“You cut the heads off,” my father says to my mother. He takes the slim, black Kodack camera out of her hands. At the time, the camera was considered a “pocket” model, despite it being about the size of a pencil box. It had a wheel on the back you’d thumb to advance the film. A compact slot on the top of the camera fit a flash cartridge—each cell bursting and dying like tiny suns.
“Cheese,” my father says to me and my brother. We stand by the door in our uninventive Halloween costumes purchased at K-Mart. He’s Luke Skywalker in a plastic orange rebel fighter outfit. I’m also in a plastic, white and red smock that passes for Strawberry Shortcake. We’re ready to canvas the neighborhood like some kind of thugs from the candy mafia. The flash makes a smart “cracking” sound. Green and yellow spots hover before my eyes.
My father wasn’t wrong. My mother could not seem to take a photo of more than one person without clipping the rest of their face from about the chin upwards. Her photographic beheadings were so hilariously consistent that we routinely went out of our way to relieve her of camera duties. If she minded, she didn’t show it to us except to laugh and shrug and poke a little fun at herself; she could be a bit Edith Bunker in that respect. As with so many other things taken away from her in the course of her life, she must have filed this shortcoming away in some emotionally remote lock box.
In our family, photography was purely functional. I associated the withering flash with groggy Christmas mornings and, ultimately, grainy captures from school music recitals and Girl Scout award banquets. Photography documented these milestones. They were artifacts, proof of lives in progress. I hated the whole business. I hated having to stop and pose. I hated the scrutiny that followed when the image was developed—Why does it seem like I’m winking? Does my hair really look like that in real life? (yes, yes it does). Who told me that wearing something that looks like a Von Trapp drapery reject was a good idea? The pictures were collected and pasted between sheets of plastic in large books with cheap, faux leather coverings, rarely to be seen again. What was the point?
Despite the utilitarian relationship to photography that I grew up with, I developed a real passion for taking pictures. I let myself be drawn to anything and everything that caught my attention–the scarlet flare of trees in the fall, ivy scaling a stone post, the reflection of chrome in a city puddle, a spray of clouds at sunset. It was freeing knowing that I was under no obligation to put something on record. I could leave myself out of the frame. I could relish in what I felt was beautiful or striking “out there;” I could get out of the way and let the picture tell its own story, not my own.
When photography was introduced in the 1830s, people believed the camera acted as an objective onlooker, a device capable of rendering real life more faithfully than sketches or paintings. We now know that’s wishful thinking. The image was always subject to manipulation. The reality of the moment tells a story that cannot fit inside the camera frame. The camera is not an impartial observer, it’s an extension of the photographer. The photographer doesn’t have to be in front of the lens to show up in the picture. “It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera,” writes Henri Cartier-Bresson. “They are made with the eye, heart and head.”
I consider this as I think about my mother’s hapless photography. I imagine her earnestness to get the “right” photo of, for example, our family gathered after Easter dinner. Her parents, her brother and his wife and daughter, my dad, and my brother and I clump together in front of a brave forsythia bush, shining bright yellow in the cold, sun-scrubbed March afternoon. She counts, she presses the shutter, she thumbs the wheel, and repeats. She allows herself a small wedge of hope that the photo will develop all heads and faces in tact instead of cleaved into pieces like the photographer herself.