I deleted my Facebook account more than three years ago. This was long before the news of today with nefarious manipulation of user data. I always had a feeling that everyone, even the uninvited, could access my “likes” and comments no matter how high I set my privacy bar. There were a few other simpler occurrences that bothered me about being on Facebook. I remember when the elderly mother of a friend of mine passed away. He posted a lovely photo and commentary about her, and then his Facebook feed was filled with “Sorry for your loss” and “I’m here for you!” comments, none of which my cynical self really believed. I sent him a personal note, bypassing the cold, dispassionate, and easy way out that many others opted for in the middle of their perusing, "liking," or sharing photos. But the ultimate in strangeness was when a newly-married couple I knew only in passing, who were my Facebook “friends,” shared hundreds of honeymoon photos online, from departure to return. Pictures of packing their luggage, showing beach clothing I didn’t need to see, and too many selfies to count, on beaches, the hotel balcony, drinking their fruity cocktails, and kissing. I’m not sure what was weirder: those publicly-shared photos of what should be one of the most private life events, or the hundreds of commenters piling onto their Facebook feed, saying inane things like, “I love you guys!” and “Two beauties right there!”
I went down the same rabbit hole. Joan and I would go on great vacations, and I found myself for years taking on a single trip upwards of a thousand photos of scenery, sunsets and ourselves, not for our own sit-down reminiscent enjoyment, but because I wanted lots of photos to choose from so that I could share online the best, most carefully-crafted ones with people I barely knew, or didn’t know at all, to experience some sense, even unwittingly, of keeping up with all of my other overly happy “friends” and even to surpass their over-the-top joy in this foolish contest of happiness and humour. Post something funny or pretty, and check back several times every hour to see how many “likes” I received, then go to bed satisfied in my achievement of fleeting popularity. Or sad that not as many people “liked” me as I thought.
I’m just past middle age. I grew up looking and laughing with my family, at out-of-focus, over-exposed, candid family photos, shared only among ourselves and with whatever friends happened to drop over and asked to see our holiday pictures. We'd never criticize or throw anything out just because the colour balance wasn't perfect or someone's eyes were closed. We looked past, perhaps didn't even see, a photo's imperfections and saw only the people and recalled the event for what it was: real life. Once viewed, they’d be put away, hauled out only occasionally, and chuckled at again, each successive time coloured ever more by additional accompanying anecdotes pulled from increasingly distant memory. Sitting together on a sofa, flipping pages of photos, or Dad dragging out the clunky, heavy projector screen and taking over half an hour to set up the slide carousel, some of which would end up upside-down, but most showing me, my sisters, my parents and grandparents posing just casually if at all. Candids of us walking in a park, throwing a ball, screaming on a PEI beach when a freezing cold wave would take our breath away, Dad that summer he decided to grow a beard, Mom standing around their pre-kids apartment, partying with six or eight friends. Single shots, thus unrehearsed, making for beautiful and imperfect images, and perfect memories.
About six months ago, I brought more than 37 years of Dad’s slide photos from my basement to the living room, bought a small device that would transfer the slide image to my computer, and digitally saved more than two thousand memories spanning about 1955 to 1992, after which slides were replaced with print photos and soon after digital photos. I don’t know much about photography, but it was obvious that the colour balance of the older slides was deteriorating. A lot of them were badly cast all over with yellow, orange or pink hues so that trees, water, skies, faces, and clothes were becoming the same colour. I guess over time the chemicals on a negative can fade or bleed, taking the image and memory with it.
So in my spare time, I’ve started fooling around with digitizing the photos to see if I can restore some of their original colours. It’s become my favourite hobby since I started taking piano lessons as a kid. I spend hours at a time on just a few slides and am constantly shocked, amused, and delighted with the results. Take a look at the one below. It was mid-1950s, my parents were teenagers, sitting in Mom’s parents’ backyard. Taking away some of the scratches and dullness and enhancing the colour, I was able to bring into sharper focus the full leaves, yellow-dried grass on a hot day accentuated by Dad’s rolled-up sleeves, and Mom’s polka-dot sleeveless dress. They’re seated a few feet away from the swing set my grandfather, likely the photographer, built for Mom many years earlier. In the top right, you can see a hub of Dad’s 1951 Chevy. The most descriptive feature, however, is tucked away in the backdrop: my grandmother (Mom’s mother) leaning on the rail, in a bright red dress partially covered with a waist apron. I suspect she’s unaware that she’s even in the shot. In the original faded image, you could barely make her out. Her perhaps accidental presence contributes to the dignity, classiness, joy and carefree atmosphere of two non-wealthy families about to come together in marriage, and reminds me of what a magnificent cook she was, and that the house was likely as hot as a furnace, and filled with steam and fantastic cooking smells. This wasn't one of a dozen attempts at a perfect photo. It was the only one. And this is why it's so perfect and evocative, and why I've studied it so closely. If ever there was a snapshot of a thick, rich slice of life that I can practically smell, taste and touch, this is it.
In Dad's slide collection, there are about two thousand photos in thirty-seven years, on average about 50 or so annually. When we were kids, we used to take some pretty lengthy road trips, driving through the Maritimes, sometimes as far as Quebec City, staying in all sorts of cabins and motels along the way, boiling up in gravel pits, on the road for maybe a couple of weeks or more. On an entire vacation, there might be just a dozen photos, a single roll of film: a few of the kids, a few of my parents, maybe a few scenic shots, each image special enough for Mom or Dad to whip out the camera in that moment. All candid, imperfect and real, with the effects over time of sharpened attention to detail and heightened intrinsic value due to their rarity.
In the twenty-five years Joan and I have been married, we’ve taken more than twenty-five thousand photos. It was getting ridiculous. My computer started slowing down recently because it was nearly at full capacity with these photos we never look at. Rather than spend more money to expand my storage capacity, I started deleting the six photos of marginally different angles of the same building, nine of the ten photos of every selfie we tried to get just right, choosing by and large to keep a photo that was less than perfect, where we’re both cracking up laughing because we just can’t get it exactly right. We're making photo books for our coffee table to share with each other, and with our small circle of family and real friends, if they want. It's the old fundamental quantity-versus-quality formula. Refreshingly removed from the subjective likes and follows of image-driven social media. my computer space is freeing up, and so is our time to look at photos again of our realistically-framed selves.