“Be In The Now”

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.

 

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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.

8 thoughts on ““Be In The Now”

  1. StephenJ

    ‘Tis true… If we happen to be beating our head against a brick wall at the moment, are we not condemned to that activity for life?

    I would swear that my cat knows far more about the past, present and future than you would give him credit for Tim, we just don’t speak lingua feline.

    In 1979-80 I worked in Amstelveen, and lived on the Singel in a fully restored merchant house that had been divided into flats, we lived on the ground floor but had the run of the whole building… sort of caretakers, until slowly the different apartments were let. I was just looking at Google maps street view, and a memory came back… Every night, I would arrive home from work in my Daf 55, and I would drive the wrong way down Oude Leliestraat, because it was convenient… I remember doing this with my aunt and uncle when they came to visit, my uncle who was a policeman, was aghast that I so flagrantly ignored the municipal instruction.

    Ah memories.

    I think that we have already reminisced about my walks along Herenstraat and chatting to the “ladies for hire” (kamer te huur) on our way to play pinball at the Cafe Heren.

    I suppose that as we get older, we tend to look less at the future, and more to the past… Not so much because we are less able to think clearly, but more because we are just a little bit afraid. I say this as someone who has had several major pieces of surgery and gone through the process of dying more than once, yet still I find myself looking back, more than forward, even though there is no reason why I would not have thirty years left, barring the unknown????

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  2. Rob Campbell

    Nice piece of writing, Tim – as ever.

    Past. It was pretty good, from as far back as I want to remember, which is a variable, but really from when I was seventeen and met my mate. The difficult bit is indeed the present because, as for Keith, those ghosts won’t let go, and I don’t want them to. It’s the curse of this photographer’s family to suffer the fate of the children of the cobbler, and if not shoeless, be pretty much imageless. I never felt I had the time; the family was always going to be there and so why create more darkroom hassle for myself? Photography was for clients.

    My most prized possession today is a pic torn from my late wife’s International Driving Licence, a snap made in a hurry as we were getting organized to move away to a new life in Spain. It lives tucked into the corner of the frame of another shot of the two kids, made just because they were there as I was about to unload an unfinished roll from a shoot. In the opposite corner of the frame, a tiny Box Brownie shot somebody made of me when I was about eight. The pictures live on the bedside table on my wife’s side; every night I turn that frame around and it’s the last thing I see as the light goes out. A paper family.

    The future? It looks a mess; it may be short, it may be too long. Age changes everything.

    Rob

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  3. Andrew Molitor

    You know, Sally Mann says that photographs destroy memory, replace memory. We don’t remember the people at all, we recall photographs of them. That which is not photographed is remembered in vivid, full-sensorium detail, albeit subject to erosion and alteration with the vagaries of time.

    A photograph fixes a person, or a thing, more permanently, but instantly reduces them to the purely visual, and that only in the limited way that a photo does.

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  4. Keith Laban

    “A photograph fixes a person, or a thing, more permanently, but instantly reduces them to the purely visual, and that only in the limited way that a photo does.”

    My father died in 1970. To this day when I see a photograph of my him I smell the tobacco smoke and graphite in his studio, smell and taste the food he brought home for our dinner, feel the texture of his beautiful jackets. I miss him terribly, to the point of rarely having the courage to view those photos, but give thanks for them.

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    1. Rob Campbell

      As I give thanks for people with the honesty and courage to show their emotional selves like that.

      I think about my wife most of every day, and it’s been ten years already since she died; rather than forget, the emotions and memories are heightened at every glance at her photograph.

      Rob

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