I’ve been reading Susan Sontag’s essays, “On Photography”. A few pages into the first essay she writes, “Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs.” She refers to snapshots as souvenirs – and that clicked for me, so to speak. I don’t buy souvenirs, I take pictures.
However, on my first trip to Ireland I chose not to photograph one beautiful moment. I felt that capturing it would somehow rob the moment of its magic. 1,000 words could never do it justice, but I attempted to describe for my memoir what didn’t feel right to photograph. This short piece will be at the end of Chapter 6, about my first day in Dublin.
Lady in the Leaves
In a shaded courtyard somewhere outside the National Gallery, I sat down to rest my feet and lament my insensible choice of footwear. The wind gusted, and a squeal pierced through the sound of rustling leaves, attracting my attention. A few feet away, I saw her.
Alone, she drifted across the courtyard through a sea of autumn color. Arms outstretched, her weathered hands poked out from the tailored ends of her coat as the wind tousled the white curls above her wrinkled face.
Leaves like glowing embers showered from the trees, and she raised her arms to them like a child in the rain, smelling the sweet, earthy fragrance as they tumbled through her hands. Then she kicked through the brittle waves, her scarlet checks touching the gleeful corners of her pale-blue eyes as she watched them rise and fall.
Instinctively, my fingers ran across the buttons of my camera to collect the image before the moment vanished. But as euphoric notes burst forth with each kick of her polished shoes, I began to fear that the sound of my shutter would startle her out of her moment. And even if it didn’t, could I simply click and capture her joy – bringing her home like a cheap souvenir?
No, this flicker in time wasn’t mine.
I picked myself up, a hot pain radiating across my soles, and limped away unnoticed by the lady in the leaves. Her picture still hangs in the only place that it should, living and vibrant in my gallery of memories.
13 thoughts on “A Picture without a Picture”
Excellent, thought-provoking post. Thanks for sharing.
& what a glorious place for her to live! I love the way you describe her… she sounds magnificent. resplendant & deliciously happy in all her fiery autumn glory. i know some cultures used to believe photographs captured the soul, but perhaps it could equally be said that a true photographer puts a piece of their soul into the picture. perhaps an exchange of sort takes place beyond the light & lenses. whatever the case you definitely captured something beautiful to take home with you. more precious than any trinket or souvenir. thanks for sharing.
Thank you for visiting, t.p. I like how you say, a true photographer puts a piece of their soul into the picture. I think that’s right – and maybe there’s a piece of ourselves we see in what we chose to capture?
There’s something magical in your description that tells me you were right there present in the moment. That might be the way to resolve the dilemma–what helps or keeps you from being fully present?
Thank you for visiting my blog, Steffany! I was actually thinking – like on my trip to Seattle this week – there are times when my camera actually takes me more into the moment. But, there’s a fine balance. It’s knowing when to put the camera down.
The ethical dilemma of photography, especially in the digital age of ubiquitous camera-phones. The true question is the capturing of the essence of the moment. You did this with words. You could have done it with a painting, pen & ink drawing, or a host of other media, including the camera. So then the issue of stealing the moment, particularly from the person in the moment is the true dilemma. in this case, for your own peace of mind, you resolved the dilemma in the most effective manner that you could.
An excellent composition of images and emotion. Well done ! 🙂
Thank you, Elemdiat! I’ve been trying to think more about how to properly capture moments since then – what will give me the most piece of mind. What will be the best way to represent the subject? Sometimes that’s with words.
beautifuly described … I guess it`s a constant choice. See things and store them in your heart of photograph them without having time to observe with the same attention …
Thank you, Ellen. I agree – it’s a constant choice. But, it does seem to get easier to discern when to click and when not to over time.
Sometimes I think about this idea in terms of writing as well. If a good story exists only in my memory, is that enough?
I’d say so, Lorraine! Sometimes writing down a story takes the magic away too. There are some parts of my trip to Ireland that I won’t write about, for example, because I think those things only belong in my memory. 🙂
Sontag is wonderful and wonderfully unsettling, isn’t she? Whenever I teach her “In Plato’s Cave” essay from On Photography, I have to question, again, my own impulses to take photos.
You capture so well here what Sontag describes as photography often being a “way of refusing [an experience].” Instead of just being in the experience, we put the camera between ourselves and that living, vibrant moment.
I think, sometimes, that when I write about something, I end up becoming more fully a part of that thing than I otherwise would because I have to think about it more, longer. When I take a photo, however, it’s almost as if I give myself permission to stop thinking about it. It is a “Great. Got it! Done.” sort of thing. Writing extends an experience; taking a photo ends it. Or something like that.
You take wonderful photos, and I wouldn’t want you to stop doing that, but I’d rather have your description, in words here, through which I can participate most fully, I think, in this experience you had.
I agree – as a photographer I can sometimes put the camera between myself and a moment. The first time I had that realization, I was in Africa, and I noticed how everyone else seemed to be bonding so well, and I was kept at a distance. It was the camera. As soon as I put it down and started focusing on relationships, I had a much better trip. Participating fully sometimes means sometimes doing that. Hard for me, but necessary. Thanks for this thought!