My first year living in Richmond, my friends and I went thrifting every weekend. None of us had cars except Kelsey, who drove a white minivan. She’d come around to all of our apartments to pick us up one by one, and this simple ritual privately thrilled me for how it felt like it gave me a new sort of family. Often there was no backseat in the van because she had taken it out to fit a newfound piece of furniture, so on these trips some of us sat around on the floor in back while she and her co-pilot played country music up front.
Because we were young and lived in a new city and everything was exciting—one of those chapters where it feels like you’ve finally arrived into the rest of your life, where you forget it won’t always be this way—this weekly routine always felt like something more: exercises in assigning narratives to old objects, observing and reinterpreting history. This was especially true with old photographs. Our favorite shop had cardboard boxes full of them—most in black and white —which we liked to buy by the bunch for a dollar or two. The photographs were old enough that many of the people in them were probably dead. The pictures outlived them, and now they were anonymous, made unspecial by time, yet also elevated by it. We were attracted to the photographs precisely because of each subject’s anonymity, which allowed for imagination and revision to flow into the frame.
The first time I heard The Kinks’ “Picture Book” was in a commercial for HP digital photo printers. The song probably isn’t even a good one—I say “probably” because though “Picture Book” is silly and simple, it was catchy enough for me to love it, catchy enough to mess with my perception of what makes a song good or bad. It was 2004, and I no longer had to ask my parents what song was playing. It was easy now to track it down on Google, which led to me borrowing and then burning Village Green Preservation Society from the library. I listened to the album over and over; it made me feel warm, part of another era. Like how, when I was still living at home, I’d flip through my parents’ old photo albums in search of a shot of nostalgia for a time I never knew, one which seemed more safe because it was already written. The uncertainty had been lived away.
The HP printer ad features scenes of people dancing at a club, doing cartwheels, bicycling through a city, or posing for photos. And then the arms of someone holding up a white frame to a face or a body, freezing the people briefly in a photograph, until the photo is pulled away to reveal the person who continues to live and move. In one scene, a man sits at a desk lip-syncing the words of the song—pictures of your mama, taken by your papa, a long time ago—pulling frame after frame over his head like a shirt, capturing different photos of his face and stacking them up next to him. “You think all the world’s a photo album,” the ad says—not in voiceover, but in text that fades in and out across the screen, the words becoming image. Whenever I think of it outside of this context, this declaration almost seems more condemnation than praise of the photographic creative impulse. The commercial blurs the world of the real (whatever that might mean now, in 2017) with the world of the photograph—more than that, it almost convinces us that it’s possible to save everything, to tuck it in a wallet or hang it on a wall. Don’t let anything pass you by, it whispers. Keep it all.
“Picture Book” reminds me of the home-video montages used in movies to show a sentimental progressing of a life. The couple moving into their first house, having a child, playing with the child in the grass, the child learning an instrument—time (a life, a narrative—picture book, when you were just a baby, those days when you were happy, a long time ago) unspooling in scenes flecked with those grainy spots and dashes which always lend film a certain authenticity. These montages always get to me in some wordless part of my gut. Why? Like many photographs—or most Instagram pictures—these clips saturate the past with happiness and charm rather than struggle. The bad parts have been rinsed away. This is how we want to remember ourselves, and this is how we want our lives to look. They’re a way of looking back while simultaneously looking ahead to how we’ll be seen, a form of preemptive nostalgia for a future disguised as the past.
Occasionally I have found myself, consciously or not, doing things under the gaze of my hypothetical future daughter. Visiting Florence, Italy, eight years ago, when I was 21, I bought a leather satchel soft as butter, with the idea that she would one day inherit it. I imagined her coveting this bag her mother bought and wore during her semester abroad. I don’t even know if I want to have a child. And yet I develop photographs so that she can someday stumble upon them, in the same way I perused my own parents’ photographs taken in a different world: their lives before me. That this reliving of my own experiences, this renewal, would somehow close a gap in time or the space between our bodies. That it would help me live longer. But if I’m being cynical about it, this is just another convenient way of mythologizing my own life, assigning it meaning, making it look the way I want rather than the way it is. Is this any different than the impulse of sharing and editing one’s daily experiences for social media?
Trump’s election has only caused me to further question whether I’d want a child, to put them in this world. Here in Texas my body is already someone else’s politics, more utilitarian than recreational, a handful of votes more than a self. Do I want to give the state what it wants? I think of the old photographs from the ‘40s and ‘50s we purchased for pennies, and remember the women in them did not have much agency over their own bodies. I see now something I did not when I was younger and more uncomfortable with the uncertainties of my own life: that just because the past exists in a picture or has already happened does not mean it is safe. And it is constantly being rewritten. Every day, as the news breaks and breaks and breaks, more things come to pass that were previously unimaginable. And so the future now seems not like a photograph or a reel of homemade movies but like the end of a film where the screen fades to black: I cannot even begin to visualize or predict it.
Maybe this sounds like exaggeration, but any representation or reproduction of a life, whether it be photograph or words or painting, is an exaggeration of sorts—anything that aims to capture emotion is more truthiness than fact. I want to write about this as it happens. To keep it all.
But where will it all go? Where does any of it go—all the information, all the photographs and text and documentation of our lives? And how will history at this moment be interpreted fifty years from now? As we head into this new presidency, I worry about the safety and permanence of our electronic selves. Even our object-based lives—our selves as seen through our notebooks, photo albums, books—don’t seem safe at times either. But our memories can not be so easily taken from us. Make your memories a photograph. Burn them to the inside of your brain. We will need them, especially the happiest ones, as both sustenance and reminder.
I haven’t developed photos since about 2010, though I’ve kept a file on my computer for all the pictures I’ve long meant to make physical. A lot of photographs from my first year in Richmond, in particular, which will be lost if my computer crashes or is hacked. One of my favorites is a photo of two of my friends posing, as if for a family portrait, on a couch in the back of Kelsey’s van. This was back when we thought anything in our lives could still happen, but never imagined what actually would. The couch faced out the rear window, I remember, so that when we were in motion, we watched the landscape spout away, looking not into the future but the past as we left it. The bright and blurry em-dash of trees and street rushed by, the world doing exactly what photographs refuse to do: move.