I have possessions, some small, some large, but nearly all of them are transitory. Electronics get worn out and become obsolete. A favorite pen will eventually run out of ink or fall apart. Chairs, no matter how comfy, get left behind during a move. And while other men might have Super Bowl rings or family heirlooms, I don’t have any such jewelry. Even my collection of physical books–you know, the paper kind–are giving way to electronic copies. It doesn’t mean I don’t treasure the ones I keep, but the knowledge within them is a far, far greater prize than the medium.
One thing that I have brought with me from place to place for almost a decade is a photograph. It’s not of me or of any place I’ve been. It’s neither a professional shot nor an amateur Polaroid. The picture is of a boot kicking out a car window, sole front and center, and cubes of shattered safety glass exploding out past the focal point in a glittering bubble. Inside the car, one can just barely make out my father’s face, shrouded in shadow. It’s a perfect line of motion, frozen. I bring it everywhere with me partially because it’s a conversation starter. What is this? Why? Who? What’s the story, man?
Well, what is the story? The car belonged to my parents’ friend, Charles, and the window had had a crack and needed to be replaced. Item number one on the to-do list was take the old window out. Of course, why gently remove a piece of glass if you can smash it–and why boot out the rear passenger window of a Volkswagen if you don’t plan on making an art project out of it?
For the longest time, I had assumed that my mother, not Charles, had been on the other end of the camera. The car is a Volkswagen Beetle, and I know we used to have a blue one when I was very small. I called it the Bu Bo-baxen. I am a marginally better conversationalist now.
But this is the other reason I have kept the photo for as long as I have. It’s a constant reminder of the malleability of memories. Even a photograph requires context. Without knowing who took the picture, when they took it, where they were, and why, it’s just a pretty picture. Some photographs include all this information in the picture. Wedding photos, for example, are a special kind of archiving; this happened to these two people in this place, at this time of day, and with these emotions. They’re the kinds of photos you can instantly understand when walking into someone else’s home. Ah, you say to yourself. Married, two kids, wealthy enough to have this kind of wedding, but not insane millionaires… and on and on. It’s the Darmok of our lives. Dick and Jane in Hawaii. Dick and Jane holding hands. Jane in her white gown. The happy couple, their feet in the sand. These kinds of photos are the most logical way of compressing tons of sensory and emotional information into an easy-to-transport package.
The same applies to the kind of moment captured in the photo I take with me from place to place, only with an important difference. As art, Jack in the Volkswagen, his boot through the window, is, to everyone but Jack (and possibly Charles, his eyes shielded), an almost entirely subjective experience. You can get the straight story from him, or you can get an interpretation from Emmett, his hands gesticulating. Sooner or later, however, the story will be lost, and all that will remain is the photo, compressed data awaiting extraction. The car, its window exploding.
Not to make too much of it, but go back in time and ask Leonardo about the real dope on the Mona Lisa, and he might have something to say. Now, though, we have the Mona Lisa Smile, which each of us interprets according to whatever bits and bytes of information our minds need in order to fill in the gaps during data extraction. It’s the same concept as Jurassic Park, where they used frog DNA to fill in the missing chunks of dinosaur code–only with an slightly smaller probability of horrible death.
That incompleteness is what makes the photo so valuable. It’s neither data that can be compressed further nor knowledge that can be learned. It’s neither purely in the domain of memory, nor is it purely art. The image remains, but the story, known to me now, still mingles with the memory of the story I’d created for it. Understanding the picture, for now, means understanding its changed nature, and means understanding who has it and why. The photograph remains in a wonderful little gray area, a node in the network of how I understand the world. My existence, in relation to the object, puts a lot of weight on it, perhaps unfairly. But once I’m gone, it is free once again to be just an object until someone else comes along and weighs it down again.
For Day 20