For the past sixteen years and three months, I’ve taken at least one photograph every day. It started as a new year’s resolution, and for about a decade, it existed on film. Then I dropped my film camera, a digital camera was procured, and now my resolution splits its time between my Canon and my iPhone. When I started, photographs were physical objects – to see them, you had to have them developed, usually handed back by the batch in unmailable envelopes. Now, photography is everywhere but photographs –physical photographs – are harder to find.
I don’t think I ever made a philosophical decision not to post my photographs. I just . . . don’t post that many of them. For special occasions, sure. When someone asks me to, absolutely. But by and large, I’ve decided to keep them physical. This used to involve me going to a guy in a hole-in-the-wall photo shop across the street from my office – I know this lasted at least a couple of years after 9/11, because in the spot under the counter glass where most photo guys showed family portraits or vacation sunsets, my guy had photos of the Twin Towers on fire – images I still remember, because I dreaded seeing them every time I went to drop off film. Then he went out of business, and the next three places I went to also went out of business, within six months of each other. I resorted to my local CVS, until the guy behind the counter started asking me chatty questions about the subjects of my photos (“Is that your girlfriend?” “Was London nice in April?”) Finally, I resorted to Snapfish, in a marriage of convenience I still regret, but remain within.
Why does it matter so much to me to have a physical manifestation of an image? Why can’t I be happy seeing it on a screen?
Part of the reason is what I like to call The Envelope Effect, harkening back to my days of film, heading to that photo guy across the street. I think it would be hard for my nieces or nephew to comprehend that once upon a time, you took a photo and then had to wait days – or weeks, or months (if you were lazy) – to discover what you had, in fact, managed to take a photograph of. Every roll of film became the smallest of time capsules – pieces of memory sealed away until they were unearthed at a later date. I loved opening that envelope of photos in the same way I love opening an envelope that contains a letter – even if I knew what the subject of the photos was going to be (birthday party, trip to Amsterdam, afternoon in Central Park), I never knew what the actual images were going to be until they were in front of me. There would be disappointments, for sure – that incandescent moment decandesced, that epic vista rendered microscopic when reduced to a 4×6 rectangle. But the happy surprises normally outweighed the disappointments. The friend captured mid-laugh. The light of a quiet morning, quietly kept. The record of the events, seen at a short remove, would become my definitive record.
This becomes a second reason I like to hold my photographs in my hand – The Journal Effect. Even though I’m behind – very behind – in doing so, I put my photographs from each day into albums, and those albums have become the closest thing to an autobiography that I will ever write. They take up a lot of space, and tend to gather a sheen of dust across their covers. But there is a power in being able to pull a few months of my life off the shelf every now and then, to see what was happening when, because in my memory, chronology dissolves into a fond but challenging miasma. The photographs help me put things in order.
There is also this: When I look back on my life – and what is the act of going through old photographs, if not looking back on your life? – I don’t want it to feel like scrolling on a screen. I want it to feel – physically feel – like the turning of pages.
I also like sending photos in the mail. Either folding them into flights of fancy, sent with words on their backs to a reader I know will enjoy them, or using photos of a shared past to build a bridge to a shared present and future. I used to stress out if I didn’t send friends the photos I took of them in a prompt way, but now I realize that the small time capsules can be used to keep in touch – in touch with the moment they represent, and in touch with the two of us and the time we share. It means more to me to know the other person will hold it in his or her hand. There is more attachment if it’s not sent as an attachment.
At the end of my resolution’s first year, 2001, I wrote about it in an essay I sent to friends. I revisit those words here:
61 rolls of film. About 1586 photographs
I’ve had New Year’s resolutions that were more ambitious, but they were too vague to be put into use. Get in better shape. Be a better person. Live more. This resolution was different. It was quantifiable. Take at least one picture a day for the whole year. As easy as that.
Many of you know what this ended up meaning, at least logistically. Carrying my camera everywhere. Stopping in the middle of the street to capture a cloud trail, a street sign, an ununusual reflection. Asking my friends to pose without posing. Not trying to steal a whole soul, but only a part of it – the part readily given away in a glance, an expression, a lean into the candlelight. My 35mm memory box. My calendar of moments.
Yes, it meant lugging the camera around. It meant worrying at the end of the evening where the day’s photo would come from. It meant (I’m sure) trying other people’s patience.
But it meant so much more than that.
Quite honestly, this has been one of the best things I’ve ever done. I started off with the resolution in order to teach myself how to use my camera. I ended up teaching myself the meaning of a year.
Another of my rituals is to write myself a letter at the end of each year, to be opened on New Year’s Eve the following year. I always thought this was a good way to mark the passage of time – I could compare where I had been to where I now was, and sketch in the year from the differences – all the people I hadn’t known a year ago, all the things I hadn’t yet done. But I see now that this is an incomplete rendering. You cannot get the during by subtracting the before from the after. When I would write the letter at the end of the year, I would always have to force certain recollections – I could remember monumental events, but the more momentary wonders resisted the timeline. I was forgetting.
And now I am amazed. Because now I see what a year is. The photographs do not, of course, contain everything. There are so many things missing (thoughts, words, moments where I wanted my eyes to be the only lens). But I am still astonished by how many things are there. How many people I’ve seen. How many places I’ve been. All of my best friends, all but a few of my dear friends, every single member of my somewhat extended family. California and Prague and Glasgow and Miami and Tuscany and Jacob’s Pillow and Washington DC. In a year. To see them alongside one another, to pass through the days as I turn the black pages of the scrapbooks, is to start to understand the gift and the openness of time.
But this is not about special occasions, visits, or travels. I have always had photos of those, unmoored from their calendrical context, caught for posterity in a number of poses and views. These were not the year, although they were certainly part of it. Just as important to me are the days that should have blended together, but didn’t. The days that should have been the white walls on which to hang the pictures, but instead became the pictures themselves. This is another thing I have learned: There are no ordinary days. Because even on the days that were supposed to be like any other, the days that could have been Monday or Thursday or Wednesday and no one would have cared – it is on some of those days that I would walk to work and see a sight that made me euphoric. Or I would be talking to a friend and would find the light making her as intriguing as I’d ever seen. I went into each day without expectation, and was rewarded hundreds of times with something unexpected. And I can see them all now, and I can see they add up to a year. A phantom sun cloaked in clouds and Central Park branches. My beloved friend Jen glancing into a mirror as her wedding veil is secured. A red lightbulb from a bluegrass punk dive. A pattern of leaves on the sidewalk. Details from museums – a dandy tipping his hat with a cane, a floating madonna, a museumgoer tilting her head to puzzle an abstraction. My niece Paige laughing at a pinwheel blur. Thanksgiving dinner. A burst of light between clouds on the Hudson that renders everything else in the picture a rich black and white. Friends across lunch tables, barstools, theater seats. A curtain about to rise. A year.
On September 8th, I took photos of Italy. The 9th, the remains of a birthday party, a variety of bottles on a counter in a conversational arrangement. The 10th, a reflection in my bathroom mirror. The 11th, the World Trade Center exploding as the second plane hits. Two pages in a scrapbook. Four frames on a roll of twenty-four. Isn’t this something we’ve all learned this year about time? Our peace of mind, our sense of self and history, depends on reconciling the juxtapositions. All this can fit in a year . . . or four days. Then we move on to the fifth day, the next year. A single day cannot be a year, no matter what it feels like.
The way I see things has changed. I can turn my attentions into an act of finding images, seeing beauty in the angles of a building or the letters in a word. We use so very little of our senses. We rarely dare to approach our capacity. I never really noticed the light in my apartment, how it cut through the blinds in the kitchen to make the magnets on my refrigerator look like actors in a noir film. I never saw the quirks of every subway station, the turnstiles leading to nowhere, the worn down letters, the graffiti that might be gone next week (Britney Spears speech bubble: “Sorry guys, but I’m gay!”) I never saw all the typefaces and side-by-side images of our city, the beauty of the borders. And even things I’d seen before – sunset over the Philharmonic on a summer park night, the glory of Lincoln Center, the grace and gravity of gravestones – I’d never tried to hold them for longer than a long look. I never tried to keep a record.
At the beginning of the year I told myself not to take pictures of the things I saw every day – surely, there would come a time later in the year when I’d be desperate for images and would rely on the usual things to sustain my resolution. Then the Towers fell, and I was saddened to find that I hadn’t taken a single photo of them in the skyline, not in my seven years of living and commuting across the river. I have them in the background of a single photo taken on the ferry. But that’s it, and it’s not enough. So my thoughts changed, my rules were dispelled. I find myself taking pictures of the buildings and objects that I love, or have grown accustomed to. Because buildings change. Cities and towns change. For whatever reason. The pink-lit pre-dawn skyline of Manhattan. The Picasso sculpture I pass on my way to work as well as the silver water tower on the top of an NYU building that always lifts my spirits when I see it stark against a blue morning sky. One midnight I was walking along Sixth Avenue and saw a number of out-of-towners pointing their cameras to the sky. I dismissed them at first as camera-happy tourists. But then I looked and saw that a full moon was directly over the shoulder of the Empire State Building. My camera was soon up to my eye – and even if the photo didn’t come out with the image I saw (the exposure was too long, my hand moved and the moon is a blur), I still have that memory attached to the single frame of film. It is not going anywhere.
Everybody asks if I will continue the resolution. And the answer right now is yes. When the day comes when there doesn’t seem to be a single thing to photograph, when I get home at the end of the night and am not in the mood to take another picture of something in my apartment, I will not take a picture that day. And the next day I’ll look again. For now, I cannot resist the giddy anticipation of going to the drugstore to pick up the prints, to see what twenty-four moments I’ve captured (or not), which ones I have committed to memory by committing to film.
I want to continue to see the during, which contains (in retrospect) so many befores and afters. I want to continue to see the year.
And in the meantime, I will try to figure out another resolution for this coming year. It’s hard for me to imagine one that will suit the year so well.
Reading this, more than fifteen years later, I’m struck by how, like a photograph, the image doesn’t change, but my interpretation of the image – the way I see it – has shifted a little. Of course, the day never came that I decided there was nothing left to photograph. There have been meaningless photos taken at the end of tedious days, but I’ve never wanted to stop.
I’ve also never found another resolution to stick to so closely. But this one is, in many ways, enough.
I still love the way it forces me to look at the world immediately around me.
One of the things I love about photography is that it is a creative endeavor at which I will always be an amateur. When I sit down to write, I am always aware of the fact that I am supposed to be a wordsmith, and therefore am expected to know what I’m doing when I put words, sentences, and paragraphs together. But behind the camera, I am still working on impulse and whim, not any technical knowledge or particular skill. I made my initial resolution to take a photo a day in order to learn how to use my camera. Sixteen years and three months later, I still don’t know how to work my camera. At all. I know that aperture is a thing . . . but couldn’t really tell you which button controls it, or what the numbers mean. It would be very easy for me to learn – I have no doubt there are many classes and conversations and books that would make me a better photographer. But being a better photographer has never been the point. Let writing be the thing I get better and better at; I want to leave photography to its own devices, and see what happens naturally.
I started writing novels at about the same time I started taking a photo a day, and a recurring thought I had as my novel-writing career developed was whether I could combine the two in some way. I love visual-hybrid novels, and since I will never, ever be able to draw like Brian Selznick, the most obvious form of illustration was photography. I had a few friends that I had photographed enough to have constructed a narrative around them. It seemed like an obvious thing to do.
The problem was: When I saw my own photographs, I could not separate them from what they already were. A picture of my best friend Nick in a graveyard in Paris could very easily have been the picture of another young man in another graveyard, searching for the key to a mystery, or mourning a lost love. But . . . when I saw the photo, it was always going to be Nick in Paris. The only way I can write fiction is to believe, in the moment of writing it, that it’s real. Trying to shift the narrative of an image I already knew by heart felt false.
It took a while for me to figure out a way around this. Then one day I was over at my friend Jonathan Farmer’s apartment, and I spotted a photograph – a physical photograph – affixed by a magnet on his refrigerator. It showed a boy I’d never seen before, haunted and searching. I couldn’t really tell where he was. I couldn’t figure out what he was wearing. But I couldn’t stop looking at him.
Which made me realize: the way around my dilemma was to use someone else’s photographs, not my own. If I didn’t know the story behind them, I could make up whatever story I wanted.
Farmer (I’m not being formal; I just call him by his last name) was game. He gave me photographs, one at a time, whenever I asked for one. I wrote a novel involving these photographs. He had no idea what I was writing; I had no idea what photograph he would give me next. The result was Every You, Every Me. The photo that was on his refrigerator is its cover image.
Every You, Every Me is many things – the story of a pretty messed-up mind, a mystery in both an actual and an existential sense, and an examination of the things we bring and the things we take from a friendship . . . and how confused the bringing and the taking can become. It also, in many ways, is a testament to the power of the physical; within the novel, the main character, Evan, is both haunted and taunted by photographs being left for him by an unknown person. It is the actual presence of the photos that unhinges him – and also forces him to confront the things he is trying hardest not to confront.
The book would not work if Evan were simply being emailed the photos; it would not work if hitting a delete button were an option. Photographs are easy enough to destroy – all it takes is a few rips, or the kiss of a lighter – but they also bear a certain permanence when held and seen. They can be a testament of what we’ve seen, but they can also be a revelation of how others have seen us. The relationship between the photographer, the subject, and the viewer can be an uneasy one, and can also be a redemptive one. It all depends on what you see. I wrote a novel about this reconciliation of interpretations — and it remains the black sheep of my novels. Not that many people have read it, but the ones who connect with it tend to connect with it strongly, in the same way you connect with a photograph which shows you yourself, whether you are the subject or not.
When my Uncle Bobby died, he left behind a lot of photographs. Some were in albums and some were in frames, but most of them were loose, in boxes and folders and, occasionally, caught between the pages of novels. As I cleaned out his apartment, many of them found their way into a box the size of a modest table top. It took me months to return to the box, to attempt to sort through what was there.
It is impossible to go through the photographs of a loved one who’s died without wanting that loved one sitting on the couch beside you, narrating the stories behind the photographs, answering your questions about who’s who and where’s where. You approach that person’s photographs at the same angle at which you approached their life; in this case, I knew most if not all of the people in the family photos, a few of the friends and lovers in the photos of vacations and birthday parties and everyday life, and very little of anything else. Bobby was the constant, and because the photos weren’t in any order, he was seventeen and then forty, sixty and then graduating college. Bobby traveled often, and through the photographs I got to travel with him – it was just that, more often than not, I had no idea where I was.
I was sad and I was frustrated, because somehow I wanted the photographs to act like puzzle pieces, so when I put enough of them together, I would have a rough re-creation of a life. With every face I didn’t recognize, every destination I didn’t know, I felt the loss of that information, and the loss of the natural person to ask. But I was happy, too, because even if they didn’t nearly add up to fill the space of a life, the photographs provided abundant evidence of a life. I could see glimpses of the stories he never told me. I could see the satisfaction of all the better days. I could get a sense of the scope of his very wide world, and I was grateful for it.
I try to maintain a balance.
Zoom in. I want to focus on the finer details, the beautiful intricacies within the broader simplicities. I want to continue the autobiography by finding the things that attract me or amuse me, because ultimately that will be what my photographs will show; the scrapbooks will hold an account of what I liked to see, not simply what I saw.
Zoom out. But I also have to remember to take my eye from the lens. If I start to feel like what I am seeing exists to be photographed, then I put my camera away. I do not want to prioritize documentation over experience. Though I certainly feel the temptation.
Why do I keep doing it? Why do I keep having the images printed? Why do I feel the need to collect them?
There are probably dozens of reasons. But they all lead to a basic truth:
I like to hold my memories in my hand.