Me, NYC, December 2003. Photo by Jorge Alvarez
Above is a scan of a photo of me in NYC in 2003. During that year’s Christmas holidays I swapped my Paris flat for a similar walk-up apartment on W. 23rd St in Manhattan. A friend from Paris flew to NYC with me. We spent a week exploring the city, film Leicas in hand during the day, at night doing the normal things two guys temporarily unleashed on the town tend to do. If I remember correctly, it snowed like crazy for a day, and we spent that day walking lower Manhattan, reduced as it was to a small town, city sounds muffled by the snow, the usual pedestrian bustle gone, no cars or taxis running the streets. A magical NYC afternoon. I hadn’t thought much of it again till today, a day dedicated to cleaning up my workspace in anticipation of a new printer (I’ve just ordered a Canon Pro 100 PIXMA printer, having tossed an almost new Epson R3000 because of print head clogs. I will NEVER buy another Epson printer…”fool me once” and all). In so doing I found a box of old photos and decided to scan some of them, the one above included. It brings back a lot of really good memories – a great friend, NYC, a time in my life that meant something important to me.
I’m lucky never to have lost my childhood wonder of photography. It’s easy to forget how few people, historically speaking, have lived in an era where one had the ability to capture a moment in time via a photograph. Photography was only invented less than two centuries ago, and it’s only been with the introduction of the Kodak and the Leica 100 years ago where the technology advanced to the point that photography could be enjoyed by regular people. Yet, as a culture we seem completely oblivious to it all, as if it’s just a normal feature of everyday life. It’s not, and we as photographers, of all people, should never forget it.
My mother recently gave me an old photo of my Great Grandmother that had hung on my Aunt’s wall for years. My Aunt died and my mother inherited the picture which she was kind enough to give to me, knowing how much my Great Grandmother meant to me as a child. She lived with us until her death in 1970 at the age of 99, so she was more like a grandmother to me, very kind, a sweet old Dutch woman who used to give me coffee flavored sweets against the wishes of my mom. She also taught me how to tie my shoes. The photo was taken in 1896 in Amsterdam, at CJL Vermeulen’s studio on Heerenstraat 6 to be exact (all of this is written on a card glued to the back of the photo). She would have been 25 at the time. Obviously, I didn’t know her then, but I can still see in the photo the features of the woman I knew. That’s amazing, that a simple photograph has allowed me to see her as she was long before I was even born, gives me even now a window into a reality long past.
A few days after returning home from visiting my mom I had lunch with my ex-wife, a woman with whom I had lived in Amsterdam in 1996. She had no idea about the photo just given me by my mom. She gave me a photograph, of me, in Amsterdam, the one to the right. I remember exactly where she took it; I was standing on Beursstraat, a few hundred meters as the crow flies from where my Great Grandmother stood for her picture a hundred years before. Tell me that’s not cool. There’s a certain kismet about that coincidence, the universe playing a little joke on me, or maybe just a reminder that time can be a slippery thing, the present a stage for the past, the past a harbinger of the future.
Me and my Grandfather, 1979
I admire Zen Buddhism, its simple austerity, emphasis on personal tranquility and its historical encouragement of education and art. Much like the Quakers (of whom I’m an erstwhile member), Zen Buddhism offers religious experience without dogma or institutional control. However, I don’t agree with their complete focus on living in the moment, the “now” at the expense of the past (or future). Everything is not “about the now.” It’s cute as a sound-bite, a pleasing soporific reminding us not to miss the moment. But it’s wrong if it minimizes or denies the profound role that past experience plays in shaping who we are at present. We are the products of our experience, our beings the sum total of the “then.” Consciousness of our past and awareness of the future is what makes us human. Cats and cattle can “live in the moment,” must live in the moment, because they’re not capable of the abstract thinking required to place oneself outside of the present. The fact that we can is what separates us from them, it’s what makes us human. Without the past we’re unmoored, lost, without the future we’re incoherent. Living completely “in the now” is the tragedy of the Alzheimer sufferer, a spiritual and emotional life reduced to the level of brute animality. Beauty lies in the moment, yes, but the moment is evanescent, always slipping beyond our grasp. In the blink of an eye it’s a memory, and there’s no more potent means of keeping alive, reliving and refocusing the power of that moment than to memorialize it with a photo.
I’m not advocating living in the past. First and foremost, it’s important to live for the future. You need a point on the horizon to move toward. That’s what makes us human. You should always have something to wait for, plans not yet realized, goals not yet reached. At the same time you should be immersed in the past, reliving it, sharing it, learning from it. This is how you keep the past alive. My Great Grandmother and my Grandfather, both now long gone, aren’t truly gone until their memory dies. A photo can preserve that memory. That photo above keeps my Grandfather alive in a very real sense. I can picture him there, sitting at his table, remembering all his particulars. That’s truly remarkable, that I could do that after 40 years, and it’s a function of having that photo which brings it all back to me. That’s my history right there, that’s where I come from, who I am. I get to share it with you.
One more reason to take photos.