The Ur-​Photograph

I’m not quite sure if my ur-​photograph really exists, or if it’s a story I’ve created to define my own history. I think we do this quite a bit, as differing views of childhood experience — pit against mothers, fathers, friends — are a theme in my life. Bad memory. I’ll forget your face, I’ll forget your name, unless I keep seeing you, or if I have a crush. Maybe I shouldn’t tell people that last part.

But one thing that has stuck with me is this photograph. I remember seeing it in my elementary school’s art room, walls of pale beige with the janky, reject desks pushed into 2×4 islands, onto which we’d drop clay or draw with charcoal or, on the best of days, discover something new. I must have been somewhere between the ages of 5 and 10, but I’m really not sure. The memory used to be of seeing it in a book, held high by a woman’s hand. (My mother, then a stay at home mom, often volunteered and invaded my classes. It very well may have been her Hungarian-​mediterranean hand, augmented by summer sun.) Sometimes I remember seeing it on a computer screen in the “playroom” sunken half into the ground of my childhood home, but that memory always feels more constructed, less real.

It’s black and white. It’s bleak. A post war landscape — in the memory it feels like someone must be talking about WWII and the photography of it, maybe the first photography lecture I ever attended. I remember hills with a white road and black trees, stripped of all foliage. But the centerpiece (rather, slightly off center, to the right) is a stone church. An old church. A large circular stained glass window near the apex of the roof that no longer exists. I usually describe it as a bombed-​out landscape, scarred and devoid of the signs of life. Renewal doesn’t even look possible.

It’s stuck with me. It’s stuck with me because it enabled the realization that beautiful art could be of ugly, horrible things. (As a teenager I would obsess over James Nachtwey, rewatching War Photographer as soon as my drive to be a war photographer faded. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more inspirational film, something that moved me to action and set the pace of my life so completely.) I was enamoured. It had never occurred to me before that ugly things could be anything but ugly, even in their representation. I remember, as excitable as I’ve ever been, peppering the lecturer (mom ?) with questions, though I don’t remember what those questions were. Just the visceral, emotional experience of not only engaging with a photograph on every level I then could (emotional, aesthetic), but figuring it out. Finding something new. Realizing with what depth photography could exist.

And that was it : I was hooked. I started carrying around an old Sony Mavica camera — the big square ones that used video camera CCDs and floppy disks to record 3 or 4 images at a staggering 640×320. For a long time I only had access to a few floppy disks, so on my photo walks around the block I’d carefully pick and choose which ones to delete to make room for the new photograph I’d found, out in the suburban landscape I inhabited. Maybe I took pictures of my dogs, but I strangely don’t remember taking pictures of people, though I must have. Eventually someone, probably my mother but also maybe my brother or grandmother, bought me a giant stack of rainbow-​colored floppy disks. As now, my favorite color was orange, so I burned through those first before moving on to the rest. I wonder where they are. I think I threw them out as an angst-​ridden teenager moving out of my childhood home, reflexively attempting to destroy the token reminders of my childhood, wishing to leave them only in my ineffective memory.