The Lost One

[Full disclosure: My mother has a wonderful collection of pre- and post- Victorian photography from our family. She knows the heritage of each gilt, padded-framed edge. She has explained them to me too many times for me to protest innocence, but I can’t claim true remembrance or more than passing polite loving interest. When she is gone, I’ll wish the family knowledge was written down.  Except, it is. Thoroughly. Mom is a published author and has a legitimate following in the genealogical community. She is a zealous genealogist who  glories in researching and proving the history of our family. She wrote and published Freezing Daniel, among other contributions. I can’t claim to have inherited her passion, but I am learning to respect it. Slowly. Ask her – she knows how slowly.]

I just watched a YouTube collection of the ‘horrifying’ images that people had collected from ‘Victorian’  times of their dead relatives, and how creepy they were to have photographed dead people. I was initially shocked, but…
Then, I remembered how photography evolved. How an early photograph was a treasure that took money, and time, and stillness to arrange. How much organization and coordination setting up a photograph required. One single image might be the only memory a family had to immortalize their loved ones. That image came at great cost. They spent everything they could afford on one photographer who could capture the scene. They set up one moment, a time when the lost one was still a part of the family. A precious child. A loved elder. They set the scene where that lost one belonged, and prayed that the photographer would capture it. At times, a mother hid behind a curtain to hold up her dead child’s head, so the babe could watch her living siblings, or merely seem awake for one more scene. Sometimes, she hid to help hold a living child in place for the similar reasons.

It took only  a few moments of stillness to capture that image: a few moments, set so very precisely and held so very, very still for the count. One, one thousand, two one thousand, three… The count went on. One photographer sparked the photo, but then the paper was handled delicately, developed and finished, a print of the family with their loved-one long gone. After long weeks and postage paid, the family received the package; saw their photo and grieved anew over their lost one. But, they had the treasure of a photograph. They put that precious image away in the new, state of the art photograph album, to be protected for generations.

But, no matter how gracefully he set the pose and cued the family to stillness, the photographer could not cure the blur of life. Only the lost one came into focus.

When we look at that stillness now, it seems horrifying. Pictures of dead people? They were precious reminders, then.

What does that tell us about now, when the camera is (in high definition) in our hands: every moment recorded in such sharp relief – your niece who does her first cartwheel and then runs to her mom, or that kid who nearly killed himself on a skateboard, doing some stupid flip in the alley. What is precious, versus what is sensational. With such pixelated definition and clarity, will we find the value of life in life’s moment’s sharp relief, or will the lost ones only really appear in the blur?

Are you recording the right things?

I don’t know that I am. I’m just asking.

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