Essay: Rolf Potts
Thailand, 2001 1.
In the fall of 2001, while I was living in the south Thailand border town of Ranong, I had a brief love affair with an Australian woman named Eva. I first met her on the swimming-pool veranda of the aging hotel where I was renting a studio for $150 a month. Travelers would occasionally pass through Ranong to renew their Thai travel visas at the Burmese border, and Eva had just returned from a visa run with a British couple I’d met the day before. That night the four of us went out to drink whiskey and sing karaoke at a local nightclub. The following morning, the British couple headed north for Bangkok, and Eva moved her things into my room.
Eva was tall and slim, with sun-browned skin, sun-bleached hair, and a slightly clumsy gait. When she laughed, her smile bloomed back from the corners of her mouth, crinkling her nose and narrowing her eyes into quivering, blue-flecked slits. She was beginning the second half of a two-month holiday to Southeast Asia, and she’d spent the previous week on Koh Phangan, an island in the Gulf of Thailand known among backpackers for its full-moon-party scene. In Ranong, she and I lived our days like an affectionate middle-aged couple, silently reading books at poolside, or walking to the open-air market in the town center to buy ingredients for dinner. One evening we watched muay thai
kickboxers at the local sports arena; another time I borrowed my landlady’s motorcycle and drove Eva to see the old tin mines that dotted the mountainous rainforest east of town.
After five days of this, Eva told me it was time for her to move on: She didn’t want to spend the rest of her holiday in a sleepy little border town, she said, and she had longstanding plans to explore the north of Thailand before she went home to Australia. I responded with a whimsical rundown of reasons to stay (We can take up spear fishing! You can learn to kickbox!), more for the chance to watch her nose-crinkling laugh than for the conviction that I could change her mind. That afternoon I drove her to the bus station on the motorcycle. I told I’d miss her, and she responded in kind. She didn’t invite me to come with her. 2.
At the time I met Eva I was working against deadline on what would eventually become my first book. I spent long portions of each day alone, inside my studio, inside my head. Eva’s presence proved a welcome distraction: She was pretty, and she had an understated, mischievous sense of humor. She wasn’t talkative, and we shared our silences comfortably. At a time of focused self-isolation, when I went for days without speaking to anyone, she made me feel less lonesome. I fell for her with a suddenness that made me feel a bit juvenile.
Eva’s interest in me is, in retrospect, more difficult to pin down. Back in Melbourne, she handled public relations for a consortium of high-end restaurants and nightclubs. Her day-to-day home life was social, cosmopolitan, and nocturnal; even as a traveler she gravitated toward party scenes. My tendency to spend hours each day in front of my laptop must have struck her as monkish — yet somehow my stillness intrigued her. She seemed pleased when she discovered I didn’t wear a watch or own a clock. She giggled at the notion that I could live in the tropics and not have a suntan. She liked it when I spoke rudimentary Thai, or took her to eat in neighborhoods where there were no other Westerners. She watched from my bed as I hunched at my desk and tapped on my keyboard. Her nickname for me was “Professor.”
I suspect that my appeal to Eva was the change of pace I represented from the extroverted, fashion-conscious men she normally spent time with. Away from home and open to the possibility of romantic diversion, she chose to have a fling with a bookish introvert in flip-flops and a 90-cent haircut. In this way, our love affair was, for her, a souvenir of sorts — a tourist snapshot significant less for its resonance than for its novelty. 3.
The day before Eva left Ranong, I woke up at dawn and started working. After about 20 minutes, as I sat glowering at a sentence, a bubble floated over my shoulder and popped in front of my face. I turned to see Eva padding around the room, naked, dipping a small plastic wand into the bottle of bubble soap she’d bought at the market.
But the bubbles weren’t for my benefit; Eva paid me little mind as she meandered across the room, sleepy-eyed, entranced by her task. Her long-legged steps, which in hiking shorts looked gawky, gave her nudity a lithe elegance. I’m not sure how long I sat and watched this vision before she glanced over and bade me good morning. I told her I had never in my life seen anything so beautiful. Sometime in the far future, when I was lying on my deathbed, I said, this was the moment I wanted to remember.
Amused at my rapturous hyperbole, Eva fetched her camera and handed it to me. She’d loaded a 12-exposure roll of film the evening before and she’d taken only one picture so far: I could do as I wished with the remaining eleven.
“Keep blowing bubbles,” I said and, choosing my shots carefully, snapped away the roll. Eva took the camera back and told me she would mail me the prints when she got the film developed.
“Aren’t you afraid I’ll show them around?”
“So long as you only share the best ones,” she said, “I don’t mind.”
The following afternoon I saw her off at the Ranong bus station. She didn’t reply to the emails I sent her in the days that followed, but three weeks later my landlady brought me an envelope bearing her handwriting and a Bangkok cancellation. Washington, D.C., 1986 4.
The first time I traveled with a camera was in the winter of 1986, on a ninth-grade civics class trip to Washington, D.C. I was growing up in Wichita, and this was my first journey east of Chicago, my first experience of staying with kids my own age in a motel far from home. During the day, we visited monuments; at night we stayed in a budget-motel ghetto near the airport. Of the two dozen pictures I took on the trip, only one made it into my ninth-grade scrapbook — a posed shot of my motel roommates with a group of eighth-grade girls from Novi, Michigan, who were staying upstairs from us, and whom we’d somehow managed to sneak into our room for a couple of hours on our final night in the city.
I took the picture on a Kodak Instamatic X-15 that I’d borrowed from my grandmother. The Instamatic was a lightweight point-and-shoot with a plastic tab shutter-release and a metal thumb lever that advanced the frames manually. Indoors, it required a disposable “Magicube” flash, which snapped onto the top of the camera, rotated to a fresh bulb when you advanced the exposure, and illuminated the subject with a miniature explosion of light — an ignition of shredded Zirconium foil — which often scorched the inside of the cube. At a time when most film cameras required the user to thread the film into a spooling device inside the camera, the Instamatic used a snap-in cartridge (“to load it is to love it,” read the advertisements). Each film cartridge yielded 24 square-shaped exposures.
It’s easy to understand why, of all the photos I took in Washington, D.C., I chose the Novi girls for my scrapbook. I don’t recall that any of us Kansas boys so much as kissed any of the Michigan girls once they were spirited into our room, but the sight of them lined up on the edge of our motel bed — grinning, framed by two of my roommates — struck me as a wonderfully adult scenario, laced with sexual suggestion. At the time, I was in the process of abandoning my pleasant, loyal childhood friends for a group of classmates who were self-obsessed, cruel, and universally well liked. Late to puberty and scrawny, I had the least social cachet of my motel roommates (I wasn’t in the group picture, and the Novi girls didn’t sneak into the room to talk to me), but the fact that I was present to witness the spectacle felt like an accomplishment. Taped into my scrapbook, the picture was a hypothetical self-narrative — a vision of myself as a freewheeling party guy, as happy and comfortable with myself as I was with a gaggle of exotic Michigan vixens. 5.
The fact that my D.C. motel room picture was ultimately enshrined in a scrapbook is telling in and of itself, since it betrayed my prim tendency, at that point in my life, to formally curate my memories.
The prints that never made it into my scrapbook illustrate this de facto counter-narrative. Apart from that one motel-room image, none of the pictures from the cartridge I shot in Washington, D.C., feature people. Twenty-three of the 24 shots are bland shots of assorted landmarks — the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier — against a wintry gray background. These pictures are so denuded of humans that the city looks faintly post-apocalyptic.
Apparently, given a finite number of exposures, I chose to photograph only what I knew in advance to be significant. So meticulous was the objectivity of my 15-year-old vision that I didn’t even take any pictures of myself in front of the monuments — as if any glimpse of the personal familiar might cheapen and contaminate my official memories of the nation’s capital. Only away from the monuments, in the motel, did I capture a moment suffused with evidence of my own life.
My unremarkable shots of D.C. attractions, long since relegated to storage boxes, betray me as a careful, conservative boy who pointed his camera at the obvious, iconic sights, the sights he thought he was supposed to remember. Though empty of people, these prints testify to a time when I was an obsessive observer of everyone around me, suspicious of my own point of view, unwilling to commit myself to a moment. When I recall my visit to Ford’s Theater, I don’t think of Civil War intrigue: I mainly remember the sight of other junior high kids in the queue outside; I remember thinking, “Maybe people would like me more if I, too, wore white Reeboks.” New Orleans, 2004 6.
The last time I used a film camera to document my travels was in March of 2004, when I visited New Orleans with my father. We were in the city to indulge his love of music, and we invested much of our weekend in performances at the city’s various jazz clubs: Preservation Hall on St. Peter Street; The Spotted Cat on Frenchmen Street; Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub on Bourbon Street. When I got the film developed, I noticed that the photos were strangely incongruous with the New Orleans experience I held in my memory.
By this point in life I was in my sixth year as a full-time freelance writer. Many journalists who specialize in travel take up photography as a profitable tie-in to their trade, but I found professional-grade cameras to be a bulky distraction when I was working on travel assignments. Given a choice between taking notes and taking a picture, I invariably preferred the former. When I did use a camera, I favored cheap, plastic point-and-shoot cameras (not dissimilar to the Instamatic I used as a teenager) that were easy to operate, small enough to carry in a pocket, and no great loss if dropped in a river or left behind at a train station.
While in New Orleans, my father and I had taken turns wielding the point-and-shoot. The jazz clubs frowned on flash photography, so most of our prints depict the few outdoor tourist activities we were able to muster during our brief time in the French Quarter: a Mississippi River steamboat cruise; a St. Joseph’s Day parade on Bourbon Street; a street-artist performance at the intersection of Royal and Toulouse. None of the pictures are very interesting. The images from the steamboat cruise, for instance, are a bland sequence of presumed attractions — St. Louis Cathedral, Chalmette Battlefield, a river barge — set against a bleached blue sky and the silty brown waters of the Mississippi.
Taken together, these prints are less a record of what my father and I did in New Orleans than a testimony to the haste that defined our daytime sightseeing. They are a dull index of sights we didn’t have time to experience in a meaningful way. 7.
Susan Sontag once noted that photographs help people to take possession of a space in which they are insecure. “The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel,” she wrote. “Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture.”
Perhaps because of this, the camera has become a popular symbol of tourist superficiality. The universal cartoon shorthand for “tourist” is a camera dangling from the neck of a middle-aged man (who is typically clad in a floral-print shirt). Noël Coward’s 1961 musical Sail Away
features a song, “Why Do The Wrong People Travel?” which identifies tourists as “those scores of monumental bores” who are identified by “the clicking of Rolleiflexes.”
Host cultures know that taking pictures is a tourist compulsion. When I visited central Australia in 2006, my Anangu guide at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park became visibly agitated when I spent more time writing in my notebook than snapping photos during a one-hour tour of aboriginal sites. Eventually, he confessed that tourists who take lots of photographs tend to give better tips. The local understanding of tourism, he added, had always been tied to the presence of cameras. “It wasn’t long ago that older Anangu people had no concept of what a ‘holiday’ was,” he said. “When they first encountered tourists, they assumed there were people in the world whose job was to travel around in groups and take pictures of everything.” 8.
At times, the absence of a camera can itself be a symbol of tourist insecurity. In his 1980 book Abroad
, the late historian Paul Fussell notes the idiosyncrasies of “anti-tourists” — self-conscious middle-class travelers who have “read and heard just enough to sense that being a tourist is somehow offensive,” and thus avoid telltale indicators of their own tourist status. “A useful trick is ostentatiously not carrying a camera,” Fussell writes. “If asked about this deficiency by a camera-carrying tourist, one scores points by saying, ‘I never carry a camera. If I photograph things I find I don’t really see them.’”
The self-protective argument of the anti-tourist carries a whiff of truth: At a certain level, the act of taking a photograph does impair one’s ability to be in the moment and enjoy a first impression (a complaint that has been echoed by travel purists ever since the availability of inexpensive cameras gave rise to amateur photography in the late 19th century). But the pictures my father and I shot in New Orleans suggest that the act of photographing an unfamiliar place is a kind of mnemonic device aimed squarely at the present. In a way, those mediocre shots of the muddy Mississippi weren’t meant to be viewed later: They were their own, self-contained ritual; they were a futile attempt to slow down time. 9.
One month after I returned home from New Orleans, I upgraded to a digital point-and-shoot camera. No longer beholden to each photographic decision — no longer compelled to pluck the best prints out from envelopes full of mediocrities — I have since found it harder to recall, in retrospect, the raw awkwardness at the heart of each new encounter with the unfamiliar. Greece, 2005 10.
My first significant overseas journey with a digital camera came in October of 2005, when I spent three weeks traveling through the islands of the Aegean Sea. The quality of my travel snapshots in these Greek islands represented a substantial improvement over my earlier film photographs. This wasn’t because my digital point-and-shoot camera lent itself to better aesthetic sensibilities, but because I could take as many snapshots as I wished, viewing and editing the results as I went. Never before had my travel pictures been so seamlessly in tune with my visual expectations of the journey.
At one point, while traveling on a sailboat charter with some friends from California, I disembarked on the volcanic island of Santorini and photographed the cliff-top village of Oia, famous for its sunset vistas. My best picture of the evening — a golden-hour shot of a blue-domed church overlooking the island’s caldera — thrilled me at first, but the more I looked at it, the more it felt artificial. Digging into my daypack, I discovered the problem: Both of my Greek Islands guidebooks (a Rough Guide
and a Lonely Planet
) featured the exact same church, photographed from a similar angle, bathed in the same late-day light.
Reckoning that a confessional gesture might redeem my own predictability, I turned away from the church and photographed the village terrace behind me: It was populated by dozens of digital-camera-clutching tourists, angling for the same shot I’d just taken. This ironic new Oia photograph was, in a sense, a self-portrait. 11.
When, as travelers, we photograph a sight that is famous from having been photographed, we don’t capture an image; we maintain one. “Every photograph reinforces the aura,” Don DeLillo wrote in White Noise
. “The act of photography becomes a kind of spiritual surrender: We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience, in a way, like all tourism. We are taking pictures of taking pictures.”
Or, to paraphrase Jean Baudrillard and Marshall McLuhan: Much of what we look for as tourists is not simply that which can be reproduced, but that which is always already reproduced
: The hyperreal. In this way, the world itself becomes a sort of museum of objects that we have encountered before in some other medium. 12.
People have traveled in the footsteps of images since before photography existed. When young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe first visited Rome in November of 1786, he noted in his journal the excitement of recognizing in real life the sights that he had previously seen only in pictures:
Now I see all my childhood dreams come to life; I see now in reality the first engravings that I remember (my father had hung the prospects of Rome in a corridor); and everything long familiar to me in paintings and drawings, copperplates and woodcuts, in plaster and cork, now stands together before me. Wherever I go I find something in this new world I am acquainted with; it is all as I imagined — and yet new. And the same can be said of my observations, my thoughts. I have had no entirely new thought, have found nothing entirely unfamiliar, but the old thoughts have become so precise, so alive, so coherent that they can pass for new.
Goethe was traveling at a time when a small group of European writers and artists were transforming the very notion of faraway places (as well as of nature) from something intimidating to something idealized. A fanciful conception of England’s Lake District, for instance, didn’t enter the popular imagination until the middle of the 18th century. As travel scholars Carol Crawshaw and John Urry observed, notable travelers prior to the mid-18th century described the region as frightful: “Daniel Defoe considered the landscape as ‘all barren and wild’; it was a wilderness far removed from civilization. The transformation of this bleak, empty wilderness into an arcadia was not essentially a material transformation, but involved a new way of viewing nature — one that ultimately translated into a public taste for scenery. The cult of the picturesque, and the Romantic movement that followed, played a decisive role in the development of a particular style of scenic tourism throughout Europe, one which involved regarding the travel experience in largely visual terms.”
The 1839 invention of the camera reinforced these ocular travel ideals, and (along with the railroad and the steamship) helped redefine the psychological conception of distance. By the end of the 19th century, the rise of amateur photography coincided with a craze for picture postcards (sales were 850 million a year by 1910), which allowed cheap access to an unprecedented selection of foreign vistas. These postcards proved to friends and family that the traveler had visited someplace truly remarkable — and even would-be wanderers found that buying postcards of faraway places could provide a tangible focus for their travel dreams
As the 20th century wore on, postcards became a metaphor for what a given place — what a given travel experience — was supposed to look like. Even in the midst of bad weather and overcrowded destinations, tourists mailed home postcards featuring empty beaches and sunny vistas. 13.
In The Good War
, Studs Terkel’s 1984 oral history of World War II, military nurse Betty “Red” Hutchinson tells the story of a young flyer whose face suffered horrible burns when his plane went down over Leyte. “Next to his bed is a picture of this handsome pilot beside his P-38,” she recounts. “He wants to be sure I see it: ‘Hi, Red, look. This is me.’ He was never gonna leave that bed until he got his face back. He insisted that photo stay at his bedside, so you’ll know that’s the person you’re seeing when you look at him.” 14.
Pictures of scenery were not the only travel images that improved when I traveled to Greece with a digital camera. I also wound up with better pictures of both my travel companions and myself. Each shot of a person was, in a sense, a negotiation: An unspoken code compelled us to delete unflattering photos of each other from our memory-cards and retry a given shot until we all looked handsome and happy and at ease. We weren’t photographing our travel experience as it was, but as how it should have been. Each photo we retained on our memory-cards stood as a correct answer to some Platonic inquiry about what we might ideally look like as we sailed through Greece.
“We learn to see ourselves photographically,” Susan Sontag wrote in the days before digital photography. “To regard oneself as attractive is, precisely, to judge that one would look good in a photograph.” In the digital age, making oneself attractive has become a recursive feedback loop — a simple matter of patience, persistence, and real-time editing.
In one shot from the sailing excursion, three of my female friends look particularly radiant: Tanned and relaxed, smiling unselfconsciously, they’re clearly enjoying their holiday. Their blissful gaze rests not on a Greek vista, not on the sailboat, but on an image of themselves — in Greece, on the sailboat — captured on the display screen of their digital camera. USA, 1994 15.
In January of 1994, after three years of college and one year working as a maintenance landscaper in the Pacific Northwest, I packed a few items of gear and clothing into a Volkswagen Vanagon and spent eight months driving around the United States and Canada. When the journey was over, I collected all my photographs from the experience and organized them into a scrapbook.
My photographic eye had improved in the eight years since I’d shot all those empty-monument pictures on my ninth-grade trip to Washington. I now knew that a given snapshot would be more interesting if it had a human subject, ideally one that was not trapped in the dead center of the frame. My scrapbooks had also become more sophisticated: Instead of laying out the prints into symmetrical rows, I overlapped them into visual themes and cropped them for effect.
I didn’t crop the prints with a computer program (as I do digital photos today), but with a razor blade and a ruler. I agonized over how much of each picture to cut, and where exactly to cut it. When I’d finished my task, I couldn’t bring myself to throw away the cropped portions of the prints. Collecting the different-sized fragments into a Ziploc baggie, I stored them in shoebox, alongside the other disused prints from the journey. 16.
Every photo you take is an editorial decision about a given moment of reality. Each centimeter or pixel that is cropped from that photo is an editorial readjustment of your initial decision. When you use computer software to crop a digital image, you’re simply eliminating information, but when you use a knife to crop a print, you’re severing off a piece of an object.
This severed piece becomes an object of its own. Viewed apart from its source image, it is a strange reminder of the original decision to focus on one portion of reality instead of another. As a self-contained image, the scrap hints at everything that always exists outside the narrative nature of memory.
“Memory implies a certain act of redemption,” wrote John Berger in About Looking
. “What is remembered has been saved from nothingness. What is forgotten has been abandoned. If all events are seen, instantaneously, outside time, by a supernatural eye, the distinction between remembering and forgetting is transformed into an act of judgment, into the rendering of justice, whereby recognition is close to being remembered
, and condemnation is close to being forgotten
. Such a presentiment, extracted from man’s long, painful experience of time, is to be found in varying forms in almost every culture and religion.” 17.
I take the cropped fragments of my 1994 road-trip pictures out from the Ziploc baggie and spread them out on the surface of my desk. Each sliver-image contains basic documentary information: A lighted sign displays a number above a parking lot; a snorkeler hovers in blue-green water; tourists occupy a stretch of public street, wearing plastic beads around their necks. At first glance, there is no emotional power here, none of the inherent longing or desire that might make one’s gaze linger on a more complete and appealing travel image. Hence, there is something unsettling about these half-images — a neutrality that begs for narrative enhancement.
I line up the cropped fragments alongside each other; I concentrate my thoughts. The lighted sign? Must have been Las Vegas. I swore I’d only gamble $5. I won $60. I lost the $60. I withdrew $100 from an ATM. I lost the $100.
The blue-green water? Key West, March. The sting of seawater in my sinuses. My thoughts fixated on a girl I’d met that morning at the youth hostel. I walked her to the beach late that night. It was almost dawn before I mustered the nerve to kiss her.
Mardis Gras, Bourbon Street, of course: I was one of those bead-bedecked tourists. The smell of beer and piss and vomit; the crush of people. The stubborn compulsion to stay on Bourbon Street anyway, because that’s where things were supposed to happen.
I rearrange the fragments. What was I thinking when I cropped them? Why did I cut the sky-blimp out of my picture of the Chicago World Cup parade? Why did I cut Graceland Mansion out of my picture of Graceland? 18.
Removed from the official photographic memory, the fragments demand an exercise of actual memory, an act of reclamation. They are like phantom limbs: You have to dream the body back into being. Thailand, 2001 19.
When Eva’s snapshots arrived at my studio in Ranong, several things surprised me. First, she didn’t include a note. The only item in her mailing envelope was a cardboard photo-lab folder (with Thai script and a picture of Snoopy on the outside) containing the 12 photos in clear plastic sheaths.
Second, the images were printed from black-and-white film, which lent them a different visual texture from the pictures I had taken in my memory. Third, of the 11 snapshots I had taken of Eva brandishing a bubble-wand in the nude, she hadn’t pre-selected which prints I would and wouldn’t see. Unlike the digital travel portraits that I would take years later, no negotiation or idealization favored one shot over the other: She’d mailed me all of them, from the motion-blurred shot that makes her look soft and ethereal, to an off-center shot that freezes her eyes shut, her face faintly puffed with sleep, the skin of her waist gathered into fleshy folds as she bends toward the small bottle of bubbles.
Since I never heard from Eva again, by email or otherwise, her decision not to include a message with the prints lends them — still — a sense of mystery. Why did she go to the trouble of mailing them to me? And why did she invite me to take the pictures in the first place? Was she trying to perpetuate the whimsy and rapture of the moment (which itself was a reenactment of a slightly earlier moment)? Was she trying to honor some small connection between us? Or was it, for her, a final gesture of the freedom and power that defined her as an attractive woman wandering through Thailand?
Eva’s choice to let the pictures speak for themselves underscores the intangible power of images. In writing here of our brief affair, preserving the privacy of our encounter is a simple matter of altering her name and nationality. To show the images, on the other hand, feels more invasive, more revealing, even though I darkened the shadows on her face to conceal her identity, and cropped her nakedness down to a rectangle of nipple and navel and shoulder and chin.
Absent clarification on Eva’s part, these pictures have, over time, come to carry the same resonance as so many other photographs I’ve taken in faraway places: In the middle of some moment that fixes your attention, you point the camera and take a snapshot; the prints come back, but the energy that surrounded the moment never does. In time, those pictures, however they turned out, both inform and inhibit your memory of what happened in that place. 20.
The final thing that surprised me was Eva’s twelfth print, which depicts a concrete building overlooking a swimming pool. In the sharp black-and-white contrasts, the setting looks cold, featureless, and somehow emblematic of a distant past.
When I first saw it, a moment passed before I recognized it as the muggy, tropical location where I was still living. The very spot where I had met Eva one month before. Washington, D.C., 1957 21.
My pictures of Eva now sit in a blue-lidded plastic storage container, alongside hundreds of other tourist snapshots that never quite found a way into albums or picture frames or scrapbooks. The more I become accustomed to archiving my digital photos with a computer, the more curious it feels to sort through this boxy tub full of film negatives and paper images. Some of the prints belong to my father, who has charged me with the task of digitizing them for posterity. Dad never organized his childhood pictures into albums, so I’ve been sorting through his yellowing photo-lab envelopes and haphazard stacks of prints when I have spare time.
Like me, my father took a school trip to Washington, D.C., when he was a teenager. He visited the city by train, as part of the 1957 Wichita North High Senior Class tour. Much like the shots I would take nearly thirty years later, his snapshots feature gray skies, leafless trees, and iconic monuments. As was the case with me, my father does not appear in any of his own photographs.
When I look at back at my own teenage snapshots of Washington, I quickly recognize myself, even though I’m not in the pictures.
The absence of my father in his pictures, however, feels haunting to me. I examine these old photos, hoping for some understanding of how he viewed the world back then, but mostly I just recognize the passage of time. Beijing, 1999; Kansas, 1988 22.
In 1955, a young, Swiss-born photographer named Robert Frank embarked on a one-year road-trip across the United States. Like the Beat poets who were his contemporaries, Frank questioned the dominant mid-century assumption that art was meant to capture truth. Skeptical of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s belief in “the decisive moment,” Frank believed that more telling truths might be found in what he called “the in-between moments.” Avoiding the nation’s iconic tourist attractions, he trained his Leica on the kinds of settings — gas stations, bus stops, factory lines — that he felt were “invisible to others.” In 1959, Grove Press published The Americans
, his book of carefully chosen snapshots from his journey. Jack Kerouac, who himself sought the overlooked textures of American life in his travels, wrote in the book’s introduction: “Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand, has sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film.” 23.
I sort through the photo prints in my blue-lidded storage tub, and I am reminded again and again that most moments are in-between moments. Sometimes, those fragments of our lives that are “invisible to others” are also invisible to ourselves. It’s not until we revisit these odd or awkward or forgettable snapshots that they begin to speak to us in new ways. These castoff images are in fact a minor genre of storytelling, a narrative form that we can’t completely control — an inadvertent counterpoint to the idealization that drives the photographic eye.
As our snapshots have become more exclusively digital, this storytelling genre has begun to disappear. Ways of viewing the world are always coming to an end, of course — Edward Steichen probably mourned the loss of the daguerreotype — but unlike earlier periods of technological innovation, this latest era of progress isn’t replacing old objects with new ones: It’s eliminating objects altogether, replacing the tangible with raw digital information.
Moreover, as we are no longer forced to wait for the images we’ve captured, we can immediately erase what looks wrong to our present-moment sensibilities. The pictures we retain on our memory cards may still document the world around us, but they also document their own pictureness. We are less likely to confront and ponder those moments that don’t immediately flatter our expectations. 24.
I identify two images that feel like a match: Figures 1-2
: Both pictures evoke a skyward symmetry; both are largely devoid of context. The first is a picture of a picture of Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square. The image is so familiar that it is utterly devoid of distinction: It suggests a simple touristic recognition of the iconic on my part — one that belongs as much to pop artist Andy Warhol as it did to Beijing. The second is a picture of my mother’s hand holding what appears to be a daddy longlegs during some Kansas road trip from my teen years. There is an odd elegance to the composition here — the line of the horizon, the texture of the clouds, the placement of the spider — but there is no suggestion as to why this detail has been selected from the landscape. It is as inscrutable as the Mao image is obvious. 25.
“If everything that existed were continually being photographed, every photograph would become meaningless,” wrote John Berger. “A photograph celebrates neither the event itself nor the faculty of sight in itself. A photograph is already a message about the event it records. The urgency of this message is not entirely dependent on the urgency of the event but neither can it be entirely independent from it. At its simplest the message, decoded, means: I have decided that seeing this is worth recording
“The point,” as tourist scholar Dean MacCannell has noted, “is that anything
that is remarked, even little flowers or leaves picked up off the ground and shown a child, even a shoeshine or a gravel pit, anything
is potentially an attraction. It simply awaits one person to take the trouble to point it out to another as something noteworthy, as worth seeing. How else do we know another person except as an ensemble of suggestions hollowed out of the universe of possible suggestions? And how else do we begin to know the world?” Various locations, 1986-2004 26. Figures 23-41
: Here, hopelessly blurry, are acts of motion I once witnessed: an intersection in Saigon where the traffic was bad; a stray cat fleeing my gaze on a street in Peru; a large crowd of people walking through a cloud of dust at a Hindu festival in Varanasi; a civic parade in Oxford, Kansas (the marchers’ legs not quite in unison); a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans (a hand from the crowd obscuring the right half of the frame); military helicopters over the Champs-Elysees on Bastille Day. 27. Figures 97-112
: Each of the images in this set depicts an empty room: a wooden-floored flophouse in Manila; a dim, blue-walled guesthouse in Port Said; a luxury-hotel breakfast nook in Bangkok; a Jerusalem hostel bunkroom that shows the golden Dome of the Rock glimmering beyond the mesh window. These are among the most honest pictures I’ve ever taken — they are exactly what they are, there is no art or artifice involved. They are a conversation with myself: They say, Remember? Once upon a time, you slept here
. 28. Figures 216-233
: Here are pictures of myself, taken by myself at arm’s length; they’re all slightly off-center. Most show the left side of my face set against the background: a pedi-cab ride in Thailand; a Colorado road trip (my spare hand resting on the steering wheel); a cave entrance overlooking the West Bank city of Jericho; the deck of a freighter ship bound from the Suez to Bombay. These shots are not just proof that certain places needed to be made real to myself when I traveled alone; they are a reminder that the photographer himself is never absent from a given snapshot. 29. Figures 547-560
: Each of these photos shows me not quite smiling. In Kontum, Vietnam, I am in the process of removing my eyeglasses. In Paris, by the Seine, my head is cocked, as if I cannot understand what the person aiming the camera just said. In Pensacola, the glare of the midday sun has turned my eyes into slits and my smile into a grimace. The ritual of smiling for photos is thus betrayed for what it most always is: A staged act, meant to reassure your future self (and others) that you were enjoying yourself at the moment the photo was taken. 30. Figures 758-769
: Eleven consecutive exposures depict a room in Thailand. My gaze returns most frequently to a single image, one that emphasizes the sensuous curve of the subject’s lower back, the implied motion of the bubbles in front of her face. Though the other ten pictures collectively hint at the complexity of the moment, this is the idealized image, the one that has fixed in my memory.
Looking at this print, I remember more than the moment itself: I remember a time when I had to wait before the moment came back to me, not simply as an image, but as an object — as something I couldn’t make sense of until I took it out of an envelope and held it in my hands.