August 31, 2005

The Magic Powers of Photo Paper

Filed under: Art and About the Everyday — admin @ 10:11 pm

A recent episode of the Cathy comic strip had Cathy’s mom wondering what to do with all the photos people were emailing her or handing her on disk. She didn’t feel right about throwing them away but didn’t want to keep them, either. I felt her pain. I am equally perplexed about what to do with the unsolicited pictures people give me, digital or otherwise.

I used to think photo paper had a magical property that prevented me from throwing away any image that was handed to me by a friend or relative. From an early age, I remember politely enjoying the photo and then with great guilt, shoving it in a drawer until I could decide what to do with it. When the drawer was full, those photos convinced me they were worthy of being put in a memorabilia box.

Recently, I have been organizing and arranging all my memorabilia into scrapbooks. As I worked back in time to things I have kept from childhood, I was confronted once again by a lifetime of unwanted photos. Some of the pictures are of people whose names I can’t remember. But there is something about that photo paper that causes me to give time and synapses to contemplating whether or not these rejected photos should have a second chance at being glued down for all posterity.

My regard for photo paper was only re-enforced when my son was born 5 years ago, just about the time everybody was getting a digital camera. Since he was our first child, we took thousands of pictures. We posted the best ones on our Web site. Some family members emailed us that they were thrilled with the pictures, but wondered if we had any “real pictures” to send them. I knew that “real pictures” didn’t just mean printouts — they wanted images captured on film and developed onto photo paper.

I understood what they were saying and I complied. I also began to hypothesize that photo paper was powerless until it did a mystical and mysterious dance with 35 mm film. This had to be the reason that printouts of digital images on photo paper were second rate for my relatives. For almost a year, I shot everything digitally and on film. This is the awesome power of photo paper.

I also had a problem framing a digital image printout. I perceived the frame to have a certain worth, and the printout didn’t live up to that value. However, I had no issue framing mass-produced movie and theater posters and covering my living room walls with them. It occurred to me that maybe the photo paper wasn’t enchanting me, but rather the image was. It is said that when photography was first introduced to some cultures, they had an adverse reaction to it because they believed the image was stealing a part of the soul of the person in the picture. Maybe there is something to that belief, but instead of photos “stealing” the soul, they are actually capturing a bit of the soul.

By mentally replaying my relationship with photo paper, I realized that I never had qualms about throwing away a personality-free picture of a mountain or a cathedral. It was the faces in the photo that had a hold of me, not the paper. Even faces of people I don’t remember have value. It’s as if the human face is the art, and I feel it should be mounted on a medium worthy of priceless treasures. In my worldview, that means plain old ink and regular paper aren’t special enough.

As time and technology advances, I have come to accept that the image is the important thing, not the paper it is printed on. This means that without too much therapy, I can now frame a digital printout. I still have a tough time throwing away unwanted pictures or deleting an email with a photo attachment. I am the queen of purging in other areas of my life, but those photos have a spell on me that I still can’t break.

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