Its a bit like capturing air as it leaves a balloon. To my eye that tends to be more rare to do in formal portraits, but people like Steve McCurry seem to manage to combine street and portraiture in interesting ways. Same thing for you Kirk. There's an appreciation behind your camera that each moment is a culmination of the unlikely and therefor divine in ways few appreciate. Yet if we as photographers don't then all we are is paramount to one of Hansel & Gretel's bread crumbs. The mechanical process of photography is not what makes it relevant.

MartinP said...

I'm in my second half-century too, and one does become aware that there (almost certainly) won't be a third one to celebrate.

Inevitably I can't find it right now, but I recall an interview with a hospice nurse who had commented that in all the decades she had done the work, with all the hundreds or thousands of people who had died in front of her, that she had never ever - even once - heard anyone say that they wished they had spent less time with friends and family and more time at work.

Time to plan a month of special family holiday this Summer, before your son goes to University?

Cat said...

I don't regret for an instant the photos I have made of places, events, family, friends, acquaintances, strangers and celebrities. My memory is so foggy decades later that the photos and a few letters--remember those?--are all I have left. Many places have changed, people are gone, but the photos trigger meaningful recollections of how I saw things and even a little of what I felt. In this rapidly changing world where it can be hard to keep hold of what's important, the best photos remind me of who I am.

Anonymous said...

I have a photo on my computer of my son at a theme park. After a long morning of excitement, he had fallen asleep in his grandmother's lap. The picture is not well-framed, the color is poor, and even the focus is slightly off. Yet it is a reminder of why I carry a camera.

It is a moment that will never happen again. It is a slice of emotion that I can return to at leisure. I wouldn't trade it for all the Leica in Solms.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy the way you write, almost as much as the photo technique tips. Sorry, by the way, that I can't seem to sign any of my comments. I read this site during my lunch break, on my smartphone, and every time I try to "comment as", the phone crashes.

Frank Grygier said...

Kirk, Your words are worth a thousand pictures. Sorry for your loss.