I don’t like living in the past. It is too painful. For someone who has made a living with pictures most of my life, I confess looking back at old family photos is bittersweet. As much as I cherish the photograph and its ability to capture and trigger memories, looking back through old photos—whether personal or professional—a heavy cloud of melancholy seizes me.
In old photos, my children are small, happy and trusting. Irrationally, I want them to stay that way forever. I get misty each time I sort through those images. My intellectual heart overflows with gratitude, but my emotional heart pleads to stop time.
Lately, as I approach my 70th year in June, I have been consumed with organizing my archives so those who follow me do not have to sort through boxes of unlabeled negatives, prints, CDs, DVDs and an assortment of hard drives.
This has proven to be a more daunting and tougher task than I imagined, even during winter and a pandemic, which encourage us to spend more time at home.
For me, photography has always been the joyful, often playful pursuit of trying to capture beauty and life moments that express what I am seeing, experiencing, feeling. Once I see the image captured on film, a print or even a digital screen, I am ready to move on. The past is gone. I was never born to be a clerk.
I know of photographers—driven and consumed with being on the streets and making pictures—who have little interest in even developing the film to see what they captured. Some died with hundreds of unprocessed rolls of film, and were content to have it that way. I am not so pure in approach. I like to see what I have shot. Depending on my mood, I enjoy looking back through old photos and, yes, even reliving past moments.
That admitted, I much prefer the challenge of the hunt than sitting in a dark room years later shuffling through yesteryear.
Nonetheless, my archival heart leaped with joy when I found tucked away between 50-year-old negatives a small black-and-white photograph of me and my siblings, likely made by my mother with her Brownie Hawkeye in the early 1960s.
Had I found $1,000, I could not have been happier. I am scanning these images, creating a larger digital file to share with family members.
A Letter to Readers
For 14 years, I have written this column. Even though it is about photography, I have shared personal insights and emotions far beyond picture-taking fundamentals.
I sincerely thank you for your many letters and emails of support through the years. As cliché as it sounds, I feel like we are family. I see you in my heart. When I write, I try to imagine you reading or attempting the tips and techniques.
Because we are family and so many of you have shared personal stories, I ask that you indulge me to share a piece of my past.
Fifty-two years ago, on a Saturday morning, January 25, 1969, I watched helplessly as my young mother, Jeanetta, only 39, was swept away in muddy floodwaters.
My life and those of my father, brothers, sisters and friends who spent that night with us were changed forever.
I share this so that you might know how much I have needed and truly appreciate you.
I need to share—to tell others what I see and feel. Photography became a lifesaving voice—a way to tell the world, and myself, what I was experiencing, feeling and suffering.
My heart aches for you who have lost family members, especially loved ones you were unable to touch or hold during this pandemic.
I don’t understand your grief, but I share in the helplessness of not being able to say goodbye.
Even after 52 years, I still miss my mother.
But I have tried since that terrible day to honor her by living empathetically and trying to see those in pain and in need of comfort.
Her life was not easy, raising five children with scarcely enough to survive. Through it all, she was my matrix and comforted me like no other.
Whatever kindness and empathy I possess is, in part, because of her loving and sacrificial example.
First, let your camera be your guide on today’s adventure. Try visually living in and capturing “The Moment.” Second, look through old photos you have stashed away and give them new life by copying and sharing them with others.