In Praise of the Imperfect Photograph
My father, 69, is going through his massive collection of slides and digitizing them. As a result, every few days a photo or two from a family beach outing or a holiday long past will pop into my email stream without warning.
They aren’t particularly arresting images—no wild kaleidoscopic sunsets or Instagram-worthy food shots here—and yet they command my immediate attention.
In one (seen at right) I’m looking at the camera as my mother, slightly cut off, is braiding my hair. My younger brother, then about two, is reaching for the photographer. The color is too bright in some spots, too dark in others. The orange shag carpeting screams “the ‘70s have been here,” as do my brother’s denim jumpsuit and my own minidress. I look at it and I can almost feel the slight pull on my hair as I turn toward my father’s lens.
In another photo we are vacationing: a family of five on a park bench trying to achieve the perfect keepsake photo. Clearly it wasn’t working. In some, no one looks at the camera. In others, eyes are squinted or completely closed. And finally there are the ones where my teenage brother looks impossibly bored of the whole ordeal.
These aren’t the photos that made it up onto my parents’ walls or even the refrigerator. The unfiltered, slightly blurred snapshots held no value to us then.
Today they are, by far, the best things that have ever come into my inbox.
My father has always loved photography. Though it changed over the years—Canon to Nikon, still to camcorder (one image documents a movie camera roughly the size of my brother’s head)—his camera was essentially the sixth member of our family.
And constant clicking was an expected part of any trip. You’d be peering up at a waterfall or bent low digging for worms, and my father would call out your name. When you turned, a lens would capture your smile—or grimace or look of exasperation—and move on.
And unlike my iPhone, which is now overburdened with about 4,000 photos, my father’s snaps didn’t live long in the camera. We’d come home and he’d send out the film for processing immediately.
Before long—and long before the memories of the trip had dimmed enough for us to need to relive them—we’d be forced to gather in the basement for a show. Lights would be lowered, the whirring of the projector wheel would start, and soon the very thing I had just experienced would be splashed across the wall.
I hated it.
Sure, there was the occasional giggle, but the event was mostly something we kids had to suffer through. When the lights came on and we were finally released, we’d run for the door as fast as we could.
Fast-forward 30 years and the scenario is much different.
These imperfect photos hold magic.
They offer insight into my family’s past that I had forgotten: the way we were all transfixed by my new baby brother, the fashion-forward styles my mother would wear, my inability to keep my hair under control.
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With each one I get a memory back: My late grandmother’s touch, the coldness of my little brother’s stare (to be fair, I tortured him as a child), the signs of my preteen confidence that disappeared only a few years later. It’s all there … even when it’s blurry or only half captured.
I crave them now that I’m older, these images that offer up small hints at the family we would become. I share them with my sons, who laugh at how “macho” their grandfather looks and wonder at my mother’s once long tresses. The people in the pictures aren’t the ones they’ve grown up with, adding a layer to their ideas of who we all are: I was once their age. Their grandparents have lives outside of spoiling their grandchildren rotten.
We take photography for granted now. We snap away on our cellphones and sort through our digital photos by the dozens, deleting the ones that aren’t worthy of a 16×9 canvas. We filter, crop, and manipulate, but in doing so it occurs to me that we are losing something.
Of the photos my father’s sent me so far, the ones I love best are grievously flawed. The shots where the family is clearly unaware that they’re about to be photographed or doing the most mundane of things, these are the snapshots of our lives—uncombed hair, tousled clothing, and all.
These simple gifts of memory that show up in my inbox have me forever grateful that my father didn’t have the option to delete and try again. And though I love the thrill of capturing the perfect shot, I have a feeling I’ll be saving the imperfects for my kids, too.
Heather Greenwood Davis is Nat Geo Travel’s resident family travel advocate, guru, and soothsayer. Follow her on Twitter @GreenwoodDavis and on Instagram @heathergd.