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.