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Photographic memory at maximum capacity

“Say Cheese!” may be getting too much of a workout

Spring always evokes a bit of nostalgia for me. Be it the time of year for prom dresses, or the ever-intimidating mortarboards, the timeframe between March and May reinvigorates a sharp nostalgic twinge from within. This season seems to me a more powerful transitory period than New Years, especially considering how just about none of my self-promised ‘new beginnings’ of January 1 ever take root.

Arguably the most potent tool for recollecting memories of springtimes past are the photographs that once captured them in real time. A closet shelf in my home contains photos of my brother and I as rambunctious little children during our finer moments of family vacations, Christmases, school programs and birthdays. The documentation of my childhood from birth to kindergarten lives within about five albums, each holding around 300 pictures.

Nowadays, each of us carries a camera at the ready 24/7 — thank you very much, little iPhone. The party pout, a fly getup, selfies, random sunsets, tonight’s dinner — you name it, we college kids will likely capture it. The indefinite capacity for capturing commemorative images is arguably a beautiful thing. No more missed moments because film rolls max out at 30 photos, or because it is simply impractical to carry around the camera. We have the ability to document a literal life story, one day at a time.

My only concern is that the sheer abundance of photographs may have devalued them. There are only about 300 pictures — which is in fact quite a lot all things considered — available to remember how my family spent 1998. In proportion to today’s standards, 300 is about enough for one month. Everything becomes immortalized in our pocket cameras — every party, every event, even the faintly entertaining Instagram filtered photo of every restaurant plate. At what point will our college years be so commemorated with photographs that we lose the ability to flesh out a story behind each one?

Even though I do not remember each childhood moment that has a photo to accompany it, some family member somewhere can rehash the story for me. In looking through my own personal photos that have accumulated on Facebook, I quickly flip through, occasionally pausing on one for a split second to shrug, “Ah yeah, what a fun time.” But maybe only one in 10 evokes that sentimental tightening of my heart, or ignites that chuckle eruption. 2012’s mountain of photos holds just as much emotion packed in as 1999’s small, tidy stack, but each individual photograph of the latter collection packs a lot more emotional punch.

Perhaps I feel more sensitive to the older photos because they represent days much farther gone by. Years have passed and I am now able to feel nostalgic in a way that I cannot yet with last year’s photos. But I miss how each one was precious because it captured a worthwhile memory. My mother’s college albums are thin, yet each dulled photo reports a happy memory in a happy place, not a last minute fraternity bathroom run-in. A decade ago, film was expensive, developing pictures was an extended process and cameras were clunky yet fragile. Each of these qualities is extinct by today’s technology.

Sitting and reminiscing with family albums is a special sacrifice of time and energy, while Facebook photo flipping is part of the daily routine. For me, it is even a half-minded and half-hearted activity most of the time. In looking through the old paper albums I flip the pages gingerly, removing a sleek photo now and then, careful to balance it by the corners so as not to smudge my fingerprints along the glossy finish. I treat each image with care and sentimentality. When it comes to Facebook or digital album pictures I click, click, click in a mindless fashion. I cherish their physical presence less, just as I cherish their memoir value less.

My digital photos will not age: their colors will not mute or fade and their corners will not crinkle. But in their vast numbers it becomes harder to flip through and feel the constant surge of power of their memories. A picture is supposed to be worth a thousand words, but so many of mine these days are worth about a sentence or two.


Published April 24, 2013 in Life

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