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Popular Photography: The Immortal Light of Our Age

by Fred First

It is late October. The seasonal cycle governs our lives, indoors and out, as summer and autumn morph into one more winter. In the annual ritual of vertical migration, long sleeves, wool and fleece descend from upstairs; cotton and short sleeves and pants go back up.

Inevitably, too, in this domestic flux to and from the Very Back Room have descended a few warehoused boxes of contents that are stacked around me in odd corners now for two weeks, awaiting their fate too long deferred.

Among this derelict cargo is a crate of old family photos, handed down from the small tribe I belonged to more than a half-century ago. I inherited jurisdiction over this box when my mother, in a similar storage triage in her Birmingham apartment not long ago, found that the time had come to pass down this chaotic jumble of summer vacation and school photos from the 1950s. She could no more bear to toss them out than I can now.

So I’ve been “gifted” with a few hundred ancient photographs, black and whites and sepia-toned 3x5s that show mini-me in all white, reluctantly displaying my Easter basket on a warm, Alabama April morning; me in black and silver under an enormous cowboy hat, proudly sporting my Hop-a-long Cassidy outfit with a wicked pair of six-shooter cap pistols. Many of these earliest images were taken with the family’s first camera, a Kodak Autographic—a leather-covered, foldable-bellows affair, vintage 1914, that sits in a place of honor on my dresser.

The timeline of my life in pictures begins with the dazzling flash of round, hot-frizzled bulbs a few days after my birth. At two years come the massive Olin Mills air-brushed, gilt-framed studio portraits—parental enshrinements of the children of my era—that hung on the formal living room walls of my childhood homes all those years.

And for 15 years thereafter flows a stream of images into this box at my feet, obligatory special-occasion shots of insipid smiles from kindergarten on. But suddenly, after high school, I disappear without a photographic trace—extinct, vanished from time as subject-in-focus. No longer the photographed, I have become the photographer behind the lens.

I have seen the world through the camera now for forty years, and standing back at a distance to acknowledge the place of this medium in my life, I consider myself fortunate to have grown from babe to man in the era of popular photography.

Every one of the tens of thousands of instants that I’ve pressed the shutter has embedded a memory in time and place. The intentional vision of photographic composition has made me see light and shadow, depth and texture, color and pattern that one who is not a photographer—or a painter—would have missed.

Each photographic choice reveals a small rectangle of the world I chose to put in my camera’s frame at the instant I chose to press the shutter. And in each mental image, like the technical details of my digital photo files, is embedded invisible, me-only information about the shot: Who was I with? What did it smell like that day? Where did I go next? What did the air feel like on my skin?

The photographic urge has run deep in humanity since the first cave drawings of early history. The price of personal photography drops, even as the size of the hardware shrinks and the ease of instant “development” becomes elementary. Shirt-pocket cameras have brought the realization of that “share our where” impulse to Everyman.

We are increasingly Homo photographicus. We create and archive our personal and collective stories more and more with pixels of light that record who and where and perhaps why we have been.

And so, in not so many years, when I begin making arrangements for the migration of some few meaningful objects from my past into my children’s present, I’ll not send a cardboard box of faded silver on wrinkled paper.

I imagine a day when, instead of an urn of ashes on their mantel, far more of who I was will be contained in a small, unremarkable hard drive that holds fifty thousand moments of life, stories each, illuminated by the most remarkable, immortal light.

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