Our daughters are fascinated by photographs. Indeed, they are fascinated by them to such an extent that a package of prints sitting around waiting to find a permanent home in a photo box or album is never safe from being paged through, folded, drawn on, and having the negatives tossed around to make sure the loss is permanent.
In this digital age, I'm not sure how many people have this problem, but I am anachronistic in that I only shoot film, and only use manual focus SLR cameras. That gives me a level of control over my photos that isn't available in digital cameras that retail under $500. And besides, I just like film. I like prints -- especially medium grain matte finish prints. I like the slightly pebbled colors of low light exposures, the purity of B/W greytones. If I had the time and space, I'd set up a darkroom like I did in highschool and college and develop B/W myself.
The other night, after finding the girls running around with some newly developed prints of the baby, I snatched the packets and put them high up on the top of a bookshelf in the living room. And in doing so I found, covered in dust, a package of prints I had put away in exactly the same place and matter some months before.
Taking down the old package of prints, I found that they were from just over a year ago, when my parents came out to visit us in Texas. The girls had clearly been at the prints (some were slightly rumpled, though none were heavily creased or drawn-on) and the negatives must have been played with, because many of them were scratched.
One of the powerful things about photographs is the way they preserve a single instant of action for years to come. Once, while going through a box of old family papers from my grandmother's house, I came across a vertically cropped black and white photo of a woman looking out the window of a small house. The photo was unlabelled, by my grandmother had no idea who the woman was. From the clothes, it appeared to be from the '20s or '30s. For the longest time the photo sat on the mantle. It was intriguing, both as a well composed photograph, and because it was a window onto a situation which we did not and could not know the details of. Who was she, and who had taken and kept the picture?
Another compelling aspect of photography is the way in which a photograph can extend an instant in time out to eternity. In the famous Vietnam photograph of a police officer executing a Viet Cong fighter, the victim is forever preserved in the moment of flinching from the blast. No amount of explanation or the circumstances could change the essential image. And each time the viewer returned to the photograph, there he was, recoiling from the instant of death. It is the repetition of the image, the drawing out of that instant that gives the photograph its power. What is at first a shock becomes something feared and anticipated at the same time -- an expected blow falling on a bruise, and the expectation that the blow will fall again, and again, because the instant of that Viet Cong fighter's death will never go away.
This drawing out into eternity can also give photographs a certain wistful or even ghostlike atmosphere. If memory serves, Cicero suggested in the Somnium Scipionis that the memory of the dead is a form of immortality. Yet our memory of the dead is modified by what has befallen since. A photograph, on the other hand, is a window into an instant of the past which remains fixed and vivid. Except in the more formal style of portraits, the dead do not look dead in photographs. Being an image rather than a memory, a photograph shows the subject alive -- a very different thing from a memory, that mental shard that remains with us of someone who used to be alive.
From the dusty package I found on top of that bookcase I found myself looking at a photograph of my father, playing with our eldest daughter -- and with that photograph the contradiction of mortality: The deep and abiding knowledge (understood not only by Christians but by nearly every religion throughout history) that there is in the human person some motive and rational force which is immortal and yet at a certain point leaves the body, that thing which we call a soul.
Somehow the image crystallized the distinction between the soul, so clearly animating the person in the photo, and that which was lowered into the ground one bright morning a year later.