Column: Pictures of My Exhibition: A Life Captured on Phone | Opinion | #facebookdating | #tinder | #pof

Picture this: 3,845 photos, all those digital 0s and 1s that make up a picture as they exist on my phone. And yet, I suspect that total is on the low end of any average teenager, who snaps and shares with abandon.

The digital age single-handedly destroyed — yet redefined — photography as we know it. The true shutterbugs among us cringe at the thought of our phones being our camera lens on the world. For them, Kodachrome is so much more than a Paul Simon oldie.

Photography — a technological leap of its own in the late 1800s — was meant to capture our world, record our life history, from the momentous to the mundane. Elite prizes every year honor the world’s best pictures. For the rest of us, there’s social media.

Never did I think I’d have 3,845 photos on my phone. And that’s not all of them. Others exist on Facebook and in Google archives. Others are burned onto CDs — now seemingly as clunky as an old Polaroid. And hundreds of other print photographs are stuffed in a cardboard moving box, buried deep in the back of some closet I don’t even remember.

Nothing is in albums. Nothing is ordered into neat collections of events or people. The best word you can use to describe my system is “jumbled.” Apple pretends to impose order by dating everything. Yeah, that’s pointless. How many times have you been laughing with your kids about something they did that was so funny you took pictures, but no one remembers WHEN.

The first picture on my phone is of my mother’s birthday Nov. 4, 2013. My children and I stand at the eat-in kitchen table with my parents, a simple round homemade chocolate cake in the center. The most recent photo is of a half-empty shelf at Harris Teeter to prove to my son the store did not have his favorite sugary fruit snack.

I can’t tell you the last time I spent any meaningful time looking at the entire catalog.

For a while, I shared a digital “photo stream” with my daughter, where our iPhone images were uploaded to the same cloud. I quickly separated us when she filled up the Internet with selfies and random photos of everything from cute boys to carpet patterns and they had to invent a new number for digital storage. “Yottabyte,” anyone?

Unlike Dad, from whom I inherited my writing talent, I am not an inveterate picture taker. As a child of film, pictures were reserved for special moments you wanted to remember and save. Film wasn’t cheap, even in the age when you could just run a few canisters to the local drug store or Photomat. So if the moment called for a camera, it’d better be worth spending a few bucks.

Many memories of my dad involve him and cameras. Some of our favorite family photos are those where the camera’s shutter timer misfired and catches dad’s backside as he’s trying to dash back into the photo. Many were the Christmas Eve where we drove him crazy with our giddiness as he’d try to capture his regular holiday “portraits.” Stifled laughs made for a lot of squinty-eyed grins.

Birthdays and holidays were prime photo ops for Dad, but so too were Fourth of July picnics, crab feasts with friends, church socials and even the occasional back-to-school snap, where we stand on the front stoop modeling our fresh dad-given hair cuts and sporting green slacks, white shirts and Mt. Calvary vinyl bookbags.

It was all film for Dad for most of his life, or color slides. Everything was organized, numbered and logged. A favored memory of mine are the times the whole family would sit in the downstairs rec room with a bowl of Jiffy Pop and have Dad run through his slides of “life.” We’d start with Mom and Dad dating and run through the most recent slide rack.

In the last years of his life, his mission was to convert all those pictures and slides to — you guessed it — digital images. After a lifetime of faith in film, Dad fell for the deliverance of digital. The lack of closet space in later years can do that.

I can’t help but feel like all these digital pictures are faithless to the very nature of photography. There is nothing permanent about a picture on my phone, even if it’s “in the cloud.” Permanence lasts until I simply click “delete from all devices.” And then that moment is gone forever, like it never happened, a little death gone unknown and unmourned.

They say phones as cameras are liberating, giving us greater freedom to snap away and then edit later. I don’t care for this philosophy of ephemerality. When suddenly everything is important and worthy of a picture, then nothing really stands out in life.

On June 8, 2019, I took 106 pictures of Loreleigh’s graduation from Pinecrest High School. There are images of her with all of us, her with her class, her walking across the stage, hugging teachers. And a blurry image of my knee.

Well, at least I didn’t have to pay to have that printed for all posterity. Picture my pleasure.


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