The Photographs Not Taken
One of the very few photos of me as a young child features a red turtle neck and nearly-as-red curly hair, sprouting out in mop-like, beautifully un-manicured locks forming a cloud that envelops my cherubic face.
Every kid from the Seventies has this photo.
The clothes and hair and face may be slightly different but they bond together as an entire collection of fading one-offs. Small images, spread out at a pace of maybe one every couple of years. Together they act as our own clippy, three-second time-lapse of childhood. As our own memories fade with age, these relics only gain in importance. A natural history museum-esque snapshot of life as a Seventies kid. There’s a photo of me before this standing alone at my preschool, then before that of my mother pregnant with me. Me learning to walk? Video of my first words? Every outfit I ever wore? No document.
By contrast, of course, my children have more photos of themselves from childhood than they could look at in one sitting. A result of my over-compensation and a resulting fascination with fleeting youth. I started down this path long before social media made it ubiquitous and unnecessary. Partially, also, for being a photographer.
But it’s not just my kids, it’s my parents, too. Sure, today we are in a renaissance of professional camera equipment, but the heyday of consumer cameras for the masses happened with the Land Camera in 1948, when my parents were right about the age of my son in those pictures above. Suddenly, you could take and develop a picture anywhere —and they did. It was enormously popular and resulted in a great representation of family life in the 50’s and 60’s, where the family photo album was born. There are more photos of my own parents as children than of me. There was just this ten year gap.
So, what happened in the Seventies? A psychological movement toward the self turned a large portion of adults inward — very inward. Some historians saw it — like Christopher Lasch, who coined the phrase “culture of narcissism.” And it was observed by the likes of author Tom Wolfe who, with Lasch, dubbed these explorers of the self, “The Me Generation.” You can find this all on Wikipedia, but of course you cannot find the photos that weren’t taken. And that will be a problem, historically.
“I have like no photos of me as a child.”
Remember this phrase — one day, as my generation dies out, it will never be uttered again, and our lack of documented childhood will be lumped in with generations from far earlier. The odd blip of photo-less children will be lost to time and unraveled from the cultural cataclysm to which it was inherently tied.
What was childhood like? I’ve written about it here. Others have also written books or made movies. Some of us have just let it go — smartly — knowing that nostalgia is hardly a healthy practice. What, after all, would there be to do with these photos, if we had them? This is the real question.
What, if anything, is the value of documented youth? But maybe more importantly, for us, what is the value, if anything, of an undocumented youth?
The value of photos of my youth used to seem obvious, but today, as images stream in by the trillions across SnapChat, Instagram and Facebook of every little thing of every little person, I’m not sure I feel the same way about it today as my longing, nostalgic heart used to a few years ago.
For many years, mostly in my twenties, I felt nobody could know me if they didn’t fully grasp what it was like for me as a child. I truly believed this; it was terrifyingly lonely-making and I desperately tried to explain how it felt — to be me. Listen to these songs, do you get it?! Without photos of me to show, I needed to paint the picture in other ways. I believe a lot of authors and movie-makers of my generation did the same with their own art. But then, one day, I let that go. It was a single line that made me think differently about all of it:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou
When I first heard this quote, it was both heart-breaking to me and an epiphany. But not just for me. I believe Maya Angelou either captured or maybe even started a cultural revolution away from legacy. As a generation grows up with a near-perfect recallable set of images of every single day of their childhood (and life events), there leaves little doubt on the document of their existence. It seems a new generation has evolved that is less focused on what they said, or did, but how they are making other people feel. If Logic is singing about it, its probably a thing.
I’m choosing to embrace this more modern approach to the meaning of less photographs. I’ve started to think that maybe the lack of them from my childhood is a kind-of gift. And this from a photographer. I’ve come to believe that, just maybe, my lack of physical evidence of my own childhood has made me particularly attuned to how my childhood made me feel. That while others retain only the big bang moments — trauma, fights, heartbreak, victories — relegating everything else to look-up-able stills and videos, my mind and body is nothing if not a living well of emotional textures, nuances and tones that I can tap into at will. Photographs, after all, are not emotions, but triggers for them. I have simply learned to recall them without the stimulus — and that might even make me more in touch with them; more capable of evoking, explaining and seeing them in others. Or, in other words, I may not remember how I looked or who my friends were or what my school or family car looked like — but I will never forget how I felt.
Josh S. Rose is a photographer living in Los Angeles.