What’s So Great About Bad Pictures?

Last summer, my sisters and I spent a long afternoon in our parents’ basement. Our goal was, as my mother put it, to “help her clean out her family photo collection.” She’d told us that she had “some bins” and “lots of photos.” She didn’t tell us exactly how many bins (there were dozens) or how many photos (there were many thousands). She did, however, promise us wine and lunch, so we were more than happy to oblige.

As one might expect, our efforts took hours. They were mostly happy hours. Some of them were quite silly. (“Look at that hair!” “What was I thinking wearing that outfit?!” “Who is this person holding me as a baby, and why do they look like such a polyester nightmare?”) Some of them were wistful. (“How long since she died?” “Do you think we can get this picture to him even though they’re divorced?”)

In addition to food and drink and silliness, my mother had also promised us the chance to fill a whole box with whatever photos we wanted to keep for ourselves. I filled my box to the brim, mostly with old pictures of my parents, grandparents, and even a few of my great-grandparents. I kept a few fun photos of my sisters and me when we were little.

None of these photos were professionally taken. All of them were imperfect in some way. But they were all beautiful to me.

One of my favorites was a square-shaped snapshot of my father and grandfather. The image is blurry, the color is off, and neither man’s face is fully visible. I don’t think that they were doing anything remarkable besides walking together. It is a wholly imperfect photo: one that a 21st century photographer would likely delete from whatever memory device they are using. And yet I identify with the complete ordinariness of the picture. In all of its imperfection, it captures a moment and evokes a feeling that I wanted to preserve: these two men, two of the most important men in my life, being ordinary and imperfect and human.

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I have an emotional connection to the photo: not an artistic one. And with family photos, that’s an important difference.

Nonetheless, not all my mom’s pictures struck me that way. Not even most of them. And as my sisters and I sorted a few photos into our boxes and tossed hundreds of repeats and plain old terrible pictures into trash bags, we asked my mom why she’d kept so many pictures in the first place.

“These are my memories of you guys,” she said. “I’ll never get those moments back again. And then some of these people aren’t alive anymore, and this is all that I have of them. It’s hard to part with them.”

I didn’t know if by “them” she meant the pictures or the people. I suspect she meant a little of both.

Though my mom’s point was beautiful in its own right, my sisters and I still felt pretty smug about the fact that we didn’t have so many pictures spilling out of storage bins in our own basements.

“This is ridiculous,” we said to one another. “We’ll never have this many photos in our house.”

Of course, our smugness wasn’t all that justified. We do have that many photos. In fact, we might have that many photos from last year alone. But instead of taking up space in our basement, they’re taking up space in the overflowing digital corners of our lives.

Without being confined to 24 shots on a camera roll or the interminable wait of the picture development kiosk at the grocery story, the modern person can get immediate photographic gratification with the mere press of a button. And with our phones glued to our bodies, we can do that all day long. We can Instagram them. Post them on Facebook. Save them to a digital storage site. Upload them to our computers or external hard drives.

Our “bins” do indeed overfloweth.

When I returned to my own home later that weekend, I asked a few friends how many family photos they in their collections.

“Probably hundreds.”

“2,183. And that’s just on my phone. I’m not even counting the cloud or my computer or my external hard drive or even the hundreds of prints I have stashed away in the scrapbooking drawer that I’ll probably never use anyway.”

“Oh God, so many of my children, I can’t count.”

“30,000. Give or take.”

This overabundance of photos is a common experience for modern parents and non-parents alike.  For parents in particular, this overabundance involves loads of pictures of our children

With the exception of some trained or professional photographers, few of us parents have a mass collection of fine art prints. We have blurry, off-color, poorly-composed pictures of our kids walking, playing, eating, sliding, smiling, crying, and just, you know, standing. We have 12 different shots of the same pose from the first day of school. We have one professionally-taken photo for every hundred-or-so phone-snapped photos.

We love our kids. And we really love taking photos of our kids. It’s a love that resides somewhere between narcissism and nostalgia, excessiveness and happiness.

When I reflect on just how much narcissism and nostalgia I’ve amassed over the years, it’s enough to make me want to delete all the bad pictures—to trim the fat, so to speak—and keep only the best photos with the best light and the best composition and the best expressions on all my family’s faces. It’s time to get rid of all those hundreds of bad photos taking up space in all my digital “bins.”

But when I try to get into deleting mode, I stumble. I hesitate.

Like my mother before me, I find that it’s hard to part with my pictures and with my past. In some ways, it’s even harder to part with the imperfect, mundane pictures of my past. Especially the pictures of my children.

It’s the emotional connection I feel to those ordinary moments of imperfection. It’s the look of my kids’ squishy cheeks and pouty lips. The intent expressions on their faces when they’re fighting an army of zombies with a Buzz Lightyear figure. The blur of an arm trying to hit the tormenting brother. The hand-me-down pajamas with the too-long pants legs. The child who cried in his Halloween gnome costume. The crooked smiles and the peanut butter that I forgot to wipe off their cheeks.

Much like that blurry, imperfect photograph of my father and my grandfather, I imagine that the pictures I’ll treasure the most one day will be the ones that capture the ordinary moments of my parenting life, in all of its blurry imperfection.

So do I need 15 messy, imperfect shots of my children having a pillow fight in the living room? No, probably not: I can hit delete a few times on that one. But will it hurt to keep just one, along with the hundreds—or thousands—of other ordinary, “bad” pictures?

It won’t hurt. In fact, those unremarkable, uneventful moments are probably the ones that I’ll cherish most some day when my kids are grown and sorting through my photos (or files), wondering aloud why their mom hoarded so many bad pictures over the years.

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