When I see my life…

I see a series of photographs. What I always try to figure out is if these are, in fact, memories, or if they exist solely because the moment was captured as a tangible image.

And I wonder how much of the memory the photograph conjures up is actual experience  or an idealized version of reality. Virginia Woolf claims, “I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realizes an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past. ” She writes three vignettes entitled “Three Pictures” which, in the first, describes an image the narrator witnesses as a picture that now lives in the narrator’s mind (young lovers caught in an intimate moment). In the second, she hears a sound in the middle of the night which causes her to recall the earlier image and fill in the gaps w/ her own fictionalized version of how the sound relates to the image. In the third, she is an observer to the result (the death of one of the young lovers)– an additional experience which adds a layer to the first. When reading the whole of these vignettes, it is apparent that Woolf’s message is how one creates reality based on what is or exists. But the conclusion is that reality only exists in our perception of it. So, then, a photograph captures what IS, but memory allows us to fill in the gaps (part fiction as an extension of reality), which in turn becomes our morphed reality.

Erik Johansen is a photographer who takes photographs and morphs them to create a shared reality. Really, this is an abstract extension of Woolf’s point– that the only reality that exists is our perception of it. If we can conceive of it, it becomes reality. It lives on paper as a concrete image, but lives in our memories as layers of abstractions (image, experience, perception) = REALITY (which is never static because as we change, so does our reality).

In essence, photographs are the only tangible evidence of what IS.

        Ten Photographs: Creating Reality One Photograph at a Time

First photograph:

Standing on my front lawn, maybe 3 (on the cusp of 4, perhaps)dressed in a leopard skin bikini, the sun casting a beam on me, but I’m smiling. My friend, Mary’s house is in the background, so is our tan Plymouth station wagon. Off to the edge of the photograph is a plastic, blue kiddy pool with brightly colored fish adorning the edges.

The feelings I associate w/ this photograph are all good– warm, secure, happy. Simplicity. My yard seemed vast, and I loved playing there w/ my siblings and my friends. My mother was always there watching over us, lovingly.

Second photograph:

Full-faced, smiling wide– one tooth missing in the front of my mouth. I’m holding it up between my fingers for the camera to see. I’m wearing a blue terry-cloth top. Feeling proud, I worked and worked to twist that tooth and yank it until it came out. I was first to lose my tooth. I liked being first.

Third photograph:

My sweet sixteen birthday party. I’m looking down, very thoughtful and introspective. My hair, shoulder length, is curled back on the sides, framing my face. My mother is in the foreground of the picture, a side view of her face. She’s young and beautiful, and very intent on pinning a carnation on my blue, sleeveless, eye-lit blouse.

I remember being completely surprised by my family and all of my friends who filled my backyard. I can recall the details of the day. I’d slept at Lori’s house who made an excuse to come to my house when we were suppose to be going to the beach that day. I was kind of annoyed at Lori for changing plans for what seemed a silly reason. I didn’t suspect a thing until I walked up the driveway and saw Ben front and center in my yard, with, what seemed at the time, a blur of people behind him. Everyone I knew and loved was there. I felt this incredible sense of being special and loved. I was also very impressed they all pulled off a surprise on me (because that wasn’t/isn’t easy to do). My Aunt & Uncle were there fromCaliforniaand my grandparents, my cousins and all my really good friends. I don’t recall much else. But the moment my mother placed the carnation on me, I felt very loved by her– unconditionally (which was different than how I usually felt).

Looking back on that moment, there is a sense of melancholy attached to it– that didn’t exist in the moment. It was one of the last good memories I had of my family as a unit together at the home I’d grown up in. Right around the corner, unknowingly to me at the time, was my parent’s divorce when everything would change irreversibly. Also, my very good friend, Ben, would later take his own life– and that day is still one of my fondest memories of him.

Fourth Photograph:

This one exists in my mind, not on paper. It is of me & Dave in a field of overgrown grass up high on a hill– off of a windy street,Spruce Bank Road, where we walked a lot. I am sitting up on top of a rock and he is sitting beside me. There is an old tree up there where we carved our initials and an old, white colonial house in the distance (one we used to say we’d own together one day). It’s sunny and warm and innocent.

It is the moment I fell in love w/ love.

Fifth Photograph:

Graduation. Mine. Anthony, w/ his arm around me, smiling, and me, in my yellow gown, unzipped wearing a white and pastel blouse beneath it. I’m caught in a laugh.

Reminiscent of this photograph is one taken exactly one year before & the opposite. Anthony in his unzipped, green gown at his graduation and me holding his hand. I am full of pride that I graduated and enjoyed high school so completely and successfully. I am happy to have Anthony by my side. I felt like this day marked the beginning of the next chapter in my life and I was ready for it (w/ Anthony holding my hand). It was a very grown-up feeling day.

Sixth Photograph:

This one is not an actual photograph, either, it lives only in my mind and I’m not in it. I’m only an observer, but it’s the point in my life– the very moment that I learned to live outside myself.

My grandfather, sitting on the edge of his bed. His head is bowed down, his body, weak, slouched, his bare feet pressing against the floor to secure him. White t’shirt and black sweat pants (he never wore sweatpants until he became sick). His hair, thinned, slicked back. I could see the bones and veins beneath his loose, tissue skin. I’m holding a plastic bowl waiting for him to purge again. He looks up to me, his eyes moving, not his face, and says, “Thank you.”

Seventh Photograph:

On theCape, on the beach, vast, waves in the back ground and the sailboats at the Yacht club, sun shining bright in the blue sky. My grandmother is wearing a black and white top and black shorts. On her head, she’s wearing that hat– sun, wide-rimmed hat– the one she always wore to the beach because she said she couldn’t have the sun on her face. She’s laughing, arms outstretched. She’s posing for me.

I remember laughing too and thinking how happy I am that she is happy. I knew the moment I snapped the photo, it was one that would live in my memory. Perhaps the most influential person on my life, if I had to name just one.

I miss her so much.

Eighth Photograph:

My boys. Both of them. Ryan’s first day of school. Out on the front lawn. He looks like such a little man, backpack slung over his shoulder.Tyleris hugging his waist so tight; it’s evident he doesn’t want him to go to school. And Ryan looks so proud; he is ready. Looking down at his brother looking up, lovingly at him, I think– I pray– they will be each other’s best friends one day.

Ninth Photograph:

Sitting in her rocking chair, my old rocking chair (from when I was a baby) that I painted for her to match her room, she’s wearing thermal long john’s (that belonged toTyler) and an overall denim dress– no socks. She’s cradling her baby doll in her arms, feeding her a bottle, unaware that I’m snapping her picture.

And isn’t that just Alexa– the caretaker, the one who doesn’t need or crave the spotlight, the one who is a cross between a lady and one tough girl. Someone, I admire and cherish.

Tenth Photograph:

A series of photos, really, taken in the back year at my Dad’s house (the one I grew up in) in the back yard. It’s our annual Christmas card photo shoot on Thanksgiving day. It’s a grey day, trees are bare; it’s damp outside. My three children move around throughout the yard using the pond as the first backdrop, then the archway, then the empty garden– they are playing w/ each other and laughing, making faces and whining how many more photos I’m going to shoot. I’m not responding to them– just trying to capture them in the moment. Ryan and Tyler are looking so manly w/ their unshaven faces and Alexa is so grown up. They change positions, at one point picking her up–Tyler holding beneath her arms, Ryan grasping her feet. The way they interact w/ one another so easy and unmeasured. I see the whole series of photographs in my mind (there must have been 25 of them), filling in the gaps w/ the memory– the laughter (which I can audibly hear) and the love (that I can feel emulating from them).

How could I ask for anything more?

It would be interesting to take a photograph that MANY people are in and ask them to write about it. I believe you’d have as many different stories as you have people in the picture.


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