I’ve only seen two photographs of my parents before they had my sister and me. One is a typical wedding photo. They’re walking down the aisle at Saint Joseph’s as a newly married couple, my mom in a short-sleeved gown she made herself and my dad in a light grey tuxedo. Their arms are linked and they’re looking out into the pews of people.
The second is a photo from before they were married. They’re camping somewhere in Maine, sitting on a rock with their arms around each other — the same way you’d wrap your arm around your best friend. There’s a curving tree line behind them. My mom’s wearing a wool sweater she still has, her hair is down and frizzy. Even with the soft black-and-white grain, you can tell she’s still a natural, light blonde. (Her hair turned brown when she was pregnant with me.) My dad has a mustache. It looks odd to me; I’ve only known him with a full beard. He’s smiling, his eyes curled up into half-moons. He looks a lot like I do when I smile.
This photo remains taped to our fridge at home, fragile, almost translucent in its old age. Taken more than 30 years ago, it’s one of the only remaining artifacts of my parents’ life before kids.
Whenever any of us comes back from traveling, my family insists that we show our photographs in a kind of grandiose slideshow on our television. We’re all required to ooh and ahh as Caribbean mountains fade into exotic flowers, odd fruits, and turquoise waters we’ll never get to wade through ourselves.
When I was still in college, I went on a backpacking trip through the Dominican Republic. I returned in late spring around my birthday. After dinner with my parents, we retired to the living room, where I clicked through my photos of kid goats and tied up horses, sunsets over sugarcane fields, and all the fire-charred fish I ate whole.
Out of maybe 100 photos, there was just one of me. I was standing on the side of the road in Las Galeras with my borrowed 60-liter backpack, hoping to get a ride with someone going west. A guy I’d met at the hostel had quickly snapped the photo. I was squinting into the sun, my hair loosely French-braided and my face almost completely sunburned. I don’t have that photo anymore. I didn’t like how red my face looked so I quickly deleted it years ago, not even stopping to think that it was the only real evidence of me in the Dominican Republic as a 20-year-old.
But then I started to see where she was coming from. All these everyday moments were slipping by us.
When my slideshow finished, my dad made a comment.
“Your mother and I never took enough photos of ourselves. We have albums of flowers and mountains and you guys as kids, but we don’t have any of us when we were young,” he said. “It was one of our biggest mistakes.”
His comment stuck with me. It reminded me of an argument I was used to seeing between my parents. Sometimes at Christmas, or at one of our birthday dinners, or even just during some random family activity, my mom would get upset if my dad didn’t think to take her picture with us.
I always ignored it as some kind of strange marriage quarrel. My dad isn’t a natural photographer. He can’t be expected to anticipate the perfect candid or suggest the most-flattering angle for your fantastically well-lit portrait. It honestly seemed a little vain. As much as we all secretly want a professional photographer to follow us around, silently capturing our wispy hair and flowing skirts as the sun sets behind them, we’re not the Kardashians. It’s just not feasible.
But then I started to see where she was coming from. All these everyday moments were slipping by us. Her own daughters were even starting to morph into grown women, steamrolling toward middle age. If she didn’t speak up for her cause, we’d be left with no documentation that we ever existed as young girls, our appearances ever-changing with our constantly shifting opinions of the world. There’d be no evidence that we were ever together at this particular stage in time — that when you line all three of us up together, our noses all look the same. Even on a redhead, brunette, and now not-so-natural blonde, our features all have the same smallness. We’re a family.
It wasn’t that the wisdom of age was something to dread, it was just that aging was a forthcoming moment, one that could never be thoroughly understood or enjoyed without evidence of what came before it. My mom knows that.
Portraits allow us to speak with our past selves, thank them for their youthful dreams.
Throughout our extended family, my mom is known for being a stubborn, determined photographer. She brings her tripod to every get-together and takes her time making it exactly level. She’s forced us all into the backyard in winter, made us stand there for 20 minutes in the snow until she was sure everyone looked as they should in the photo. Every single time we argue, roll our eyes. And every single time she stands her ground.
“You’re all going to be very thankful I did this,” she claims.
And we always are. Because of my mother, I can go back through more than two decades of myself. There I am as a scowling 13-year-old in a push-up bra, as a fully roll-on-glittered 17-year-old, as a 19-year-old, just back from my first trip abroad without my parents.
I can remember so many times when I’ve sat, carefully posed in what I thought to be excellent light, and silently, telepathically pleaded with whoever I was with to take my picture, or suggest one of us together. There are so many times I’ve counted on someone else to see what I saw, to say, “Let’s take one.”
But now, like my mother, I’ve started to speak up. I’m done being embarrassed, worried that I might seem vain. I’m done being so swept up by the landscape that it seems too exhausting to suggest a photo of me or someone else in it.
Just like my parents, we all have albums and albums of landscapes. And as we flip through the pages, don’t they all start to look the same? The mountains, skylines, glimmering waters all take on a similar, predictable monotony. Even though we were once there, awed by their beauty, they are distant from us now. As soon as we put a frame around something, it disappears. There’s nothing of our self there.
My grandmother is a watercolor artist. She told me once that she’ll never do a portrait. A person’s face has too much expression, their emotion distracts away from the beauty of the land. I don’t think that’s so negative.
When I look into my own photographed eyes, I can almost remember exactly what I was thinking at that moment. We all know ourselves so well that we can decode the lines on our faces, the slight crinkles, side glances, turned-up lips. Portraits allow us to speak with our past selves, thank them for their youthful dreams.
Sometimes we see ourselves in old photos — arms around the person we love, hair frizzy, clothes dirty — and we think about what we didn’t yet know. We laugh at our naivety. Envy it. Other times, we marvel at an old friend — a past soul we’ve forgotten — the traveler caught up in a vast landscape, while slowly moving on to another moment of life.