Thursday, April 29, 2010
Emil and the Photography Project
Emil, my youngest son, has embarked on a project of digitizing our family’s photographs, of which we—like most families—have an uncountable number stored in photograph albums and shoe boxes (those would be the lucky ones), stuck into books or onto bulletin boards, hidden away in rarely opened cupboards and drawers, and attached to documents like our three children’s almost thirty years’ worth of nursery and elementary school report cards that themselves have been long since filed away in filing cabinets that are only opened when the unexpected need to find someone’s birth certificate or original Social Security card occasionally presents itself. It’s a big project. So far, though, so good. Emil is approaching this with his customary diligence, trying first to organize the archive by era and subject matter (itself an undertaking of gargantuan proportions given the number of photographs involved), and then methodically scanning the photographs and organizing the results in an on-line archive that we will eventually be able to download to a disk that we will then be able to put in a drawer and not be able to find other than when we’re not actually looking for it.
What the project has taught the most profoundly to me personally, at least so far, is how fluid memory is…and how subjective. Some of what I had forgotten are just trivial details, things anyone could forget two or three decades after the fact. I remember our trip to Istanbul—undertaken with our oldest son Max, now twenty-six years old but then still small enough for me to shlep him around in one of those backpacks made for the children of parents with strong backs—but I had forgotten that there was a store just down the street from our hotel that appeared only ever to feature beef hearts, and rows upon rows of them, in its window. I remember our honeymoon in Israel, of course, and I remember the hotel (now long since demolished) that we stayed in in Tzefat, but I had forgotten the specific dress Joan was wearing when that goat began to follow her through the cemetery she had gone to visit at my behest to put a stone on the grave of Rabbi Moshe Cordevero, one of the greatest kabbalists of all time and one with whose books, and specifically with whose masterwork, the Pardes Rimmonim, I was very involved at the time. (The goat is in the picture too but it looks quite as I remembered it, only perhaps a bit bigger.) I remember my bar-mitzvah, obviously. But I had forgotten how young my parents were and how healthy and well my mother looked midway through our life together. (She died when I was twenty-six.)
But others of the things I had forgotten were not trivial details but rather, especially now that I see them depicted clearly in the photographs Emil is attempting to organize, the kinds of things of which I can hardly believe I have retained no memories at all. When I look at the snapshots my parents took at my high school graduation, for example, I find it hard to believe that I was actually present. Clearly, I was there. But even now that I have seen the pictures, I still cannot awaken any real memories of the seventeen-year-old me, complete with mutton-chop sideburns, a full head of black hair, and a peace symbol pinned to the top of my mortarboard, standing in the sunlight in Forest Park and looking somewhere between irritated and embarrassed while my mother or father fussed with the camera. Nor have I retained any real memories of the luncheon, also depicted in the archive, that my parents appear to have made for me sometime during the summer before I departed for my junior year of college in France, a large assembly of friends and family of whom I believe myself, my friend Roz, and three cousins to be the sole surviving invitees. Or of the seventy-fifth birthday party my parents apparently made for my grandmother at the some unidentified Manhattan restaurant that I clearly attended—I’m in the picture—but from which I have retained no memories at all, not of the day and not of my grandmother on her birthday and not of the guests my parents must obviously have invited and not of myself among them.
In their own category are the pictures that are missing entirely. There are, for example, no pictures of my parents’ wedding, none taken at my bris, none or hardly any taken during my elementary school years or during my summers at camp. There is the above-referenced snapshot of my parents standing in front of our apartment house on the sunny morning of my bar-mitzvah, but none at all of me personally on my big day and none taken at the luncheon my parents hosted after the service. There are pictures in the archive of only some of my parents’ siblings, none at all of my father’s father, and only two or three of my mother’s father. All that has to do with my parents’ peculiar attitude towards photography in general, one of the very few of their peculiarities that I have somehow managed not to inherit. But it also has to do with their fear, also uninherited by myself, of leaving too much behind, of not being able to depart as completely and cleanly as they both wished would be the case when their time finally did come to leave life to the living and depart for the world of truth.
It’s a complicated concept. Even I myself don’t think I fully understand what motivated them to feel so ill at ease about the whole concept of preserving a tangible record of the past. My parents, for example, did not save their own high school or college diplomas, let alone their report cards or yearbooks. When I found my mother’s M.A. diploma from Columbia University in the back of one of my father’s closets after he died, in fact, I had the sense it had only survived because they had both forgotten it existed. I have it still, but can’t quite decide what to do with it. Perhaps in that thought, though, I do somehow come closer to the original concept that guided them in that it would have been anathema to them to think of me, or of anyone at all, holding this thing in their hands and not having any idea what to do with it yet feeling unable simply to pitch it out with the rest of the trash. In the end, who knows what motivates some people to hold onto every conceivable artifact connected with their lives as though it were reasonable to imagine that someone might eventually open a gallery devoted to their years on earth and others, like my parents, to hold onto almost nothing, to let it all slip away, to record nothing or almost nothing in photographs, to prepare in life to make a clean getaway in death (which concept obviously precludes leaving behind cartons of memorabilia for one’s children to have any sort of relationship, positive or negative, with)?
When I do look at the photographs Emil is organizing, though, I find myself mostly wondering how much of memory is real and how much fantasy. If I remember, for example, my own wedding, which I surely do, why then can I not recall even a single part of the reception that is not depicted in our wedding album? And who knows how much of what we do remember corresponds to historical reality unaffected by our own fantasies about the past and, more to the point, about our own role in the stories of our own lives? Our criminal justice system is based on the supposition, after all, that people can reliably and accurately remember events to which they were witness, but how many of the 253 convicted individuals subsequently exonerated of all wrongdoing through the efforts of the Innocence Project operated at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University were convicted in the first place because testimony honestly and forthrightly given about what someone said he or she could remember turned out simply not to be correct? (I have recommended in the past that readers drop by the Innocence Project website at www.innocenceproject.org and I am pleased to do so again. I expect you will find yourself as entranced by what you’ll find, and as challenged by it, as I am whenever I visit the site.) Can any of us remember ourselves clearly? Or even, speaking honestly, at all? No flashlight, after all, can shed light on itself no matter how fresh the batteries and how strong the bulb. Is that the model we should bring to bear in considering the course of our lives not as evidenced by tangible artifacts but merely as filtered through our own recollective consciousnesses? Or would the right model be to understand memory as a kind of echo that grows weaker with each subsequent reverberation but which does not necessarily grow less accurate as it becomes less easy to discern with the passage of time?
It’s hard to say, but I think that my parents’ horror of leaving behind hard evidence in the form of photographs and movies was somehow related to the wish that they live on as memories rather than as exhibits. (My parents never owned a movie camera or, I think, even a tape recorder. If they did, they certainly never recorded their own voices.) Perhaps that is even as it should be. Shelter Rockers have heard me say countless times from the bimah that all perception is midrash. So perhaps we need to apply that thought to our memories as well…which are, after all, one step even further away from reality in that memory is merely the recollection of perception and thus one step even more removed from empirical, verifiable reality as we all wish we could know it. Watching Emil assiduously scanning our nine trillion photographs—Joan and I have nothing even remotely like my parents’ aversion to documenting our lives or our children's in photographs—and trying to impose order where there to date has been only chaos has been a sobering experience for me, something like surreptitiously watching a defense attorney gathering the kind of hard evidence that will effectively counter whatever testimony I might be considering offering my readers (or myself) about the way I remember my life as actually having unfolded. But sobering experiences are not necessarily negative ones. Just to the contrary, actually: sometimes sobering experiences lead to insights into how things are in our world and with our lives that can actually make us into finer people possessed of clearer, not murkier, senses of who we are. And it is hard to imagine how that can be a negative development, even if it has come to me from photographs that themselves are only developed negatives! (Younger readers may feel free to ask their parents or grandparents what negatives are.)