When my cousin Avi was preparing to relocate from California to Seattle a few years ago, he told me he was streamlining his possessions and getting rid of ballast—which included a big box of loose photos he’d hauled along on every previous move. An engineer, he’d come up with a more efficient memory preservation system: he purchased a high-speed, high-volume Fujitsu scanner, fed his hundreds of photos through, saved the digital copies online and then… he shredded the hard copies.
I was stricken. I envisioned all those photos, from all those years, all those people and memories—shredded like pulled pork. Avi assured me he had saved a few “important” ones. But he was about to have a baby (and all the accompanying accoutrements) and he felt the weight of his new life looming. He didn’t need another box of things, or “the burden of totems,” as he put it. Plus, he said, he didn’t shred all of his photos—some went into the recycling! The rest he could gaze at any time he wanted, up in the cloud, where memory is endless.
Avi’s approach made sense logically, but to me it seemed like a space-saving tip Spock might’ve devised. I approach photos more like the replicants in Blade Runner, who cling to the small clutches of (fake) pictures they’ve been given to bolster their sense of self. For these humanoids, photos serve as back up for their memory implants—they are proof that they exist, and had a past.
I keep my analog photos in a couple oversized plastic tubs in the basement. There is no chronological order, no system except that if I find one Fotomat packet of prints from that high school trip to Spain, I have some hope that the other three are nearby. Baby photos fraternize with college party pics, my third-grade class photo curls around a stack of roadside shots from a cross-country trip. For a long time I held onto the doomed aspiration of organizing my photos into clearly marked, year-by-year subsections. But then some sane person told me I could abandon that idea because that’s not how the brain stores or retrieves memories anyway. This gave me such a thrill of validation. And it’s true—my memories are all crashing around in my head, bleeding into each other like a mixed load of laundry.
Why is it so entrancing to look at photos of one’s own life, over and over? The hairstyles are pretty funny, for one thing. But there’s also the pleasantly weird time-warp sensation of being a person, here and now, while simultaneously remembering being that similar yet entirely different person, there and then—the one with the perm or the parachute pants. It feels like a million years ago and also yesterday.
Daniel’s physical photo tub is much smaller than mine, but his online collection is massive, stretching back to the advent of digital cameras. He used to have his monitor set up so that the screen saver pulled randomly from his digital photos—which had the same effect of me closing my eyes and reaching into the tub and seeing what’s pulled up. He frequently marveled at the images swimming up out of the black background—his now teenage nephew covered in cake for his first birthday, his mom riding on the back of his Honda scooter, me with my flip phone on an early date. “It’s going so fast,” he would say. He still says that, and it makes me tear up every time.
During one of these reveries he asked, “What about this for a song lyric: Time lapse photography is happening to me.” I liked it very much. He had already been working on an instrumental piece of music—a rich collage of instruments that increased in number and slid all over each other, hurly burly. But you could pick out any one and it would tell a different part of the same story.
Daniel and I kept working on the song, building on the feeling of nostalgia—the sense that we are very young and very old all at once. It’s not just a theory of relativity, there’s photographic evidence. My grandmother was alive, and still is, in this image. My mother holds my toddler-sized hand at a river’s edge. My sister and I are laughing arm-in-arm with our boy cousins, little Avi and dearly departed Bren. I was there. I wore that! We were together. Cosmic postcards that prove: you are here.
time lapse photography
is happening to me
boxes full of photos
fast forward in slow mo
blink of an eye
on my father’s shoulders
now it’s me that’s older
wrinkles in time
once I was a grandchild
once I had that hairstyle
time lapse photography
is happening to me
The Argument is releasing 11 songs in 11 weeks (this is song #11). This essay was originally posted on Medium.
Thank you for listening.