Thursday, December 20, 2012

An appeal for the candid camera

"Jeffrey! You stop punching your little sister! Just sit. And smile, dang it! A real smile, or you don't get any dessert! Where did Jennifer go? Well tell her to get off the phone! Benjamin, no, you can't go to bathroom again. Well, you'll just have to hold it! For as long as it takes, that's how long!"
We've all been there. The holiday family photo. Who'd have thought that getting a handful of people to stand in neat little rows with grins plastered on their faces would be so difficult?

I'll be the first to admit, I do not make family photos any easier. I've been described by people close to me as "reserved" and "quiet" and "reclusive." Okay, also "curmudgeonly." I don't love being the center of attention, and I definitely do not love to pose. It doesn't take long for my photo-smile to become a grimace, an involuntary mask of displeasure. In every event where I've been asked to participate in some sort of special photo op, whether for my wedding, or at Christmas-time, or for that random get-together that marks nothing particularly special except that three or more related people happen to have gathered at once, there's usually documented evidence to pinpoint the moment that I reach my breaking point. And in every photo thereafter, I'm either very sullen or my smile looks a little like I've just been punched in the kidney.

I want to punch myself in the face

So, let me say up front that I'm at an extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to photos. Where some people are only mildly unsettled by the whole experience, little bits of my soul are actually crushed with every additional posed picture. "Now everyone switch places! Now everyone do silly faces! Now everyone jump in the air!" And, let's be honest, I probably don't have a lot of soul to spare.

But here's the thing: I do actually think photographic evidence of an individual's existence is a worthwhile thing. I look back at old photos of my family and I know I'd feel the poorer if they didn't exist. And I know that they'll be even more important to me twenty or forty years from now, and probably even more important to my kids than to myself.

Below, for instance, is a perfectly fine photo of my side of the family (I mean, ignoring the fact that my wife is refusing to open her eyes). There's some awkwardness to it, some limbs in funny places, but it marks a moment in everybody's life that will probably be interesting to look at sometime down the road.

These kinds of photos should probably be taken every once in a while. Like every two or three years, maybe (I say this knowing that no one will agree with that interval. My wife very much included. It's just a span that I'm wistful for), just so you can mark the passage of time.

But the kind of photo that's even more meaningful to me is the candid one, the one that nobody poses for, the one that tells a story or that really demonstrates a sweet moment or little nugget of personality. You'll note that in the above photo, for instance, there's a cute little baby that nobody's interacting with. What gives, people?! What a wasted opportunity! Here are some of the kinds of photos I can get behind, photos that I look at with a lot of fondness:
Meeting their granddaughter for the first time
Something about wise men
Waiting around for wedding photos
They're all unexpected, and they all reveal something. They don't proclaim perfect hair or matching clothes or everybody looking at the camera. But they've got personality. Joy, even. And my soul? Not crushed a single bit in any one of them (though in that last photo it's possible I'm at the point where I'm refusing to look at the camera).

Even better is when you can take a photo of process, of something happening. Like this one:

You can't even see my face, but my dad's weird turtle posture and everyone's intense concentration on his carving masterpiece makes it a photo to treasure.

See, the thing is, these posed family photos that everyone gets excited about . . . they're always trying to capture perfection. People primp and pose and do their hair just so, and it all feels a little . . . forced, you know? And I can't help thinking that it's all a relic of outmoded technology -- where people had to stand still for whole minutes (imagine getting your whole extended family to stand still for that long!) in order for the film's exposure to capture them correctly. But we're in the digital era! We can afford to snap pictures whenever we want, and they're complete in the blink of an eye! We don't have to get it "perfect." We can just let people be themselves and do the candid thing. Photographer, the burden's on you: hunt down some moments!

This is an art form that I truly identify with. Have you ever thought of the "candid camera" as an art form? Someone like Henri Cartier-Bresson spent his whole career trying to capture the "decisive moment" in everyday life, something that could not be planned for or posed. If it makes you feel any better about the effort, you could almost call it "photojournalism." Yes, each one of us can be a photojournalist! Each one of us can think of family picture-taking not as the perfectly composed still-life that so many portraits become, but rather as an opportunity to get at somebody's essence, to uncover something that you'd never find when they're just staring with glazed eyes and a tightly stretched expression into a camera's lens (it may be that I'm mostly describing myself here). Here's one of Bresson's that I like:

Sure, Giacometti is blurred, and he's not even looking at the camera or offering a particular expression that we can tell . . . but Bresson got a picture of the dude in motion, interacting with his art in a way that's seriously interesting, you know? There's something about this photo of the artist striding forward with intention amidst his striding works of art that transcends any static portrait, that says something meaningful about the artist, much more than a picture of his smiling face.

Or here's Dorothea Lange's trademark photo:

It's powerful because it's not posed, it's not a plastered smile on a face. Where is this mother looking? What is she thinking? There's depth here, there's a story, and it's because the photo was taken unobtrusively, with every effort to stay out of the subject's way, to not attract her attention.

Take these, as another example. Lindsay wanted us to get some photos of us at our church's Christmas party, and this is what was snapped:

It wasn't helped by the fact that Addison and I refused to stop eating. And I think there might be one out of the bunch where I attempted a smile, but mostly I was uninterested in posing. Lindsay, after scanning through the photos, declared them mostly duds. But when I looked through them, I found a story in every single one. Whether it was Addison reaching frantically for something, or me trying to stuff another roll in my mouth before anyone grabbed it off my plate, or Lindsay desperately mugging for the camera while Addison and I are occupied by things elsewhere, they're all dynamic. They feel real, they feel like our personalities are in there (if you haven't noticed, my personality is not marked by exuberance). I really like this series of photos, and I think I like them at least as well as any of the more carefully composed (read: costly) photos we've ever taken.

Don't get me wrong, there's a place for those posed pictures, with everyone standing in neat rows and everyone's face brightly visible. Without them, where would we get awkward family photos? But it's my great wish for humanity that we can take fewer of them, and be happier with the messiness and transcendence of people just being themselves, as though no one is watching.