Like many children who grew up before the advent of digital photography, I inherited numerous, neatly labeled shoeboxes full of what pop culture used to call “Kodak Moments”—real, tangible photographs, snapshots of my family processed and printed on photographic paper via the local Fotomat. These artifacts, talismans of light and time captured by kodachrome and chemically fixed on paper, represent an archive of my life. Now 47, I’ve taken to going back to these snapshots to search for proof of my existence, to relive old stories, and to hold, if only metaphorically, a moment in time when I was younger, and full of wonder at the newness of the world.
As a child, I would watch my grandmother spend her afternoons similarly searching for her own histories in piles of black and white photos from her childhood in Germany and her early adult years in Brewerytown, Philadelphia. Showered by sunlight filtered through a high window and the leaves of a tall maple, she would sit, half-on, half-off her bed, photos spread out like an extra-blanket, reading, sorting, and resorting the photographs until she ran out of the stories to retell herself.
Tracing an arc from my grandmother, through my childhood and now to my own family, I have grown into and out of so many shoebox archives that I’ve lost count. Their size and number shifted with deaths and births until one day we stopped keeping them.
That day coincided with my purchase of a digital camera.
I’ve since replaced the shoeboxes with virtual folders full of more pictures than I can count in a day. Instead of spreading our photos out on a bed and moving them physically from one configuration to the next, we project them onto a large HD TV and praise the quality of the colors, the sharpness of the pixels.
And for all the convenience of the form, all the ease of printing and digital burning and dodging, for all that, I’m still drawn to the warmth and limitations of the physical snapshots over the flawless manipulations of digital photography. Life is not perfect, at least not as perfect as it appears in digital photographs where the press of a button increases the “saturation” or the simple shift of a slider can alter the contrast or add more “warmth.” Rather, I believe life is full of fuzzily-focused thoughts, dimly lit understandings, awkward smiles, clumsy postures and poorly framed ideas. It is these errors and mistakes we laugh at and learn from which populate so many of our shoebox snapshots.
While I understand that all photos are mere pieces of larger stories and that most public photos from the pre-digital age underwent manipulations of their own, I believe the photos of the small cameras of our yesteryears, like the Brownie of my grandmother’s age or my own “Kodak Hawkeye 110” with its slim build and clunky flashbulbs, are a truer representation of who we were. I believe in the photo-chemical marvel that was the old-school photograph and the errant, erratic beauty of lives captured in Kodak Moments.