The photograph is so grainy it looks like a sand painting. A family of ten at a Thanksgiving table, circling platters and plates of food, sometime in the early 1970s. The scene’s poorly lit, the shot is poorly composed—I’m imagining mom used a cheap plastic camera that she purchased at Peoples Drugs—yet the dissolving faces are beaming in the low resolution, warm, a snug circle. What’s odd is the angle of the camera lens; it tilts the scene forward so that everything threatens to spill out of the frame—one tip from behind and the table will go tumbling. In the small room the family’s crowded together at one end (so I can fit all of you in!) as if they’re holding on underneath, steadying the table, the tall candlesticks, the dinner plates. The faces are barely faces at all. Not bathed by a flash, the countenances glow anyway, pillowy masks, dreamy abstractions hovering gently over varying body types, the details of noses, eyes, teeth, hair obscured. The more we rub our eyes to see, the less distinct the world is. Blurred faces around a Thanksgiving table: an archetype rendered beyond archetype into a kind of found art.
I know this family. For many years they lived in the cul-de-sac behind us, in Wheaton, Maryland. When I was ten or eleven they moved to a new, larger home in a far-flung suburban town north of Wheaton. My parents would take me and my younger brother to parties there on St. Patrick’s Day, where at night we’d swim in a heated outdoor pool. Moved away: we can do it physically, but the imagination calls us back to where we started. They’ll always live in the cul-de-sac in Hippocampus, Everywhere, in an eternally messy house, nine kids banging around making noise and mayhem. The grainy photographs prove it.
Recently the small, face-shaped smudge in the bottom right corner of the photo made contact with me on facebook. A friend request after more than thirty years. His profile picture was blank, or, more accurately, generic, that mysterious silhouette that brands facebook members who’ve yet to upload profile photos, a string of faceless thousands looming on walls and in message threads. I checked: he still hasn’t uploaded a profile pic. He remains an outline into which I can paint my many drafts of him. I spotted among his online friends his younger sister (she’s the tiny blur in the top left of the Thanksgiving photo, sitting on her oldest blur’s lap), and dashed off to her a quick message, sharing my memories of riding bikes with her and with Silhouette Brother, playing bocce ball in the yard, darting through the expansive woods behind their house. She wrote back. We friended each other. I accessed her photos, recent ones, and saw a woman in her mid-forties resembling vaguely the skinny colt who pranced in front of me down the trails, on the sidewalks. She’s smiling a lot now, which is nice. She seems well-adjusted, surrounded by family and friends.
The lens turned and focused. Her fuzzy outline at the table sharpened into a real face, from abstract to representational. That I have difficulty matching up the two versions of my former neighbor—the girl then, the woman now—is, of course, my problem, and a precious one at that. Why do I prefer her in the photo of her blurred family? In many ways the image is a comforting placeholder, a moment in time secured in youthful anti-knowledge of the future’s complexity, a family of young people I recall as still young, still laughing, still wandering eagerly around the annual block parties on their cul-de-sac, bikes and Big Wheels, fireflies and dusk. But there’s more: I love the photo of the Blur family, the timeless happenstance of a cheap camera and low lighting, a smear of particulars that somehow cheers me. Their eyes are gone, dimmed to nothing, but that’s not creepy; their smiles are sullied, darkened dots-per-inch, but that’s not melancholy. What I love about the photograph is what trendy nostalgia-mill digital applications like Hipstamatic and Instagram cash in on: a tumble into the comfort of a gauzy, sentimentalized past paradoxically made softer by a Polaroid’s harshness, scratchy film that nonetheless soothes in its promises of eternal adolescence and a vanishing point that never arrives.
“Instead of just recording reality, photographs have become the norm for the way things appear to us, thereby changing the very idea of reality and of realism.”
That’s Sontag. I think about this a lot in relation to memory’s slide shows. More accurately: nostalgia, that gateway drug to solipsism and sentimentality. There’s nothing static about a memory, and yet I stop and stare. I pretend that a memory remains as still and compliant as a photo, but a memory is not a photograph: a memory morphs, slipping undetected from one side of the brain to the other and back again, excising plot lines, adding characters, altering the personal politics of the figures. Though memories retell themselves at every opportunity, shape-shifters that can’t be trusted, they do, after Sontag, become the norm for the way things appear. They do change the very idea of reality. What’s real becomes what-was which becomes what-is. Try and frame that.
Looking at recent images of my neighbor, her face lifted out from another decade, now strikingly contemporary and detailed, brought something else into focus. One afternoon, decades ago, her older brother and I took her into the woods behind her house where her brother yanked down her shorts and scrawled a word on her buttocks with a black magic marker. She squirmed and resisted, and dashed off crying after he’d (we’d) finished. A small childhood transgression that becomes eternal, its retelling shaming me with each half-remembered version, incriminating me in violence and bullying. I’ve written a bit about this incident before, naming the participants, implicating myself—but that was before I saw the girl, the woman, in her present life. Before, I had only the blur, the reassuring haze which erased her features, replaced her worrying cries with the whoops of play-dates, her urgent escape from the woods with cart wheels into suburbia. Now she’s looking at me from last week, not last century. I don’t know if she remembers, or what reality her memories may have altered. Her brother who friended me on facebook—he was the one with the magic marker—is still little more than a generic silhouette. And I’m relieved. If he ever updates his profile pic, I may turn the other way, preferring the blur to the clarity.