Friday, April 20, 2012

Lessons from Measuring Life in Photographs

In an interview last August, Beth Nicholls asked me: "How differently do you see the world through the lens of a camera?" I responded:
In The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton discusses the process of drawing while traveling. He remarks that drawing enables the traveler to see: to squint, to scrutinize, to look in a way that transcends the fleeting glimpse. Photography plays a similarly enabling role in my own life, even though it is more instantaneous than the process of drawing. I look through the viewfinder searching for beauty… or for surprise, incongruence, contradiction, conflict. The camera reminds me to look — to really look.
I embarked on a project to photograph life every day in 2012 as an attempt to do exactly that: to look closer, to squint, to be surprised. To find wonder. Inspired by T.S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock,who "measured out his life with coffee spoons", Measuring Life in Photographs was born. 

I was hoping that the practice of taking a photograph every day would make me a better photographer. Or that it would infuse some mindful presence into every day, no matter how unremarkable or bleak it may have looked outside the camera lens. And while this has been true, these have not been the most surprising lessons of the project so far.

Measuring Life in Photographs has made me acutely aware of the passage of time. One photograph per day, at a total of 365+1 for 2012. By January 11, 2012, I had already taken 366 photographs, but flooding the universe with images was not my idea of curation. So I cropped and frowned at angles that were not quite sharp enough and squirmed at not-quite-there composition and selected one photo per day because, if there needs to be a point, this would be part of it: to sieve through the flood, to choose how to remember.

Initially, I captioned each photo with the day to which it corresponded. Day 25: fizzling Coca Cola on a flight. Day 49: "Whatever you do, I will love you". Day 68. And then an insightful commenter asked: "Why the numbered days?" and I decided that measuring life in photographs did not require a sequential naming of time. So on this day, do-not-ask-me-which-number-it-was, I stopped counting.

In another sense, though, the acute awareness does not fade. Because of this project, I now know things like "today is the 111th day of the year." I start thinking of the year in sections and portions, and measuring my life against them. I look back on the photographs and think: Is this what I wanted the year to look like? Are these the hues I expected?

I find a lot of hearts when I look back on these 111 days: 10 of them, to be exact. I see ballet flats on three continents: 6 instances of them. Mail, letters, envelopes: 7 photographs. Self-portraits, mostly foggy and obscured: 10. My collarbones make a surprising number of appearances too, particularly given how much time they spend  concealed under pashminas in my neck of the woods.

I notice a lot of what 111 days of Measuring Life in Photographs has not captured: the dark corners and muted hues. The more shadows that walk through my life, the brighter the photographs become. I have not deciphered which way the causation flows: Am I still trying to (self) select for the colorful, even when life is grey? Or am I using the high saturation to lift myself out of the shadowy pit?

On some days, I cheat. I may have taken 250 photographs on that given day and not a single one resonates with me enough to become part of the collection. And then the day before that, I happened to have taken just three photographs and I love all three... enough to include one of them in the photoessay the following day too. If you walked through the latest week of photographs with me, you'd think I wandered through Botanical Gardens all day every day, looking at swans. In reality, the swans and teardrop flowers and dream-inducing trees were all part of the same day, but I stretched them out. Sometimes, I want the magic to ignore the boundaries of the single image and flow through the whole week. And other times, I want to erase a day completely. The latter are the days void of images. The photographs that would have been.

As I told Beth Nicholls in August, looking through the viewfinder makes me slow down. For a whole month, I did not pick up the digital camera. Instagram does not come with a viewfinder. The iPhone may humor us with a shutter sound, but "it's not quite the same." I ran away from the mindful presence. I measured life in filtered photographs, in snapshots and split seconds. For weeks on end, Jerusalem looked like this: dreamy, rosy, romantic, movie-esque. As I navigated turmoil and heartbreak and anxiety, I had no patience for high resolution or the sharp clarity of real yellows. Just this week, I decided it's time to put the filters down for a bit and put myself back in the picture.

The camera feels heavier than I remembered and the bright colors and high resolutions are almost causing me light sensitivity. I would like to say that the project has taught me to be less of a perfectionist. I would like to say that I'm making my peace with the not-quite-magical days and the not-quite-photographs and more-like-snapshots and I'm letting those see the light of day too. And while this was the case, say, on this visually imperfect day, it is not the whole truth. I am still hunting for the images that shake me to the core. I still marvel at the days that cause Elijah to mock me for saying "ohmygoshwouldyoulookatthislight!" in one breath, over and over again. I am still hoping that the hues and brightness and shadows will line up and make magic. And if there needs to have been a point for the past 111 days of Measuring Life in Photographs, it is to let the story tell itself sometimes. To go back and look at the patterns that emerged when I was not the puppet master pulling the strings. To keep showing up.
Today. Showing up. Embracing the yellow yellows and vivid blues. Attaching the heavy camera to my wrist again. Celebrating the clarity, cherishing the reflection.

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