Wednesday, December 26, 2007


1982. A perfect couple, framed by the gold glow of the photographer’s light. There is a blush of uncertainty on her cheeks, and in his eyes, a forced assurance.

She is worrying about her hair, her favorite feature, about her smile, should she show her teeth? She never does. She dwells on last night’s fight, the shattered light bulbs on the driveway, and the fat baby girl in the carriage who makes her feel like a third wheel. Everybody is so excited about the baby, but what about her?

He enjoys having his picture taken, there is nothing like a flattering picture to remind a man of his strengths. He has one of his father, framed in dark, substantial wood, the old man at his desk in a tailored suit, relaxed and self-satisfied. The son has no desk to hang his father’s picture over. He keeps it wrapped in a shirt at the bottom of his knapsack, one of his few unpawnable properties.

That’s the kind of portrait the son wants. To look back someday and see the promise of success in the confident set of his shoulders, in his thick hair, and the smile that has brought him so many rewards over the years. But the truth is in his eyes. He knows a man can’t shy away from the camera, he must convince it. In twenty years, when he looks back at this photograph, the eyes will give him away.

The strip mall photographer is full of energy, joking as he adjusts the lights. He compliments her choice of dress, snaps a picture, “just a test” he says, catching them off guard. This is his business, and he is a long-term thinker. He has watched families over the years. He notices, makes a business of noticing, the tell tale signs, a gesture of disappointment when the father arrives late, the story of whether a family will be back for next year’s holiday shots, and he calculates those details into his yearly projections.

With this couple, he sees eighteen years of family photos. Guileless gaped-tooth smiles, cheeks sharpening in the teens, portraits for the mantel. The parents enjoy the attention. They’ll be back again and again, if he does his job right.

The photographer is ready, he's adjusted his meters and devices. This is the moment he loves, their silence as he sees them through the lens. The apprehension visible in a slight tension in the muscles of the face. After thousands of shots, he can anticipate the instant the question appears in his clients’ eyes. "Is this really me?" He waits for the uncertainty to pass before he shoots. This isn’t that kind of picture. What they want is something to remember, not who they were, but what they wanted to be.

The photo they took that day sat in my grandmother’s kitchen until she died. Our family portrait. I don’t know what’s happened to it since. I remember the day it was taken, the false memory of a photograph. It is a moment I have imagined over the years – my parents rushing into the studio late, the anxiety before the flash, before the orangey-gold glow captured them in a moment of possibility.

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