I've rotated through scores of backdrops for this page ever since I discovered Blogger in Draft's new design templates. I finally settled on an image of a camera and beveled edged snapshots, because it felt like an apt symbol for every stage of my life. Since then, I've gone back to the old Blogger template because several people told me they were having trouble leaving comments using the new template. And let's face it, comments trump redesign. As every blogger knows, you comment therefore we are.
Still, I got to thinking why a camera and snapshots seemed so fitting a metaphor for the stages of my life. Ever since my uncle gave me his used Nikkormat FTN when I was 10, I have wanted to photograph everything. During high school, I developed my own black and whites in the washroom out back of our house at 37 Paddington Terrace. It was down a long flight of stairs and under the raised back porch, and it had a wooden door whose weathered slats let in the light from outside. I would tape black construction paper over the open seams of the door, screw out the regular lightbulb and screw in a red one, and set up my enlarger and trays.
I could spend hours in my makeshift darkroom watching images come to life in the the various solutions, printing some negatives again and again, burning in this area, holding back the light in that one, trying to get balance and contrast and detail just right. Sometimes I would be in there until late into the night, even past midnight, and my dad would sit reading on the back porch, keeping watch over me till whenever I emerged. I wonder if I ever thanked him for his patient vigil on so many nights? I can't remember. Children take so much for granted. We assume there will always be time.
Back then, I dreamed of working at National Geographic or Life. I wanted to be the one taking the photographs. I used to pore over the pages of those magazines and marvel at what the lens had managed to capture, the experience the photographer had brought to me in my little corner of the world. When it came time to apply to college, I sent off my application to Rhode Island School of Design, thinking vaguely that I would pursue art and photography (I used to also be very involved in painting on canvas with acrylics back then.)
But my dad, the pragmatic civil servant, intervened. He was not sending me across an ocean to study anything quite so frothy as art. He declared that I could sit on a street corner and paint for the rest of my life if that's what I wanted, but I was going to have a choice. I was going to get myself a solid liberal arts degree that would give me options. That, he would subsidize.
That's how I ended up at Barnard in the program in the arts. I started out as a studio art major, but quickly switched to writing, which had always held such secret excitement for me. I had wonderful English and writing teachers at Barnard, and so my fate was sealed. I wouldn't be the one taking pictures after all. I'd be the one writing the story that accompanied the photos, which was okay by my lights, since you had to go everywhere the photographer went in order to do so.
I went on to get a masters in journalism at Columbia and then a job at Life. I traveled all the time, helping to facilitate the photographer's work while reporting on location, camping out in subjects' lives for literally months at a time. I then came back in from the field and tried to do the experience justice in words. It helped that I already thought in a visual way. Everyone at the magazine spoke that same visual language. It was, in retrospect, an excellent and entirely satisfying way for to spend 8 years.
I also married a man who takes pictures. He is an advanced scuba diver, and the photographs that involve him the most are his underwater shots. Well, he loves other kinds of picture taking, too, but it was underwater that he felt most challenged to capture on film what he saw.
Now, my 16-year-old daughter takes pictures. My husband and I have often mused that if she wants to pursue photography she chose the right parents. We own so many different kinds of cameras, and see picture taking as a noble and magical affair. It's why my husband will shell out real money to support my daughter's photography habit, in much the same way my dad used to support mine. Our girl is allowed to use any camera in the house that she chooses, even the antique Leica, even her dad's expensive Nikon digital SLR. We trust her with any of those precious pieces of engineering, because her love of the medium is as great as ours.
I know we aren't picture-makers of the caliber of a Gordon Parks or an Annie Liebovitz or a Michael O'Brien (each of whom I had the great privilege of working with while at Life). We're not masters of the art in the way those greats are. But we love taking pictures. And love is enough.