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Made You Look

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I've slacked off picture-taking.

Since Narcissus first detected his reflection in the pond, people have been image-conscious. Recording events nowadays has become almost an obsession. But a camera obstructs reality -- and, in fact, may alter it.

If I have a camera, then I'm not present. I'm preserving, not participating — the record trumps the experience. Did you get the pictures back? And what did they say? Did they remind you that you missed the event? You were behind the camera, hoping that nobody moves, that no one's eyes close, that someone 100 years hence will notice.

A photography pandemic gathered momentum after George Eastman invented his box camera and the technology to make prints. The surge hasn't crested yet. It builds with ever more extraordinary technology as well as myriad display venues.

E-mailed links to Snapfish or YouTube reach far and wide. Everyone has unlimited access to way more than their 15 minutes.

But still.

While photographs promise permanence, ponder this: How much do they shape and manipulate us, like digital alterations? While the camera formerly did not lie, now it is impossible to know revelation from deception, and in fact, maybe we don't even recognize when we're ourselves and when we mug for a camera, an audience of sorts.

The side effects of the over-photographed show up early. Consider my first-grader when he developed his school-picture smile. His teeth looked glued together in what could be described as gritting. Was this a smile? Hmm.

Few family photographs from my childhood clog my dresser, unlike those of my own children, whose raft of moving, still and cyber photographs may eventually construct and reconstruct (and deconstruct) the stories of their lives. You can't go to a school play without flashes obliterating the quiet dark of the auditorium. You can't attend a music recital without the white noise of the camcorder.

And how about this photo faux pas: the time my husband stood on a folding chair to film our precious flutist. Yes, the chair buckled, and took him and the camera down with it. Entertaining, if mortifying.

So, there's the intrusion factor.

But there's something else. If you don't photograph something, how will you know it existed? Memory is malleable and fuzzy, our survival programmed by what we remember and forget. Biology rescues us, cauterizes internal and external wounds, so we can move on. In other words, forgetting is important.

What was life like B.C., before camera, before the enterprising Eastman brought everyday images into everyday lives?

The few photographs I own of my parents, grandparents and their parents are sober portraits, records, a visual report — once-in-a-lifetime proof positive that they existed. Dressed in Sunday clothes, posed formally.

Now, we use the lens to capture everything and I mean everything. Somebody can take a video, flip you up on YouTube and in moments the world knows how goofy you are even if they'll never know who you are.

But still.

A subtle and sensitive photographer can open Narcissus and move beyond mere reflected reality. That's art. Those images can be a gift, not an obnoxious burden.

I recently unearthed an overlooked, unprinted negative from my wedding — a picture of hands on laps — mine and my mother's. Hers, gnarled and arthritic, still and folded; mine, nail-bitten, clutching a spray of something. That moment had passed unnoticed until I found the negative. It made me look.

But it's not an image I could have discerned on Picture Day.

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